After a long, hard winter, there is nothing quite like the explosion of color provided by spring flowering bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, crocuses, and hyacinths. Spring bulbs are so important in adding vibrant color to the landscape early on while there is still snow on the ground--what a welcome sight! It is way too early to plant tender annuals at this time, and most perennials are barely starting to show their heads. Besides a few flowering shrubs, which these bulbs greatly compliment, there isn’t much color to be found. Where do you start?

Let’s start with where they can be planted. Most bulbs prefer to grow in full to part sun. This normally isn’t a problem this time of year because most trees and shrubs are just starting to leaf out, meaning more sunlight is reaching the ground. By the time they completely leaf out, your bulbs will just about be finished for the year and will require less sunlight. In other words, don’t be afraid to plant under trees and shrubs. They also prefer to grow in moist, but well-drained soil. This is why it is so important to add compost to our soils; it helps break up the clay and improve drainage. Soils that are wet all the time, or have poor drainage, are not good places to plant bulbs. They also prefer soils with a neutral pH, which compost will also correct or improve.

So, when should we be planting these bulbs? Fall is the best time to plant spring bulbs, but don’t start too early. What happens when you plant early (early to mid-September)? The bulbs will actually grow too much and be closer to the surface come spring. This causes them to break through the ground earlier in spring, which makes them susceptible to frost damage. This can also be the case if bulbs aren’t planted deep enough. It’s not the end of the world, but you may lose flowering if the buds get hit with frost. I find October to mid-November is the best time to plant. The rule of thumb is that you can start planting bulbs after your first hard frost, which will vary from year to year.

Now let’s look at the proper way to plant your bulbs. To start, a good rule of thumb is to plant the bulbs a minimum of three times their depth. So if your bulb is 2 inches from top to bottom, plant it at least 6 inches deep. I actually like to plant mine deeper by another inch or two. This does two things. First, it slows the growth of the bulb down, allowing for more years of flowering, especially with tulips. Second, it helps discourage the squirrels; they normally won’t dig this deep in search of food. If you’re buying top-quality bulbs, larger bulbs like tulips and daffodils are normally planted 8-10 inches deep, and smaller bulbs, like grape hyacinths, 4-6 inches. Make sure you dig your holes a couple of inches deeper than what you’re going to plant to allow for the roots to have a nice place to grow. Also, as stated before, mix in plenty of compost when planting to aid in drainage and to give the bulbs a fertile place to grow. A bulb fertilizer can also be added at this time, if you desire, but is often not needed because the bulbs you have purchased should already be properly charged. You will want to fertilize them on a yearly basis after the first year though to make sure they are well fed, making them flower properly for years to come.

How can they be used in the landscape? They are normally used in four ways: in natural plantings, formal color beds, mixed borders, and containers. Natural plantings are plantings that mimic nature. There are certain bulbs that work better for naturalizing than others, such as daffodils, so choose the appropriate variety. How do you mimic nature, you ask? When planting, follow the contours of the land, and never plant against the grain. Larger areas, like meadows and hillsides, and under deciduous trees, look the best. Use solid, muted colors and stay away from bright flashy ones. Take a drive in the country and let nature be your guide. Formal beds are just that: formal. Again use appropriate varieties; tulips and hyacinths work best here. Use large blocks of bright colors in wide open spaces in your landscape. These beds are normally treated like annuals because they become unsightly after bloom. Most people dig the bulbs out after bloom and replace with warm-season annuals. Mixed border plantings are the most popular way to use bulbs. Just about any bulb will work here, so pick your favorite. What you’re doing is simply planting pockets of 5-9 bulbs to add spring color to your existing beds. It’s a great way to brighten up a bed in spring when nothing else is blooming. Mix different bloom times to extend the season, along with different varieties. It’s important to mark the locations of your bulbs when doing this so you don’t accidentally dig them up. The nice thing about using bulbs this way is that when the foliage starts to look bad, normally your other plants are getting big enough to hide it. The last way to use bulbs is to plant them in containers. This is a great way to add mobile color to your landscape; you can move them around throughout the spring to wherever you wish. What you do is plant the containers in the fall like you would regular bulbs and store them in an unheated garage over winter. Water them lightly when you plant them, and then leave them dry throughout the rest of the winter. Simply bring them out in spring and let them do their thing, and enjoy.

As you can see, there are so many ways that you can add color to your early spring landscape. Why go through another one wishing you had more? So plant some bulbs now, then sit back, relax, and wait for the explosion of color next spring. 

Think spring and happy gardening!