For many folks, Spring hasn’t truly arrived until the first tulips and daffodils have begun to bloom. You can look forward to a glorious display of these cheerful spring flowers by planting spring-blooming bulbs in the fall. Bulbs are very easy to grow and after a long dreary winter their brightly colored blooms make your planting efforts worthwhile. By planting spring bulbs in the fall, the bulbs get a head start at establishing themselves so they can wake up bright and early and ready to bloom in the spring.
In cool northern climates, spring-flowering bulbs can be planted from September until the ground has frozen and can no longer be dug. Daffodils, however, will do best if planted a bit earlier in the fall so they have plenty of time to develop a good root system. This strong root system will allow them to put on an even more beautiful display for you in the spring.
In the warmer growing zones of 7 and higher, many spring bulbs won’t grow well without special care. In climates such as these that typically experience mild winters, tulips and hyacinths generally don’t get enough of a chilling period to bloom well. Daffodils will perform well through Zone 8, but not so well in southern growing zones 9 and 10. Interestingly, daffodils do better in the Zone 9 areas in the western part of the United States.
In those climates with mild winters, most spring-flowering bulbs, but especially tulips, will bloom nicely for just one spring. When planting spring bulbs in the Deep South, Southern California and similar climates, the plants should be treated as annuals, with no expectation that they will return the following year. There are exceptions to this, however. Wild tulips, sometimes referred to as species tulips, are more likely to return for two or more years, along with Darwin Hybrids.
Crocuses will come back for several years in climates as warm as Zone 8, as will grape hyacinths and starflowers. In cooler climates, removing the spent blossoms from the plant, a process known as deadheading, will also encourage the bulbs to bloom for more than one season. Deadheading prevents the plant from focusing its energy on seed production, and it will develop a stronger bulb instead.
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Gardeners in Zone 8 and warmer should purchase spring bulbs from a reputable nursery that offers bulbs specifically for warmer climates. These nurseries will treat the bulbs by prechilling them so they will perform well for the warm-climate gardener. The inexpensive bags of bulbs found in supermarkets and hardware stores in the fall typically are not prechilled and may not bloom well for warm-climate gardeners. To prechill bulbs yourself, just store them in the refrigerator for 8-10 weeks before planting them out.
Always purchase bulbs that are fresh. Bulbs typically become available at garden centers in the fall, at about the time they should be planted out. Planting spring bulbs that have been languishing on a shelf for several months is likely to be futile. Leftover bulbs that are still being sold in the spring are likely to be dried out. If they grow at all, they’re not likely to bloom well.
What can you do if you miss that window of opportunity for planting spring bulbs? If December rolls around and you realize that bag of bulbs is still sitting on a shelf out in the garage, the ground is frozen and cannot be dug, you have a couple of options so you can still enjoy some spring flowers. The bulbs can be planted out in the spring, but they must be stored properly. Store the bulbs in a paper or mesh bag in the refrigerator, and plant them out in the spring as soon as the ground can be worked. The bulbs will not bloom until the following spring, however. They may not bloom as well as bulbs that spent all winter in the ground, but they won’t be a total loss.
Another alternative for saving bulbs that didn’t get planted out in the fall is to force them to bloom indoors. To force bulbs, plant them in a pot of soil, water them well and place pot and all in the refrigerator for 8-10 weeks. After the bulbs have endured this artificial winter, bring them back out to room temperature and the bulbs will begin to grow and will produce flowers for an early indoor spring display.
All fall-planted bulbs will grow best if planted in a sunny location, although most will tolerate partial shade. Daffodils tend to turn their faces toward the sun, so keep that in mind when choosing a location for planting these spring bulbs. Bulbs that bloom early in the spring can be planted in areas that will be shaded later in the season once the trees leaf out.
Bulbs should be planted in well drained soil and they will appreciate being planted with some good compost or well aged manure. Bulbs don’t care for heavy clay soils, but clay soil can be improved by adding compost and a bit of sand, working it in to a depth of 12 to 18 inches.
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For bulbs to bloom well over many years, it is important to plant them at the proper depth. A good rule of thumb when planting spring bulbs is to plant a bulb twice as deep as the height of the bulb. Spring bulbs are their prettiest when planted in groups and they can be planted closely together, but the bulbs should not be touching each other. In most cases they should be planted 4 to 6 inches apart. Bulbs should be planted with the roots downward, but occasionally it can be difficult to tell which is the root end of a bulb. If in doubt, just plant the bulbs lying on their sides. The bulbs will know which way is up when they start to grow.
Because bulbs of varying sizes are planted at various depths, it is easy to create a display of mixed spring flowers. Larger bulbs such as tulips or daffodils can be planted first, in the deepest layer. Refill the planting hole with a layer of soil, then plant smaller bulbs such as grape hyacinths over and in between the larger bulbs before refilling the planting hole completely. In the spring, flowering annuals can be placed amongst the bulbs. The annuals will help to hide the bulbs’ foliage as it fades later in the spring.
After planting spring bulbs, thoroughly water the bed unless a freeze is expected the night after they’re planted. In that case, do not water them but do cover the planted area immediately with a layer of mulch. The mulch will keep the soil warm enough to allow the bulbs to start growing roots before the ground freezes. All fall-planted bulbs can be given a blanket of mulch after a good freeze. This mulch will keep them from waking up too early in the spring when the buds could be damaged by a late freeze.
When planting spring bulbs in the fall, they don’t need any fertilizer at that time. If the soil needs nutrients, bulbs will appreciate a light dose of low-nitrogen fertilizer in the spring when the new growth begins to peep out from the soil. In general, bulbs are not heavy feeders and a light application of compost or shredded leaves annually typically provides enough nutrients for a lovely spring display.