Fall is the season to think spring-flowering bulbs—colorful tulips, cheerful daffodils, fragrant hyacinths. To help make your spring garden as trouble-free as possible, we answered some of the most commonly asked questions here. For a list of recommended spring-blooming bulbs, visit Types of Spring-Blooming Bulbs in our information archive.
Most bulbs can go in anytime from October through Thanksgiving. Tulips should wait until mid-November, or when soil temperatures get to below 50°F, and you can plant as late as Christmas.
Amend soil with organic planting mix or composted manure, and work in thoroughly. Then you can further amend with coarse builder’s sand or PermaTill® in poorly draining areas. Prepare soil 8 to 10 inches deep (for tulips, 12 inches).
Planting depth will vary significantly based on variety, so be sure to get directions when you buy your bulbs. As a rule of thumb, plant small ones (dime to nickel-sized) 4 inches deep; daffodils, hyacinths, and the larger alliums go 6 inches deep; plant tulips 10 to 12 inches deep.
Blooming time depends on the variety. For earliest bloom, plant Winter aconite, Snowdrops, species crocus, Chionodoxa, Iris reticulata, early daffodils, and early tulips (though even the earliest tulips still bloom a week or two later than most early bulbs). Mid-spring blooming bulbs (usually April) include Muscari, anemones, Fritillaria, Triumph and Darwin-Hybrid tulips, and most daffodils. Late spring-blooming bulbs (generally end-April to May) include late-blooming daffodil varieties, Single Late, Parrot, and Lily-flowering tulips, Dutch Iris, Scilla (Wood Hyacinths), and Alliums.
Don’t forget to add fall color to your garden with interesting and exciting fall-flowering bulbs like Lycoris (Spider Lilies, Magic Lilies, or Naked Ladies), hardy Cyclamen (which will often bloom for up to two months), sunny yellow Sternbergia, Colchicum (which are rodent-proof), and fall-blooming Crocus.
Try cheery little Muscari (Grape hyacinths), dainty white Galanthus (Snowdrops), or your favorite daffodil varieties. Other bulbs include the nodding flowers of Fritillaria meleagris (Checker Lily), Ornithogalum umbellatum (Star-of-Bethlehem), and the May-flowering Wood Hyacinths and English Bluebells. Spring flowering Lily-of-the-Valley pips are available in February. Areas under deciduous trees, like oaks and maples, will often get full sun in early spring, before trees fully leaf out, and may support early-blooming sun-loving varieties.
Absolutely! Most spring-flowering bulbs benefit from a fall feeding (around mid- or late-October) with 10-10-10 lawn food. If you prefer organic fertilizers, top-dress with composted cow manure in mid-fall or with Espoma Organic’s Bone Meal or Bulb-tone. Feed again in the spring, about the time the leaves are just barely visible. Remember to water the fertilizer in lightly to ensure it begins to work into the soil.
If your bulbs are not blooming well, make sure to plant them at the right depth for the variety, and that they are receiving the proper amount of sun. If they have been in the ground for more than two years, you may need to dig and divide—best done in late spring when the foliage has yellowed or in early fall. Replant in a soil with good organic matter added. Begin fall and spring fertilizing. Make sure not to remove ripening foliage until it is mostly yellowed.
Remove old or spent flowers, but NEVER remove leaves until they’ve yellowed and begun to flatten on their own. Do not tie leaves in knots or bunch them together with rubber bands. The leaves need to grow undisturbed, so that energy gets transferred back to the bulb. Tuck leaves gently behind taller plants to hide unattractive foliage. Consider interplanting with perennials and groundcovers–their emerging spring leaves will help hide fading bulb foliage.
In Holland, they dig bulbs to be moved at the end of spring and store them in a cool place until fall (an air-conditioned house, for example). You may also dig in early fall, then replant immediately.
Rodents such as squirrels, chipmunks, moles, or voles, can be a problem for some varieties of bulbs. Try planting Colchicum or daffodils, which are poisonous and shouldn’t be bothered. You can also interplant these bulbs with more susceptible varieties to offer some protection. Alliums and Fritillarias are usually safe because of their unpleasant taste or odor. Minimize tulip loss by planting them 10 to 12 inches deep.
If drastic measures are necessary, try mixing sharp sand or small stones, or a commercial product called Perma Till, with your soil, or try lining your flowerbed with wire mesh. To repel deer and rabbits from munching on flowers or leaves, try spraying with the unpleasant tasting Hot Pepper Wax, or use one of the commercial repellents, like Messina Environmental’s line of Animal Stopper products.
To force most bulbs, choose early-blooming varieties or varieties that specifically say “suitable for indoor forcing.” Plant bulbs in pots, close to the surface of the soil, covering just to the tip. Water the bulbs well and then place with pot and all in the refrigerator. Keep refrigerated for ten weeks for crocus, 14 weeks for daffodils, and 16 weeks for most tulips. Check once or twice for water. After the chilling period, move the pot into a warm, sunny window.
If you can’t refrigerate, then you can allow Mother Nature to do it for you. Buy bulbs early (in September), and place bulbs in a paper bag in the refrigerator. In November, pot bulbs as described above, and place pots outside in a cold frame or protected area, surrounded by a generous layer of loose mulch, such as dried leaves or pine tags. You can also layer bulbs in larger pots for a lovely spring-garden-in-one.
Choose a container at least ten or more inches deep. Add two or more inches of soil and place tulip bulbs on top. Add enough soil to cover tulips, and put daffodil or hyacinth bulbs on top, adding enough soil to cover. Top with small bulbs like crocus or Muscari, and finish off with enough soil to cover to the tips. For added interest, top the pot with pansies in your favorite color.
For easiest forcing, try Paperwhite Narcissus, which will bloom quickly and with no chilling period necessary. Discard Paperwhites after flowering. Amaryllis is also a reliable indoor bloomer. Be sure to get directions on how to keep these beautiful giants from year to year.