After months of freezing temperatures, blowing snow and long dark nights the sight of bulbs sprouting up is a welcome sign that warmer days are coming.

Bulbs are a wonderful way to give your garden a face lift after all the snow is gone. They spring up just as the weather is changing from cold to warm, no other group of plants can provide such a display of colour as early as bulbs.

Rarely do people regret planting Spring flowering bulbs in the Fall. Mostly people come into garden centres in the Spring commenting that they wish they had planted spring bulbs after seeing beautiful displays in the yards of neighbours or in public spaces. So if people want to plant bulbs, why is it that the Dutch Bulb Council reports that 60% of bulbs sold worldwide are never planted? Is it too hard? Let’s make it easy!

The good news is planting flower bulbs is fast, easy, and nearly foolproof. One reason fall bulbs are so beloved of both beginner and master gardeners is that, with so few issues to consider, gardeners can put all their effort into the fun part of gardening — design.

Planning:

  • Set your timeline. Bulbs should be planted as soon as the ground is cool and four to six weeks before the ground freezes. You can, if necessary, store bulbs for a month or longer, if you keep them in a cool dry place. When in doubt, however, the bulbs belong in the ground. They won’t last till next season.
  • Read the labels. Try to keep the label together with the bulbs until planting. Without the label, you can’t tell the red tulips from the white ones just by looking at the bulbs. Lay out your groupings so you remember what is being planted together.
  • Where to plant? You can plant bulbs just about anywhere in your garden — so long as the soil drains well. We Dutch say, “bulbs don’t like wet feet.” So, avoid areas where water collects, such as the bottom of hills. Bulbs also like sun. For most, the spring garden is very sunny — the leaves aren’t on the trees yet. Get creative!
  • Prepare the planting bed by digging the soil so it’s loose and workable. If it’s not an established garden bed, chances are the soil could use the addition of some organic matter such as compost or 3-in-1 mix.

Designing:

  • Plant bulbs in clusters. Don’t plant one bulb alone, or make a long thin line, like soldiers. Clusters give a concentration of color for greatest impact. Even if you don’t have enough bulbs for a big bed, small clusters can make a super spring show.
  • Plant low bulbs in front of high. This is a good general rule for bulbs that bloom at the same time. Each package or stick tag will give you the height of the plant and it’s approximate flowering time. Of course there are times to break this rule. For example if the low growing bulbs bloom early and the tall bulbs bloom late, plant the tall in front. Their display will camouflage the dying foliage of the smaller bulbs!
  • Try a double-decker effect. You can plant small bulbs in a layer right on top of large bulbs. If you plant bulbs that flower in the same period you can create an interesting double-decker effect (picture bright pink tulips blooming above cobalt blue grape hyacinths). Or you can stagger the bloom time by planting mid- and late-season bloomers together, creating a spring display that blooms in succession, for a whole season of colour!
  • Plant groupings of bulbs in perennial gardens, especially in areas where later blooming perennials are expected. This will provide some colour and interest in barren areas.
  • Plant early blooming bulbs underneath shrubs that leaf late: sand cherry, weigela, hydrangea and the like. As they slowly bud and leaf, the bulbs will bloom through the branches and be spectacular!
  • Plant minor bulbs (small ones like crocus, snowdrop, mucari) in unexpected spots: nestled in a crevice of rocks, the lawn.

Planting:

  • How to plant your bulbsPlant the pointy end up. It’s easy to spot the pointy end of a tulip; tougher with a crocus. But in most cases, even if you don’t get it right, the flower bulb will still find its way topside.
  • Plant big bulbs about 8″ deep and small bulbs about 5″ deep.
  • No fertilizer is necessary for the first year’s bloom. Bulbs are natural storehouses of food. They don’t need anything to flower the first year. For bulbs that are intended to naturalize or perennialize (return for several years) or for bulbs that are coming into their second year, spread an organic fertilizer such as compost or well-rotted cow manure, or a slow release bulb food on top of the soil.
  • Water deeply after planting and again if a warm period precedes our freeze up.
  • Bulbs are grown best when the temperature is cooling off (15°C or lower is ideal). While there is no real time that is too late, so long as the ground hasn’t frozen up yet, planting by mid-October also allows your bulbs to still have enough time to set roots.

Tips and Tricks:

  • If planning to plant more bulbs into your beds in a succession of years, plant one (or more) muscari (grape hyacinth) bulb in each grouping. Each Fall muscari send up leaves to nourish the bulb and that will alert you that a grouping of bulbs is planted and that area so you will not dig them up when planting new ones.
  • Bobbex, a natural product used as a deer repellent, a good squirrel deterrent. Dip your bulbs in Bobbex just before planting and it will keep squirrels (and you – it really doesn’t smell nice) away.
  • Smooth the soil where you have planted to confuse squirrels; they look for disturbed earth to dig up, hoping for bounty. Even rake leaves over your garden to disguise the spots.
  • Keep your planting areas tidy. Do not discard the papery shells (husks) of bulbs on the ground; that is a sign to squirrels that you have planted something yummy.
  • If squirrels are a big issue, consider planting more daffodils or daffodils/narcissus in combination with your tulips and crocus. Narcissus are poisonous to squirrels.
  • Plastic snakes in the garden are a deterrent to pesky squirrels and chipmunks
  • Chicken wire overtop of the bulbs does work as does placing rocks or pieces of wood over the spots you plant, picking it all up after the ground solidly freezes.
  • After your bulbs finishing blooming, allow the foliage to die back naturally. Tug on the stems of wilted and browned out leaves to remove. It’s a good ideal to plant ground cover perennials around them that will hide the withering foliage.