How to Plant Bulbs

Growing bulbs is easy  — their one basic need is good drainage. If you are planting them in established flowerbeds, chances are you have already provided this at the time you originally prepared the bed for planting.

The bulb planting tool lifts out a neat core of soil. Measurements on the side of the tool help you place the bulbs at the correct depth.

The bulb planting tool lifts out a neat core of soil. Measurements on the side of the tool help you place the bulbs at the correct depth.

If you are choosing a new site, here’s how to do it best and most easily. Let’s use Tulips as an example — the only difference with other bulbs will be the depth of planting and the spacing between bulbs.

  • Dig a hole large enough to accommodate the group of bulbs (about 1 by 2 feet in this case), about 2 inches deeper than the indicated planting depth (a good rule of thumb for planting depth is two or three times the width of the bulb, but always consult package directions for recommendations before planting).

  • Partially fill the hole with about 2 inches of soil and set the bulbs on top, pointed end up. These 2 inches of loose soil under the bulbs will encourage root growth.

  • Fill the hole, firm the soil down, and water thoroughly.

The sublime Widger, a personal favorite, cuts deep, skinny holes for smaller bulbs.

The sublime Widger, a personal favorite, cuts deep, skinny holes for smaller bulbs.

Where it is impractical to dig an entirely new bed, as among established plantings, in woodland sites, or in the lawn, use a bulb planter (either hand or foot powered models are available). A core of soil is removed to the proper depth, the bulb is planted in the hole, and the soil, mixed with a generous pinch of fertilizer, is replaced, firmed down, and watered in.

Another means of planting is with a trowel. It should be employed with a stabbing motion, held pointed side down, and concave side toward you. Stab into the soil and pull the loose soil toward you. Do this until the proper depth is reached, then proceed as above.

Bulbs in Containers

If you’ve run out of room, which most of seasoned gardeners won’t have a hard time believing, or have soil that isn’t suitable for bulbs, they are right at home in containers.  Planting bulbs in an attractive planter allows you to more accurately control the soil structure, moisture levels, and nutrient needs than if they were placed directly in the garden.  Just make sure to use a well-drained soil mixture to prevent them from sitting in too much moisture where they will be prone to disease or rotting.

When to Plant

A mature planting of daffodils, well cared for, is an unforgettable sight!

A mature planting of daffodils, well cared for, is an unforgettable sight!

Spring bulbs such as Tulips, Daffodils, and Crocus, etc. – plant in fall or early winter.

Summer bulbs such as Caladiums, Callas, and Dahlias – plant in winter or spring after danger of frost has passed.  Most need to be dug and stored during winter in northern areas.  However, hardier bulbs that bloom in late spring/early summer, such as Alliums, should be planted in the fall with spring-flowering bulbs.

Go beyond the usual with bulbs such as Ipheion: bright, fragrant, easy to grow, and very inexpensive!

Go beyond the usual with bulbs such as Ipheion: bright, fragrant, easy to grow, and very inexpensive!

Fall bulbs such as Colchicum, Cyclamen, and Fall-blooming Crocus – plant in mid to late summer or immediately after purchasing in early fall.

Some Tips

  • Remember that smaller bulbs such as Crocus need to be situated in front of taller bulbs like Daffodils so that they won’t be lost behind them.

  • Plant randomly to get a “naturalized” look or in clusters to get a bold impact.

  • Provide protection from squirrels and voles for vulnerable bulbs if those critters are a problem in your garden.  A wire-mesh basket made out of 1-inch chicken wire buried with the bulbs inside works well, providing protection while allowing the bulbs to grow up through the mesh.  Or, maybe this is the time to really put kitty to work in the garden. 😉

    Some gardeners have an eye for mixing color. The rest of us rely on fabulous mixes like this one!

    Some gardeners have an eye for mixing color. The rest of us rely on fabulous mixes like this one!

  • Some bulbs require special care such as a specific number of “chill” hours needed to produce blooms or they might need to be dug up and stored over the winter.  Always do a little bit of research and consult package directions for the specific care needs of different bulbs.

Basic Bulb Care

Watering Some bulbs do best under fairly dry conditions, others with moderate moisture, and still others need to be moist almost continuously. Most bulbs require good drainage. In periods of drought, when it is necessary to water, infrequent deep waterings (about an inch of water once a week) give much better results than frequent sprinkling.

Magnificent Hyacinth perfumes the spring garden and makes a long-lasting cutflower.

Magnificent Hyacinth perfumes the spring garden and makes a long-lasting cutflower.

MulchingA mulch is a protective covering, usually of organic substance. Summer mulches are used to conserve moisture, keep the soil cool, and restrict the growth of weeds. Bark, shredded leaves, and compost are fine summer mulches and gradually add a small quantity of nutrients to the soil. Winter mulches, which are applied after the ground has frozen, are used not to keep the ground warm, but rather to keep it frozen. This will prevent “heaving” caused by alternate freezing and thawing which can force a young or shallow-rooted plant out of the ground. Winter mulches should be removed promptly when spring arrives. Salt hay, straw, or evergreen boughs are excellent winter mulches.

Light  – All plants require some degree of light. Many prefer full sun, some do best in partial shade, and a very few will thrive in nearly total shade. In many instances, plants that do best in full sun in northern areas will thrive best in partial sun in the warmer areas of the South.

Feeding – For fall plant bulbs, the size and quality of the first year’s bloom has already been established, and fertilizer is not absolutely necessary but will ensure continued growth, larger flowers, and more vigorous bulbs for years of repeat bloom (be sure to fertilize every fall thereafter). Spring planted bulbs should be fed at the time of planting. The size of bloom and quantity of flower production is increased by use of bulb fertilizer such as Park’s Success Bulb Food at the rate given on the label.

Fritillaries add drama, standing in bold contrast to all the pastel tones of spring.

Fritillaries add drama, standing in bold contrast to all the pastel tones of spring.

Cutting – Bulbs for cutting can be grown right in your flowerbed or border, but cutting from there tends to leave a gap in the landscape. In many cases, we prefer to make separate planting specifically for cutting. We have found the vegetable garden to be a good site for this. Bulbs can be grown in controlled rows for flower production without worrying about appearance.

When cutting blooms, try to remove as little foliage as possible. Left on the plant, the leaves will continue their function of producing food and assure good flower production in years to come.
Here’s a tip to increase the lasting power of the flowers you cut from bulbs. Immediately after you’ve cut them, put them in warm (not hot) water. The stems absorb warm water better than cold. After the water has cooled to room temperature, place the flowers — vase, water, and all — in the refrigerator overnight. Such treatment will extend the life of your cut blooms. NOTE: After bloom is finished, remove the spent flowers to prevent seed formation. Do not cut back the foliage, but allow it to continue growing, thus rebuilding the bulbs and providing vitality to next year’s bloom.

Although not as long-lived as daffodils, tulips have a beauty like no other.

Although not as long-lived as daffodils, tulips have a beauty like no other.

And as Far as Tulips Go . . .

They are best planted from mid-fall until just before the ground freezes. They do best in well-drained soil in a sunny location. Do not use manures! Set large bulbs 4-6 inches apart and 6-8 inches deep. Deep planting tends to discourage division of the bulbs and promotes re-flowering in future years. Remove flowers after they are spent to prevent seed formation that tends to weaken the bulb. Zones 3-8.

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