9 Steps for Bulb Gardening

Gardener's hands holding sprouting tulip flower bulbs

One of the easiest ways to have a beautiful and prolific flower garden is by using bulbs. With a bit of research and planting-time awareness, you can have blooms throughout the growing season. Although bulb gardening is easy, there are some do’s and don'ts to keep in mind. Follow these simple tips and rules, and your bulbs will flourish for years to come.

Step 1 — Understanding Growing Seasons

In early spring, crocus, hyacinth, and daffodils are in bloom. In the summer, gladiolus, iris, begonias, dahlias, and canna reign. Late into autumn, fall crocus, amaryllis, and painted lily add fresh color to your garden.

Step 2 – Preparing the Planting Bed

Although flowering bulbs are generally not high maintenance, they need a well-planned planting bed. Good drainage is essential when raising flower bulbs. If your soil has high clay content, add compost and peat moss to aid drainage. If it is too sandy, add peat moss or leaf compost. It is best to work this material into the soil to a depth of at least 12 inches, but preferably 18 inches.

Step 3 – Purchasing Bulbs

The bulbs you purchase are just as important as the bed you plant them in. When buying bulbs, look for large, plump, and healthy. Do not buy bulbs that are soft or bruised.'

Step 4 – Fertilizing

Balance the pH

Know the pH balance of your soil. Flowering bulbs like a pH balance of 6-7. However, depending on what you're planting, you may need to prepare your soil accordingly. A simple litmus test can tell you if your soil is acidic or alkaline. You can purchase a soil testing kit at your garden supply center or order one online.

Use Bone Meal

Never use strong commercial fertilizer or fresh manure when planting, and don't over-fertilize the planting bed. Flowering bulbs should be fertilized with bone meal when first planted because it helps encourage bud growth. Work the meal thoroughly into the soil.

Use Commercial or Organic Fertilizer

Once a year, use a commercial fertilizer, too. In addition, use a soluble fertilizer such as 10-10-10 with an application of 1 tablespoon per square foot of bed. Fertilize spring flowering bulbs in the fall and summer, or fall bulbs in the spring. Some experts recommend not fertilizing spring flowering bulbs after they begin to bloom because it can encourage bulb rot and shorten the life of the flowers.

Alternatively, you can use organic fertilizers instead of commercial. Starting in the early spring and once a month after, spread a 2-inch layer of compost on top of your garden soil. You can work it into the soil, being careful not to disturb the bulb.

Layer Mulch

A layer of mulch keeps the bulbs at the perfect temperature and moisture conditions. As it breaks down, it improves the soil. Every spring, put down a 2-3 inch layer of organic mulch such as wood chips, leaf compost, or pine needles. Reapply as needed.

Step 5 – Planting

Be mindful of planting depth for plants, bulb orientation, and timing when you're planning your garden.


Bulbs should be planted with the pointed end up and the root base down. Measure the bulb. It should be planted to a depth that is 3-4 times the length of the bulb. Doing so ensures the plant does not need to be staked. Remember that some rhizomes must be planted near the surface. Bearded iris are an example of bulbs that are planted at a shallow depth.

Timing and Spacing

You should plant your bulbs one month before the first winter freeze, which should give them plenty of time to acclimate. Plant bulbs in clumps for attractive, bushy plants. Space them according to color with the softest colors in the front of your bed and the more vibrant in the back. Directly after planting, water the garden bed so that the plants can begin developing their roots.

Location and Rotation

Some flowering bulbs require full sunlight, while others do just as well in partial shade. Planting can also be done on slopes to insure blooms at different times. Planting on a south slope allows bulbs to bloom earlier. On a north-facing slope, the bulbs will bloom later, and if bulbs are planted in a valley, they will bloom later still.

Following the principles of crop rotation can save you trouble down the road. Some bulbs, especially tulips, when planted in the same place year after year become susceptible to a fungus disease called fire blight. By changing the locations of your different varieties of bulb when you dig them up, you are protecting your bulbs against this disease.

Step 6 – Watering

You should water your plants on a regular basis. If natural rainfall doesn't nourish the bulbs, then water on a weekly basis to the depth of 1 inch. Remember that some bulbs are planted to a depth of 8 inches, and by not watering enough, the bulbs will suffer.

Don't over-water the beds. Over-watering can cause bulb rot. Limit your watering to a weekly basis during dry summer months, and don't water the beds if natural rainfall has nourished them.

Step 7 – Deadheading

As you notice some of your bulb flowers starting to fade, take a sharp pair of gardening shears and cut off the flower right as it meets the stem. Do not let your bulb flowers go to seed. This practice reduces the amount of energy that the bulb expends to create and distribute seeds. If you want to cut flowers for a bouquet, cut the flower stem as well, but leave as much foliage on the plant as you can.

Remember that bulbs need to acquire and store enough energy during the growing season to last them throughout the winter. They get this energy using their foliage. For this reason, do not cut back a bulb's foliage, even after it is done flowering. Wait until the foliage has turned brown and yellow to cut it back. Cutting too soon may mean your bulbs will not make it to next year.

Step 8 – Digging

Wait until the plant becomes dormant before digging up. Digging and separating is beneficial to the plant, as not separating on a regular basis allows overcrowding, and the plant will not bloom well in later seasons. Although this need not be done on a yearly basis, digging and separating the bulbs will allow you to not only increase the size of your bed, but also will help to identify rotted or diseased bulbs. If you see that the plants are blooming unevenly, are not up to their usual height, and are overall not doing well, it is time to dig and separate

Step 9 – Storing

Be careful of how you store your plants that have been dug up for the winter months. The bulbs should be dug up with a garden fork and left to dry on top of the soil in indirect sunlight. Remove any clumps of dirt from them, and rinse. Some bulbs, such as dahlia, canna, and caladium should not be washed at storage time.

Don't separate the plants when they have been dug up and prepared for storage. This should only be done at planting time.

Small amounts of bulbs can be stored in a paper bag and hung on the wall for storage. Larger amounts, such as onions and oranges, should be stored in an open mesh bag, brought inside, and hung in a cool, dry area. Storing temperature should be around 55 F. Never allow them to freeze, and never dry them in the direct sun. If your bulbs encounter too much humidity, they may rot. If you buy bulbs and need to delay planting them, take them out of their packages to allow for air circulation and store them in the same fashion.

Following these simple guidelines will ensure that you always have a garden filled with abundant blooms.

Alden Smith is an award-winning author and regular contributor to DoItYourself.com. He writes on a variety of subjects and excels in research.