Annuals, perennials, and shrubs are often the stars of the flower garden, but if you plant bulbs, you can add even more color and variety. And because bulbs tend to be pretty low-maintenance, you'll be rewarded with gorgeous blooms for very little effort on your part.
Types of Bulbs
There are two general types of bulbs you can add to your garden. The first is the type most people think of when they think of bulbs: spring-blooming bulbs, which you plant in the fall. Also known as hardy bulbs, these not only benefit from, but actually need, a cold period to bloom the following year. The second type is tender, or summer-blooming bulbs.
Spring-Blooming Bulbs (Hardy Bulbs)
Spring-blooming bulbs, such as tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths, are planted in the fall and undergo a necessary cold, dormant period before blooming the following spring. Many of them come back year after year, and some even multiply as the years go on.
Spring-blooming bulbs are often among the first things to bloom in the springtime, often blooming even before most shrubs and trees have fully leafed out, giving the garden a much-needed pop of color and life after winter.
Summer-Blooming Bulbs (Tender Bulbs)
Summer-blooming bulbs are planted in spring, after the last frost date, and have to be dug up at the end of the season and stored over the winter if you want them to bloom again next year. They will die if they're exposed to freezing temperatures and frosts.
Many beloved flowers, including dahlias, gladiolas, and calla lilies, are tender bulbs (note, the term "bulb" is a general one; these can be tubers, rhizomes, or bulbs, depending on the plant.)
When to Plant Spring-Blooming Bulbs
As mentioned above, spring-blooming bulbs need a period of cold dormancy in order to bloom, which is why we plant them in the fall.
Here is a zone-by-zone schedule of when to plant hardy bulbs:
- Zones 4-5: September through October
- Zones 6-7: October through early November
- Zones 8-9: November through early December
- Zone 10: December
A special note for gardeners in zones 8 through 10: you likely won't have a long enough cold period for most spring bulbs. Your best course of action is to refrigerate (the crisper drawer works best) your bulbs for six to ten weeks before the planting times listed above. This time in the refrigerator, plus time in the ground, will provide your hardy bulbs with the cold dormancy they need to bloom.
When to Plant Summer-Blooming Bulbs
Summer-blooming tender bulbs will rot and die if left in the ground during cold weather and freezes. You'll want to plant them in the spring, after danger of frost.
- Zones 2-3: June
- Zones 4-7: May through June
- Zones 8-10: Late March through May
Digging Up and Storing Summer-Blooming Bulbs
Of course, because summer-blooming bulbs are tender and won't survive a winter outdoors in cold climates, you'll have to dig them up and store them.
- Dig up tender bulbs at the end of the season, once the foliage turns yellow or brown.
- Cut the stems back to a few inches.
- Shake the soil off of the bulbs and roots.
- Lay the bulbs on newspaper or brown paper bags (or a drying screen, if you have one) in a shady place for a few days to dry.
- After they've dried, gently brush any excess soil off of them, then store them in a mesh bag or a paper bag with holes punched into it. You can also place your dried bulbs in a bin full of peat moss if you'd rather not bother with bags.
- Store the bulbs in a cool, dark, dry place that has a fairly steady temperature of 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. An attached garage, rarely-used closet or cupboard, or a crawlspace would work well.
- Check the bulbs monthly. Toss out any that are rotting (the rot can spread to the rest of your bulbs) and gently moisten any that are shriveling by misting lightly with water.
How to Plant Bulbs
Planting bulbs, whether they're hardy or tender, is fairly straightforward, but there are a few things to keep in mind for optimum blooms.
Choose Healthy Bulbs
Plant bulbs that aren't rotting, shriveled, dried out, or moldy. They should be slightly heavy for their size.
Mix Compost Into Planting Holes
At planting time, mix some compost into the area where you'll be planting your bulbs. They have all the nutrients they need to start growing stored in the bulbs themselves, but the added nutrition from the compost will provide them with the steady feeding they need to bloom.
Plant at the Right Depth
In general, bulbs should be planted two to three times as deep as the bulb is tall. So if your bulb is two inches tall, you'll want to plant it four to six inches deep. Also pay attention to how far apart they should be planted.
Plant With the Pointy End Up
It sounds silly, but it's worth remembering. Bulbs have two ends: a root end and a stem end. The stem end, or pointy end, should be pointing up to keep the plant from having to expend extra energy working its way up from under the bulb.
After planting, give the bulbs a good watering. This will ensure that they don't shrivel and dry too much before the ground freezes.
Add a two to three-inch layer of mulch on top of where you planted your bulbs. This will keep them protected a bit from pests and will also help you remember where you planted them. Plus you'll have fewer weeds to contend with next spring.
If you have issues with squirrels or other pests digging up your bulbs, a layer of chicken wire laid over the top of the soil (and under the mulch) will provide protection. They can try to dig, but they'll hit the wire and be unable to get to your bulbs. The foliage and flowers can still easily grow through the gaps in chicken wire.
Where to Plant Bulbs
Since spring-blooming bulbs bloom before most trees are leafed out, you can actually plant them beneath trees where most other blooming plants won't grow well. Add them to any bed, border, or any other spot in your garden where you want a bit of color in the spring.
Consider planting a few different types of bulbs, with different bloom times to extend the flowering time.
You can also plant bulbs in containers. Containers should be kept under porch or garage overhangs, or even in an unheated garage. They'll stay cold, but they won't be buried in snow, which can damage certain types of containers. Then simply move them wherever you want them once the foliage starts popping up in spring.
Bloom Times for Different Bulbs
For optimal color, consider planting a few different types of bulbs. Here is a general timeline for when some of the most popular bulbs bloom:
- Late winter/very early spring: snowdrops and crocuses
- Early spring: Chionodoxa, crocuses, daffodils, hyacinth, scilla
- Mid-spring: Daffodils, tulips
- Late spring: Bluebells, fritillaries, grape hyacinths, lilies
- Early summer: Alliums, irises, lilies
- Mid-summer: Dahlias, gladiolus, irises, lilies
- Late summer: Dahlias, lilies, tuberous begonias
- All summer: Foliage plants such as caladiums and elephant ears
Color All Season Long
Bulbs require a bit of work up front, but they will reward you with gorgeous color from early spring through fall. By planting a few different types and paying attention to planting requirements, you can have lush blooms all season long, with very little effort.