How To Choose, Plant and Grow Flowering Bulbs

From daffodils to dahlias, learn how to grow bulbs and fill your garden with big, beautiful color.
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'Soft Music' Oriental Lily

'Soft Music' Oriental Lily

Photo by: Image courtesy of Longfield Gardens

Image courtesy of Longfield Gardens

This fragrant, light pink Oriental lily opens fragrant, doubled blooms in summer, so plant it in spring. It's hardy in zones 4 to 9.

Bulbs, tubers, corms and rhizomes: we tend to lump them all together when we talk about “bulbs.” While there are botanical differences, each is a kind of underground flower factory.

True bulbs are made up of developing leaves covered by a thin skin, like the papery covering on daffodil bulbs. Onions and tulips are also true bulbs.

How to Choose Flowering Bulbs

It’s easy to get carried away by all the beautiful choices out there. But before you shop for bulbs, decide whether you want spring or summer flowers.

Most spring-flowering bulbs are hardy and must be planted in fall, before the first frost. Bulbs need a period of cold to stimulate them to form the embryonic or “baby” flowers within. Spring bulbs can be left in the garden year-round.

If you live where the winters are mild and warm, you can still grow bulbs that bloom in spring, although most need to be pre-chilled. Pre-chilling refers to keeping bulbs like tulips and hyacinths in cold storage (35 to 45 degrees F) for a period of time. You can buy bulbs pre-chilled or do it yourself. Read about the kind of bulbs you’re growing to know how long they need to be chilled before you plant.

Summer-flowering bulbs are usually tender, so they should be planted after the last spring frost. To keep them from perishing when winter arrives, dig them up and store them before the first frost of autumn. There are a few exceptions; hardy lilies, for example, can overwinter in the garden.

For success, grow bulbs recommended for your hardiness zone. Then choose your favorite colors and combinations. Take into account when the bulbs will flower, whether early, mid-, or late season. If you plan carefully, you can have bulbs just starting to open as others finish so you have an ongoing flower show.

When you’re choosing bulbs, avoid any that feel soft, mushy or show any signs of mold. Big bulbs produce big flowers, so pass over the small sizes.

Read the labels so you’ll know how high your bulbs will grow, and plant shorter ones in front of taller ones.

How to Plant Flowering Bulbs

If you’re planting a lot of bulbs, it may be easier to dig a bed or trench rather than individual holes. Loosen your soil and remove rocks, sticks and other debris. To improve your soil, work in some organic matter like peat moss or compost.

Most bulbs need a sunny garden spot, but bulbs that sprout before trees or shrubs leaf out can be planted in places that will be partially shaded later in the season. Just be careful not to plant so close to trees or shrubs that their roots have to compete for space, moisture and nutrients.

There’s an old saying that’s true of many plants: They don’t like wet feet. Grow your bulbs in soil that drains easily or they may rot.

A rule of thumb is to plant as deep as three times the diameter of the bulb. Space large bulbs 3 to 10 inches apart, and smaller ones 1 to 2 inches apart. You can also plant in layers, dropping big bulbs into the ground, partially covering them with soil, adding smaller bulbs over them, and then backfilling the rest of the bed or trench.

Bulbs should be planted with the pointed ends up. If you can’t tell which end is which, plant them on their sides. They’ll find their way towards the sun.

Some gardeners mix a little bone meal into the soil at the bottom of the hole or bed when planting their bulbs. If you do this, make sure it doesn’t touch them so it won’t burn the developing roots.

After planting, water your bulbs thoroughly.

Plant the bulbs in clusters or small groups for a colorful impact. You can also simply toss the bulbs over the ground and plant them wherever they land for a naturalized effect.

How to Grow Flowering Bulbs

During p, feed your bulbs by mulching around them with aged, well-rotted manure or good organic compost. If you prefer, give them a slow-release bulb food, following package directions. Another option is to feed them with bone meal mixed with a fast-release, water-soluble 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 fertilizer, applying about 1 tablespoon per square foot of garden bed.

Clip off the flowers heads of the bulbs as they fade, but don’t cut, braid or cover up the leaves. If you do, you’ll lose the next year’s flowers. To hide any unsightly dying foliage, plant some fast-growing annuals around it.

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