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How to Plant Spring-Blooming Bulbs

Planting spring bulbs in the fall is an effortless way to get a vibrant, well-decorated yard when the warm weather returns. Ask This Old House landscape contractor Jenn Nawada and former landscape contractor Roger Cook share a few tips for adding these flowering pieces to your outdoor space. 

The beauty of spring bulbs isn’t just in the flowers that bloom. They’re also about the easiest kind of garden you can grow. Dig a hole, sprinkle in some fertilizer, put them in the ground now (and up until early December in warm Southern climates), add water, and pretty much forget about them.

They’ll start establishing roots in fall’s cool, moist soil, then lie dormant over the winter until spring’s warmer temperatures and frequent rains prompt them to sprout. If you miss the fall, it’s best to wait until the following year to plant bulbs.

What to Know About Planting Spring Bulbs

The garden outside of a stone house in full bloom. iStock

How to Buy the Best Bulbs

Look for ones that are weighty, firm, and mold-free. Then store them in a cool, dry place until ready for planting.

How to Add Bulbs to Your Yard

There are a number of ways to work bulb plants into your yard:

  • Cluster up to half a dozen of them in a large hole to add a colorful punch amid flower beds and shrub borders; plant them in rows where space is tight
  • Encircle the base of a tree for a flower-filled focal point
  • If your yard borders woodland, scatter them and plant them where they fall for naturalistic drifts of color.

Consider the look you want for the bulbs. For a structured, varied look, read the labels carefully and organize the bulbs by bloom time, height, and color. This ensures a variety of color and flowers all throughout the spring.

For a more natural, wild look, try throwing the bulbs in the area you want to plant them. Wherever they land, plant them there.

If you're going to row- or scatter-plant, here's a tip: "I always plant doubles," says Roger Cook. "That way, you get more foliage and flowers for your digging efforts."

Choose varieties that bloom at different times during the season, and you can extend your spring-flowering garden for several weeks.

When you're ready to break ground, grab a trowel (or a spade shovel where soil is very compacted), a 10-10-10 fertilizer, and some bags of bulbs, then follow these steps.

How to Plant Bulbs

Step 1: Prepare the hole

To plant a cluster of 3 to 5 daffodil bulbs (seen at left), loosen soil with a trowel and dig a hole about 7 inches deep and 6 to 8 inches wide. (For tulips, dig down about 5 inches, and for tiny crocus bulbs, about 2 inches.)

How deep to dig? Follow this formula: Height of bulb in inches x 2.5= depth of hole

Step 2: Sprinkle in fertilizer

To stimulate root growth, scratch a scant handful of granular fertilizer into the soil at the bottom of the hole, and flatten the area with your hand so bulbs have a stable surface to rest on.

Step 3: Place bulbs

Put bulbs in the prepared hole about an inch apart, with tip up and root end down. Then cover with soil, and water once to settle them.

Sandwich Bulbs for Six Weeks of Blooms

Want to brighten up a deck or patio? Grab a container and plant layers of bulbs that will give you three bursts of color when spring arrives. Choose bulb varieties that flower a few weeks apart, such as crocus, tulips, and daffodils, which will bloom in rotation for up to six weeks. To fill a container that’s 12 inches in diameter and 12 to 14 inches deep, you’ll want about 9 crocus, 7 tulip, and 5 daffodil bulbs.

A cross section of a terracotta pot with bulbs layered in the soil. GAP Photos
  • First, add a 1-inch layer of pebbles to the bottom of the container (make sure there's a drainage hole or drill one out).
  • Add 4 inches of potting soil, and mix in a tablespoon of 10-10-10 fertilizer.
  • Place the daffodil bulbs with their flat, root end down and pointed end up, making sure the sides aren't touching.
  • Add another 1-inch layer of potting soil, covering the bulbs to their tips.
  • Place the row of tulip bulbs so they're staggered over the daffodils and not directly on top.
  • Cover with soil; repeat steps with crocus bulbs.
  • Cover the "sandwiched" bulbs with 1 to 2 inches of mulch, and water thoroughly. Keep soil moist throughout the fall, then let the container winter over (in an unheated garage or shed in climates with very cold winters) until warm spring rains encourage the first shoots to appear.

Types of Bulbs to Plant for Spring

Crocus, daffodils, and hyacinth are favorites for spring color, with dozens of varieties that will come back year after year (if you don’t cut back the fading foliage they feed on after they’ve bloomed.) These naturalizing bulbs will even multiply and spread as time goes by.

Tulips are another classic but don’t rebloom as reliably. “I treat tulips like annuals and replenish them each year,” says Roger Cook, This Old House landscape contractor. They’re also a favorite of foraging wildlife. “Deer, rabbits, and squirrels treat tulip bulbs like caviar,” says Roger. “If you’ve got a critter problem, stick to daffodils.” Read on for his foolproof planting tips and a container trick that’ll yield weeks of color.

Dutch Crocus

A group of purple crocus growing in mulch. iStock

(Crocus vernus species) This early-spring bloomer flowers in shades of lavender and purple; grows up to 4 inches tall.

Red Emperor Tulip

A garden of red tulips grows in front of a house. iStock

(Tulipa ‘Red Emperor’) A mid-season bloomer with a large, dramatic red flower with a black “eye”; grows up to 20 inches tall.

King Alfred Daffodil

A group of yellow daffofils growing in a field iStock

(Narcissus dahlia 'King Alfred') A late-spring bloomer with a large trumpet; grows up to 20 inches tall.