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How to plant bulbs this fall for spring and summer flowers

If you want beautiful tulips next spring you must plant them this fall.
If you want beautiful tulips next spring you must plant them this fall.
Kim Willis

If you want beautiful crocus, tulips, daffodils and other early spring flowers you need to plant the bulbs that produce them this fall. Planting bulbs is fairly easy and flower bulbs can be found in local stores as well as through mail order nurseries. If you want special varieties of bulbs its best to place your order with a mail order nursery in late summer, but if you’ve delayed until October or so, contact the company to see if they still have stock they can ship you.

Lilies, peonies and a few other flowers that bloom in late spring or summer are also planted in the fall. Some of these aren’t bulbs, but grow best if they are fall planted. They usually have roots called rhizomes or tubers. Here are some fall bulb and rhizome planting tips.

Prioritizing planting- what to plant first

In zones 4-7 bulbs can be planted from September until the ground freezes. In zones 8 and higher you’ll need to plant pre-chilled bulbs and wait until the soil cools down, probably November and December. You can plant all bulbs as soon as you get them in the mail or buy them at the store but if your time is limited here are some guidelines for prioritizing.

Always plant lily bulbs and the tubers or rhizomes of things like peonies as quickly after you get them as you can. These do not store well and every day you wait decreases the chance you’ll have success with them. Lily bulbs are not generally mailed to you until later in the fall but when they do arrive plant them immediately. Lily bulbs found in packages in stores usually don’t perform as well as those that were dug and shipped directly to you from a mail order source.

Plant the smaller bulbs, like crocus and snowdrops as early as you can. They bloom early so they need to get started early. They also have the tendency to dry out in storage. Hyacinths, daffodils, and narcissus should be next, with tulips last. Tulips actually like cooler soil. While bulbs can be planted until the soil freezes they often do not do as well as those planted earlier.

If you cannot plant your bulbs promptly store them in a cool dark place. The refrigerator crisper drawer is fine or even the refrigerator in a brown paper bag. Moisten them occasionally in storage but don’t get them too wet. If they develop mold put them on newspapers in a dry dark area for a day or two.

What to do if winter arrives before you plant

If you look outside one morning and snow is on the ground don’t despair. Plant the bulbs in a good potting soil mix in containers and keep the containers cool, in the refrigerator or on an unheated porch or garage. The ideal temperature is between 30 and 40 degrees. Water lightly every couple weeks. After 8-10 weeks of cold the pots can be brought into a warmer, sunny place and they will probably bloom for you. Plant the bulbs outside in the early spring. They may or may not bloom the next season but at least you had them this spring.

Don’t try to keep bulbs in a dormant state until the next fall or until spring. While peonies and lilies can be spring planted holding over plants or bulbs you bought in the fall isn’t a good idea.

How to plant bulbs

Choose the right spot to plant bulbs and rhizomes. Almost all bulbs like well-drained soil. Never plant bulbs where water stands in early spring. Most bulbs also like to be planted in sunny locations. However small bulbs that bloom early can often be planted where the shade of deciduous trees will be later in summer, as most of their growth will be done before the trees cast much shade. A few bulbs and rhizomes do like partly shaded locations, lily of the valley, trout lilies, trillium, some true lilies are examples, so do some research and make sure you are giving the plants the location they need.

Most bulbs should be planted about three times as deep as their height, but there are exceptions to this rule. Read package directions or look up the plant requirements if you are uncertain. Peonies are planted very shallowly with the eye or bud on the root just below the soil level. In general plants with rhizomes or tubers instead of bulbs will be planted less deeply. (Rhizomes look like stems with buds and have roots attached.)

If you aren’t good at estimating depth in inches use a trowel that’s marked with inches or mark a small piece of wood with inch measurements and use that to guide you. Don’t add thick mulch after planting as this may impede the bulbs emergence. A light mulch of 2 inches or less is ok and helps disguise the planting area from animals. If thick layers of leaves blow over planted bulbs remove some of the matted leaves in spring so that bulbs don’t struggle to emerge.

Plant the bulbs with the pointed end of the bulb up. If you can’t find a pointed end, look for a round scar on the bulb. This is where roots were last year and it goes down in the hole. Rhizomes should have budded areas on top if you look closely.

Try not to remove any papery covering bulbs have, but don’t worry if some of it falls off. Don’t separate the scales- or sections – which lily bulbs have and don’t try to divide daffodils with double or triple “noses”. Yes, experts propagate bulbs that way but it isn’t as easy as it seems and your best bet is to plant the bulbs as they came. A little mold on bulbs that still feel firm will not harm them. Mushy or rotted looking bulbs should be discarded.

Don’t use fertilizer or bone meal in the bottom of your hole. Bone meal should not be used at all. Old books suggest it and some new references just copy that but in our times bone meal is steamed and processed for safety and little is left in the way of nutrients. It also attracts some animals, which dig up your bulbs looking for it. Using a general purpose fertilizer is fine, but mix it with the soil you are back filling with or sprinkle it on the soil surface, don’t dump it in the hole. This can burn roots.

Arrange your bulbs in a staggered way, not in straight lines for a more natural look. Small groups of the same color or type of bulb look better than single bulbs. Once again package directions will tell you how far apart to space bulbs. Generally large bulbs should be about 6 inches apart, small bulbs 2-3 inches. Plants that will be large as adults, such as peonies need considerably more room. Peonies need to be at least 6 feet apart.

Mark the spots where you planted bulbs with labels so you know where they are. Some fall planted bulbs and rhizomes are slow to emerge in the spring and you don’t want to damage them or plant over them.

When bulbs just begin to emerge in the spring a small amount of slow release granular fertilizer sprinkled on the soil around them, especially if you can do it just before a spring rain, will improve their vigor and size. And if spring is dry make sure to water your bulbs.

Remember that you will need to leave bulb foliage to dry up before you remove it if you want the bulbs to return well the next year. Planting bulbs where later emerging perennial foliage will hide the dying bulb foliage is a good plan. You can plant bulbs among hosta, ferns and daylilies, for example. Oriental and other tall lilies do well planted with ferns or daylilies as an understory; they won’t bloom until later in the season but they like their feet in the shade. Just leave a small clear area over each bulb, don’t place other plants directly on top of the bulb.

What to do about critters eating your bulbs

If you have trouble with animals digging up bulbs to eat you can lay a piece of wire over the planted area until the ground is frozen. Make sure you remove it early in the spring if you don’t remove it in the fall. A piece of lattice, with 2 inch holes can be placed on the ground and the bulbs planted through the holes. This discourages widespread digging, such as from pets, which really aren’t after the bulb to eat. You can leave it and disguise it with mulch or remove it before the plants get very large.

Moles do not eat bulbs, but their tunnels attract other animals which do and their tunneling can sink bulbs too deep to emerge. If you have lots of moles you can plant bulbs in pots, which you sink in the ground to their rim. The pots should be deep enough for the type of bulb planted in them. Several bulbs can be planted in each pot if there is enough space.

Narcissus, daffodil, and allium bulbs are not eaten by animals, although they can be dug out of the ground and left to die. If you have problems with animals like deer eating the flowers in the spring these bulbs are also good choices.

Bulbs and other plants that like to be planted in the fall let you work on beautifying your garden when other garden work is often less demanding. And there’s nothing prettier than those first cheerful flowers in early spring. Don’t delay, plant some bulbs today.

Sources for bulbs online;

Here are some additional articles you may want to read:

How to divide bearded iris

How to grow crocus

Edible landscaping that also provides fall color

You can contact the author, or sign up for a free weekly garden newsletter by writing her at

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