Bulbs Gardening

4 Bulbs That Require Early Planting

Hand planting bulb.

By Larry Hodgson

Usually, there’s no particular rush to plant fall bulbs (tulips, narcissus, hyacinths, spring crocus, etc.). They arrive in garden centers in early September, but you really don’t have to plant them until 6 weeks or so before the ground starts to freeze. If you count backwards, that isn’t until mid to late October in most temperate Northern Hemisphere, even November in the mildest areas. Many people therefore wait until their annuals finish blooming and their perennials have died back, then plant them in the spaces freed up when those are cleaned up … and many annuals and perennials are still in perfect shape through September and well into October.

There are, however, a few bulbs that are exceptions to the rule, bulbs that need to be planted early in the season. In fact, as soon as possible after they arrive in local stores. 

Here are four main ones:

Grecian Windflower (Anemone blanda, now Anemonoides blanda)

Purple  Grecian windflowers
Get Grecian windflower into the ground without too much delay. Photo: iBulb

This early blooming bulb with surprisingly large star-shaped blooms in white, pink, blue or purple doesn’t take well to drying out. The small black tuber is sold dry and already starting too shrivel, looking for all the world like a dried cat turd. By the time it arrives in the store, the clock is ticking: it’s already slowly losing its capacity to sprout. If you leave it too long, nothing will come up next spring.

(If you can’t plant it right away, at least keep it cool, as in a cold room or even a fridge. That way you can push the planting season into October.)

Therefore, plant this bulb when it arrives in stores or shortly thereafter. 

 tubers of Grecian windflower
The odd, lumpy, dry tubers of Grecian windflower look nothing like our image of a bulb. Photo: iBulb

Before you plant it, soak it overnight in tepid water to plump it up. Place it in well-drained soil in a spot that will receive sun or part shade in the spring. Plant it about 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm) deep and likewise space the bulbs about 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm) apart. With this lumpy bulb, there is essentially no way of telling which side is up, so don’t worry about it. Just drop in the hole and cover with soil, then water to settle it in. 

It’s adapted to USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8, AgCanada zones 4 to 8.

Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis and E. cilicica)

Yellow winter aconite flowers
The charming winter aconite won’t thrive unless you plant it early. Photo: iBulb

This extremely early bloomer with brilliant buttercup-yellow flowers on a tiny plant is related to the Grecian windflower (they’re both in the buttercup family, the Ranunculaceae) and shares a similar small shriveled brown tuber. And it also shares similar needs, including the same hardiness zones: USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8 (AgCanada zones 4 to 8).

Be forewarned: this bulb is even more sensitive to drying out fatally than the Grecian windflower. The sooner you plant it, the better.

Just give it exactly the same treatment you offered to the Grecian windflower, including a good soaking before planting it … early, of course!

Meadow Saffron (Colchicum spp.)

Colchicum speciosum
Meadow saffron pops up naked (leafless) in early autumn. Photo: Meneerke bloem, Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes called autumn crocus (not a name I recommend, at its leads to confusion with the true autumn crocus, described below) or naked ladies, so called because it blooms without any leaves (they pop up separately, in the spring), this often giant cup-shaped flower rises straight out of the ground in early to mid-fall on short stems. 

Colchicum bulb blooming on a windowsill
This colchicum bulb wasn’t planted on time and is blooming on a windowsill. Photo: AnnaKika, Flickr

With this plant, the urgency in planting is not so much the deterioration of the corm, although the big bulblike organ does shrivel quite quickly if you don’t plant it soon, but rather that it blooms in the fall. Yes, unlike most other bulbs that you plant in the fall for bloom the following spring (tulips, narcissus, hyacinths, etc.), it blooms … like, right away! So, if you want to see it bloom in the ground where it should be, plant it as soon as you bring it home. Otherwise, it will bloom in its storage bag or box … and I kid you not! 

Often, the bulb you buy already has a flower bud or two stretching out of it at planting time: that shows just how much of a hurry it is in to bloom!

Don’t eat any part of a meadow saffron: it’s highly poisonous.

Plant this corm (they vary greatly in size: some varieties are fist-sized!) at a depth of about 2 to 3 times its height and a similar spacing, again in well-drained soil in a site that receives spring sun or partial shade. Although there are many varieties of meadow saffron and the bloom season does vary, some will be in bloom within a week after planting. Yes, that fast! 

USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8 (AgCanada zones 4 to 8).

Autumn Crocus (Crocus speciosusC. sativusC. kotschyanus and others)

Crocus kotchyanthus in pale lavender with dark veins.
Crocus kotschyanus, formerly C. zonatus, is one of the most popular autumn crocuses. Photo: Averater, Wikimedia Commons

These really are crocuses, but unlike the usual late winter or spring flowering crocuses, they bloom in the fall. And, obviously, you’re going to want to plant them early so you can enjoy their bloom. 

The corm does hold well and doen’t seem to shrink to any degree if you don’t get it into the ground right away, but don’t let that fool you. If you leave things too long, it will simply fail to flower that year. So, plant it soon after it arrives in the store.

Plant the small corms about 3 inches (7 cm) deep and 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm) apart, again in well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade. The hardiness of the various species varies, but many adapt to USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8 (AgCanada zones 4 to 8).


So, what are you waiting for? These bulbs are in a hurry: get planting!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

6 comments on “4 Bulbs That Require Early Planting

  1. Barry Langille

    I just want to add a (perhaps unrelated) note about fall bulbs. Many people seem to think that bulbs must be planted in fall, or they will die. By this I mean that I can’t remember how often I’ve seen advice to people who have to move bulbs, to dig and srore them for months before replanting them in the fall. Bulbs can be replanted immediately after digging and do better than if they are dehydrated in a bag somewhere, and they will simply do what they naturally do at the appropriate time. It also means that if you forget tgem, they’re already planted.

    • I totally agree. It’s something I slip into articles all the time, but I don’t think I’ve ever dedicated an article to it. I think I will… maybe next week. Thanks for the great idea!

  2. Thanks for this article. I planted Anemone blanda ‘Blue Shades’ very late last fall and none came up. I wondered why. I reordered them for this fall and as soon as they arrive I’ll soak and plant them. Also, some of my peonies tubers didn’t arrive last fall but instead came this spring. My neighbor said planting them in spring actually puts them behind a year. Despite that I planted them anyway. I used to think that whenever bulbs and tubers arrived, that was the appropriate time to plant them. I’m thinking maybe due to shortages and shipping issues all sorts of plants are arriving at odd time.

    • First, you did well to plant the peonies. Spring isn’t the best time to plant them (it’s the second-best time), but it’s better than storing them dry all summer to plant them in the fall. They’re not being sold in spring because of shortages, but because people are willing to buy them then.

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