Spring Bulbs for Beginners

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For those of us who have to endure a long, cold winter, the first spring flowers that pop up through the snow are a wonderful sight heralding the coming of warmer weather. When I first bought my house six years ago, my father gifted me with a box of various spring bulbs. It was summer at the time, so I put them in my garage with a mental note to plant them come fall, as per his instructions, and then I forgot.

I did notice that some other creature got at them during my neglect, however, and sure enough, next spring, I had tulips and hyacinths and crocuses popping up in my front garden! The area squirrels had planted them for me, and the forgotten few that survived still bring a smile to my face every spring. If you don’t want to rely on this tactic, this article will go over how to plant spring bulbs for beginners, just like I was.

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Bulb Background

Many of us are familiar with planting seeds to get flowers, fruits, or vegetables, but bulbs are a different medium. They're usually a lot larger and hold all of the necessary nutrition for the plant as it goes through dormancy and emerges once spring comes around. There are “bulb-like” plant-forms like corms, tubers, rhizomes, and bulblets; however, these are not “true” bulbs. Crocuses are actually corms, and alliums are bulblets, for instance. They are planted and grow just like true bulbs such as tulips and daffodils, so if you aren’t picky about finding “true” bulbs, feel free to add “bulb-like” plants to your spring garden for a nice variety of color and shape.

small purple crocuses blooming

When to Plant

The best time to plant spring bulbs is in the fall, about six weeks before the ground freezes. Check your zone for regional frost times. Warmer climates are a little trickier, as bulbs like tulips, hyacinths, and crocuses need to experience frost to bloom. It just means you will have to mimic the conditions and keep them in a refrigerator for 4-6 weeks before they go in the ground. There are bulbs specifically for warmer climates like the Dutch iris, anemones, freesias, and ranunculus that you can plant without needing to pre-chill them. This will be less work in the long run, but you’ll miss out on some of the more classic spring bulb species.

Bulb Varieties

Tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, oh my! These are some of the most popular bulbs, along with crocuses, but there are many other great options to add to your spring garden, as well. Alliums, amaryllis, bluebells, Muscari, snowdrops, and starflowers, are just a few other choices to consider. Irises and some lilies are also popular spring bulbs that bring short-lived but dramatic flowers to your garden. It might feel intimidating to choose at first, so talk to your local garden center or source bulbs from a reputable online store for some inspiration. Make sure bulbs are firm and without mold when purchasing in store.

Growth and Color

pink and purple tulips

Different bulbs will grow to different heights, so you’ll want to plan accordingly. Tulips are top-heavy and grow to be about 12-20 inches high; hyacinths are a little shorter, around 6-12 inches, but their textured blossoms grow from top to bottom and fill in gardens nicely. Some alliums grow quite tall and have poofy tops, whereas crocuses are short and act as a spring ground cover. Irises and lilies vary in height but have showy petals at the top of their long verdant leaves. Some people like to plan their colors, while others prefer a mix. Spring bulbs come in bold hues and pastel shades alike: purples, pinks, blues, oranges, reds, yellows, and whites are all common.

Timing

As per their name, spring bulbs will pop up sometime after winter and before summer. However, some rise earlier than others or have particular bloom times. Choose a variety of bulbs that will flower at different points in the spring to have an all-season show. Crocuses and snowdrops are some of the first to emerge, then tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, and Muscari come out, followed by irises, alliums, and lilies for the final spring show. This is very general, however, as each type of bulb has a range of sub-species. For instance, over a dozen types of tulips will bloom early, mid, or late spring, so plan accordingly and always read the label.

How to Plant

hand planting bulb in dirt

The general rule of thumb is to plant bulbs about 2-3 times their height deep. For example, if a tulip bulb is two inches, plant it six inches into the ground. Think of it like providing the foundation for a building; the taller the plant gets, the deeper the bulb foundation needs to be. Following the label instructions is always your best bet. Sprinkle some blood or bone meal at the bottom of the hole, place the bulb pointy side up/ roots down, and cover back up with dirt. Water thoroughly and cover with mulch for best results. Sprinkle some more blood meal over the top as this helps to deter rodents. Keep spacing requirements in mind, as well: you don’t want to overcrowd individual plants, or place crocuses at the back with irises at the very front, for instance, as one will ensconce the other. Remember, one bulb begets one bloom.

Storage

tulip bulbs in dry storage

If you aren’t planning on planting your bulbs the second you get home, keep them stored in a dark, dry, cool place away from rodents and squirrels (unless you want to try my method!). Corms prefer dry conditions, too, but rhizomes need some humidity, so you may need to place them in dampened peat moss. Leave bulbs in their packaging, or if they are loose, label them, so you don’t forget what’s what. Most garages and cold cellars will be fine for storage over the winter; however, bulbs will not tolerate frost. Wrap loose ones with newspaper and place all bulbs in a sealed box or plastic container. This will keep rodents and frost away. Bulbs will only last a year, so don't plan on over-wintering twice.

Spring bulbs bring so much versatility that they can be planted almost anywhere as long as there are well-draining soil and full sun. They look great lining pathways, along driveways, or filling in front and back gardens with other summer and fall-blooming perennials. The best gardeners bring color to their landscape all season long, so if you want to start wowing your neighbors and people passing by, plant spring bulbs when autumn comes back around, and sit back and wait for the beautiful color to emerge.

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