How to plant bulbs in fall

Autumn has arrived and that means it's time to put the bulbs in so next year's flowers will pop up in the spring! The first couple times I planted bulbs I did it all wrong! I planted them too shallow, I planted them too close together and I planted them at the wrong time of year.

Flowering Iris planted in fall, how to

I learned the hard way that if you plant them too shallow the chipmunks will dig them up and eat them. If you plant them too close together as certain bulbs multiply you're going to have to thin them out, and soon. And if you plant them in the wrong season well you might not get anything for a year if at all.

So today I want to talk about what I've learned and put into practice since the first disastrous set of bulbs I planted.

How to plant fall bulbs

Flowering bulbs are loved by gardeners for their ease of care, their hardiness and the fact that they can bloom again and again for many consecutive years without the need to replant. May people love the fact that they spread and a small patch of daffodils can become a rather large clump in just a few years!

Choosing flower bulbs

Choosing the right bulbs, however, is one thing that many beginning gardeners have trouble with. One of the main problems is that they're usually sold in bags of multiple bulbs, so sometimes you'll get a few perfect bulbs and some not so great specimens.

When choosing bulbs for your garden, it is important to choose the firmest and largest bulbs. The size of the bulb is important, since large bulbs are more likely to provide many blooms. The firmness of the bulb is a good indication of its health, and bulbs that are soft or mushy are unlikely to bloom. 

If you're buying bulbs packaged in bags, try to squeeze one gently through the bag. It should not feel mushy or dry, but rather like squeezing a fresh garlic clove. Firm with only a tiny bit of give.

Bulbs are particularly susceptible to water damage. It is important to choose a bulb that is not to soft, but it is also important to look for cracks or scars if you can. Bulbs with cracks or scars may have become too dry to bloom. Likewise, any bulbs that have begun to spout roots should be avoided, as they are unlikely to bloom properly once planted.

Choosing flower bulbs to plant

When to plant bulbs

I can't give you an exact date because this is going to depend on what zone you are gardening in. If you're not sure which zone you live in check out this post How to find your gardening zone and last frost date to help you figure it out. That frost calculator will also have your first frost date, which is important to know when planting bulbs.

Most bulbs are best planted in the fall, most commonly in early to mid October. The goal is to get the bulbs into the ground six weeks before the ground begins to freeze, so obviously the best time to plant will vary from location to location. 

How to plant flower bulbs

Prepare your flower bed as usual, removing weeds and tilling in some organic matter like leaf mold or compost if needed. Bulbs should be planted in a well prepared soil, and the depth they should be planted will be determined by the type of bulb. For example, crocus bulbs are generally planted four inches deep, daffodil and hyacinth bulbs six inches deep and tulip bulbs at a depth of eight inches.

A good rule of thumb is 3 times as deep as the bulb is wide. So an inch wide crocus should be planted 3" deep. A 2" wide tulip bulb would be planted 6" deep. The package directions on your bulbs will tell you how deep to plant them, and spacing specifications.

You want to make sure the larger bulbs are planted deep enough because if they are planted too shallow squirrels, chipmunks and even deer will dig them up and eat the bulbs. If a deer starts eating the first shoots in spring, a shallow planted bulb will pull right out of the ground. 

It is important to use a small amount of fertilizer at the bottom of each hole you dig when planting bulbs. The fertilizer should then be topped with a thin layer of soil, and the bulb carefully placed on top of the soil. It is important not to place the bulb directly on top of the fertilizer, as doing so could damage the bulb. 

Because bulbs can be affected by the fertilizer if it's too 'hot', I prefer to use homemade compost in the hole. It has the nutrients the bulbs need to grow and flower without being so strong you need a barrier of soil between it and the bulb. Plus, it's practically free and organic. 

Bulbs are always planted with the pointed end up and the flat, rooted side facing down. After the bulbs are in place, the rest of the hole should be filled with soil and the garden should be given a thorough watering. Watering right after planting helps them to start developing a healthy root system before the cold sets in for winter.

Planting bulbs at proper depth using an auger

I use this set of augers in the pictures. They are only $15 for the set of 2. They fit in any drill and make digging holes super fast! Some people call this a bulb planter, but I use them for seeds and seedlings too, so they're really useful in the garden. 

Taking care of the bulbs over the winter is important as well. Add a 3'4 inch deep layer of mulch before winter freeze. This will help insulate the bulbs from a too frequent freeze-thaw cycle (like during that one random week in December when it gets warm again) and keep them from sprouting too soon. Flowers that sprout too soon will become damaged next time it freezes which can affect the blooms.

Related reading: Succession planting a flower bed. Planting annuals after your bulbs have bloomed is a great way to have flowers all summer long.


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