We do it every spring… we admire gorgeous spring bulb gardens, saying “Next spring I’m going to have a garden like that!” Well, this is the year things change, because today we’re talking all about how to plant bulbs this year so that you have lots of flowers come springtime! First, we’ll explain how to plan the perfect bulb garden design to maximize that spring-blooming beauty. Then, we’ll walk through the basics of bulb planting so you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Spring will be here before you know it, and you’ll be admiring your beautiful bulb garden!
Let’s start with the basic types of bulbs
First you’ll need to make sure you are looking at planting the right type of bulbs. Bulbs are grouped into two categories based on when they bloom. They are either spring bulbs or summer bulbs.
About spring bulbs
Spring bulbs are probably what you envision when you think of planting a bulb garden- layers of tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils adding color to your yard after a long winter. Spring bulbs period of cold to bring about their spring flowers. Planting them in the ground in the fall as the ground cools accomplishes this and tells the bulbs to get ready to bloom!
About summer bulbs
You guessed it- summer bulbs are the ones that bloom in summer! Summer bulbs continue bring color into the garden after your spring bulbs fade, so remember to include them in your plan! Unlike spring bulbs, they don’t like being in-ground through a cold winter, so wait until spring to plant these bulbs.
The misfits: corms, rhizomes, and tubers
While not actually bulbs, these get grouped in with or even called bulbs quite often. Looking at the often strangely shaped little things that get planted, it seems like they should have nothing in common. Here are some corms, rhizomes, and tubers that you may consider as you plan your spring bulb garden.
Examples of corms
Ranunculus, crocus, gladiolus, and freesias all grow from corms. My favorite has got to be ranunculus. I mean, look at those ruffled petals and beautiful colors. They’re almost like having mini peonies growing in your garden!
Examples of rhizomes
Rhizomes tend to spread and can be good for gradually filling in bare spots in your landscaping. Bearded irises and canna lilies are two examples of beautiful flowers that grow from rhizomes. You’ll eventually end up with them spreading into a big patch like this example from The Spruce.
Examples of tubers
The fan favorite tuber is definitely the dahlia. Dahlias are known for their magnificent size, wide range of colors, and their whimsical petals. Almanac has a guide all about these beautiful flowers.
How to plant bulbs
Now we’re on to the nitty-gritty of exactly how to plant your spring bulbs. These are all the steps you’ll need to follow for the best results come springtime!
1. Know how to pick high quality bulbs
This part is important. Healthy bulbs will give you the healthiest plants, with bigger and more abundant blooms for your garden. Examine your bulbs carefully, looking for mold, squishy spots, and discoloration. Below is an example of what you don’t want courtesy of The Green Pinky.
2. Start with the right tools to make the job a breeze
A good trowel will work fine if you are planting less than 20 bulbs. However, if you are planting a lot, the job can be a bit backbreaking. Use a bulb planter or an auger attachment for a drill to make the job easier.
3. Plant your bulbs at the right time in the fall
Even if you know your planting zone, you need to factor in the current weather conditions. You should generally wait to plant your bulbs until the weather cools, and temps range from 40-50 in the evening. This is usually 6-8 weeks before your first frost. When in doubt, your local nursery is a great resource.
4. Choose a location that suits your bulb’s required growing conditions
Look for a spot that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight a day for most bulbs. Make sure the spot you choose does not tend to hold water after rain. Bulbs that stay soggy for too long can rot. If that rules out your planned spot, here’s a resource by HGTV for what plants actually work great in spots like the one pictured below.
5. Ensure your bulbs have good soil
Most bulbs prefer to grow in well draining soil. If your soil is compacted, you can still plant your bulbs, but you should loosen the soil first to help with root growth. Drainage will become an issue only if you try to plant in an area that tends to hold water. (see above point)
6. Plant bulbs at the correct depth
Know how deep to plant your bulbs. Planting your bulbs too deep results in a lack of blooms or rotting bulbs. Plant them too shallow and they will flop over in the first strong breeze. Here is a chart on how deep to plant popular bulbs from ‘Right at Home‘.
7. When and how to fertilize spring bulbs
Both newly planted and established spring bulbs will need fertilizer, so here are some tips for each!
Fertilizing newly planted bulbs
Give your bulbs a boost by placing about a handful of bone meal at the time of planting. Bone meal will help the bulbs to grow strong roots and give them the nutrition needed to make it through the winter.
Fertilizing established spring bulbs
Do you have established spring bulbs? Fertilize those spring bulbs in the fall, too. You can buy bulb-specific fertilizer or just add a couple tablespoons of bone meal to a 10-10-10 fertilizer.
8. Water in your spring bulbs after planting
Water in your bulbs right after planting to help them get settled into their new home. After that, you can let nature handle the watering til springtime!
9. Protect your bulbs from pests
You may want to protect your investment by covering the planting area with some wire mesh or chicken wire and staking it down. Some rodents actually see spring bulbs, especially tulip bulbs, as a tasty snack. If you have had problems with squirrels or other critters in the past, protecting your bulbs is probably a good idea. HGTV has a great guide on how to do this.
10. What to do with your spring bulbs after they are done blooming
Like most things with gardening, the answer here depends on what zone you live in. Across all varieties, you should only cut back the flower and stem but leave the rest of the foliage until it wilts and dies back on its own. Ensure there is absolutely no green left when you cut back the plant. This allows the plant to store energy in the bulb for the next growing season.
Determining whether you should dig up your spring bulbs
Bulbs classified as “tender bulbs” (many summer bulbs fall in this category) need to be dug up and stored until it’s time to replant them. Most spring bulbs are quite hardy and can stay in the ground. Look up specific guidelines for the varieties you’ve planted to determine best practices for your hardiness zone.
How to store your bulbs if you dig them up
Keep your bulbs somewhere cool and dry like a basement and make sure they can get some airflow. Cardboard boxes, baskets, mesh bags, and paper bags all work. You can see a couple examples in the photo below by Garden Gate Magazine. Jennifer goes into more detail in her article so you can be sure to dig and store your bulbs properly!
Plan to cover up and fill in for the dying bulb plants
As I mentioned, wait until every bit of green has left the plant before cutting it back. This can look a little sad if you don’t have plants to fill in and distract from the dying bulb plants. Plant a ground cover or sprawling perennials around and through your bulb garden to cover and hide them as their blooms and greenery fade.
The fun part- how to design your spring bulb garden
Now that you’re fully prepared, start planning a bulb garden layout. Unless you are planning to plant hundreds of bulbs in full public garden style (not recommended for the average gardener), planning a spring bulb garden isn’t complicated. Here are a couple of guidelines to keep in mind.
Keep it simple
Choose just two or three types of bulbs to use in your yard. Using just a few of every pretty bulb out there will leave your garden looking cluttered and lost, without the impact you are looking for. Use the same bulb in groups and drifts for the best design strategy.
Pick between bulbs that will all bloom together or bloom in succession
Bulbs are classified into early season, mid season and late season bloomers. For one big show of blooms, choose bulbs in the same category. Alternatively, to see a longer lasting show, pick bulbs from each category so they bloom in succession. You can even buy mixes of bulbs like this to make planning easy!
Consider plant height in your bulb garden design
Mix shorter plants in front and between taller bulbs so you will be able to see all those blooms! Here is an example of our favorite pairing of tulips with grape hyacinths (Muscari). The grape hyacinths form a nice mat of grass like ground cover underneath the tulips, and set off pink, red, yellow or white!
Choose a color scheme
Want gentle, sweet pastels, or bright and vibrant colors? Either way, A bulb garden looks best when the color scheme is consistent. Just look at how impactful the bold blue-purple hyacinths are next to these gorgeous orange and magenta tulips. Buying your bulbs in a mix is a great shortcut to a beautiful combination if decision fatigue is setting in.
How to plant spring bulbs using the “Lasagna Planting” method
Lasagna planting basically refers to the concept that, like lasagna, you plant in layers. Each layer is its own category- early bloomers on top, then midseason, then late season. This way, the plants on top bloom while the others work their way through the layers until it’s their time. High Country Gardens has a great guide and visual here. Look at how the planter stays full from early to late spring with muscari, blue hyacinths, then tulips.
Get started now with fall-planted bulbs
Now you know how to plant spring bulbs and you’re all set to design the gorgeous spring bulb garden of your dreams. Plan your spring bulb garden now before the best bulbs are sold out! Here’s some of our favorite sources for bulbs to get you started:
Want to go somewhere in person instead? Your local plant nursery is another reliable choice- not your local home improvement store.