Tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, crocus and other spring-flowering bulbs: garden centers sell them by the shovelful each fall. And their culture is super easy. Dig, drop, done, as one promoters put it. But still, if it’s your first time, here are a few details about planting hardy bulbs you might find useful:
Between September and November in the Northern Hemisphere, up to 2 weeks before the ground freezes definitively.
In rich and particularly well-drained soil. If your soil is heavy clay and/or stays soaking wet in spring, you won’t succeed with most bulbs. Instead, plant them in a raised flowerbed.
Where the spring sun shines. Of course, that can be a spot that is in full sun all year long, but since spring bulbs grow, flower and die back before trees have fully leafed out, you can also plant them under trees in places that are sunny in the spring, but shady during the summer.
Spring bulbs need a cool to cold winter and many won’t be happy in zones 9 and above. In Florida, for example, tulips have to be grown in refrigerators and planted out once the artificial cold has helped them root properly. On the other hand, most bulbs are very hardy and will thrive to hardiness zone 3, especially if you cover them with mulch in the very coldest regions.
Dig a hole three times as deep as the bulb is tall. Make an exception for tulips: if you want them to return faithfully year after year, plant the bulb 1 foot (30 cm) deep. That will only work in well-drained soils, though. See Where? above for more details.
If your soil is on the heavy side, you can can lighten it by adding about one third compost to the soil you dig out.
It is easier to dig a large hole for several bulbs that individual holes for each bulb. For an attractive look, try 10 bulbs or more per hole in the case of larger bulbs, such as tulips, daffodils and hyacinths, and 15 to 25 bulbs per hole for small bulbs (crocus, muscaris, snowdrops, etc.).
Add bulb fertilizer or another slow-release organic fertilizer to the planting hole. Follow the dose recommended by the manufacturer. Also, adding a spoonful or two of mycorrhizae fungi (beneficial fungi) to the bottom of the planting hole can be useful if you’re working with soil that has been disturbed or has just been added.
Do not use bone meal as a fertilizer. Yes, I know, many garden centers still put it out with bulb displays as if it were the ideal bulb fertilizer, but they’re basing this on old-fashioned, nitrogen-rich bone meal, a product that hasn’t been available in generations. Bone meal as presently sold essentially gives nothing to your bulbs and attracts vermin that may dig up your bulbs. Read Bone Meal: Much Ado About Nothing for more information.
Place bulbs with the flat side down and the pointed side up. Some bulbs have no clear up side and down side: just plant them any which way: they’ll adjust themselves.
Space the bulbs about 3 times their diameter.
Fill the hole with soil.
Tamp down gently.
You can cover the spot with mulch, but that isn’t absolutely necessary.
What About Squirrels?
Squirrels, chipmunks and voles like to dig up and carry off bulbs of tulips and crocus, especially if you marked the spot where they are planted with bone meal. To learn how to keep them away, read Protecting Bulbs from Squirrels.
There you go, you did it! Just leave them alone now: your job is done!
During the winter, your bulbs will grow underground – yes, even under the snow! – in order to get ready for the flowering to come. As soon as the snow melts, up they come and soon they soon be in bloom. Ain’t nature wonderful?