Tips for Growing Bulbs

By: C. Colston Burrell  | 
When you're planting bulbs, you're also looking to protect bulbs from the trials ahead.
Planting bulbs flowering.
Bulbs can bloom from early spring until late summer. See more pictures of bulb gardens.

If you envision a garden blooming with color, check out bulbs. These hearty plants require some maintenance, but the reward is plants that can bloom year after year. If you're wondering how to plant bulbs successfully and curious about the variety of options before you, don't fret -- we have you covered!

Whether you're interested in spring bulbs, summer bulbs, or fall planted bulbs, each of these seasons can be highly satisfying for those with green thumbs. In this article, we'll discuss the year-round caring of your bulb garden and how to avoid weather or pest-related issues.


Quick Tips that Bulb Planters Know

Following these tips will help you get to know these wonderful plants a little better:

Bulb Gardens Image Gallery


  • When winter finally melts away, crocuses, daffodils, and tulips are quick to appear. The earliest spring blooming bulbs come with other allied structures such as tubers, rhizomes, and corms, which lie underground ready to grow as soon as the weather breaks.
  • When planted in a compatible site, daffodils, snowdrops, and crocuses can spread into large clusters that paint the landscape with their early color. Long-stemmed tulips and daffodils are wonderful flowers to cut and bring indoors. Hyacinths, dwarf irises, and some daffodils have sweet fragrances, making them pleasurable indoors or out.
  • Summer is made more cheerful with brightly colored summer-flowering bulbs such as caladiums, dahlias, cannas, and gladioli. These summer bulbs are native to warmer climates and won't survive in cold temperatures. But they can be dug up, stored in the basement, and replanted when warm weather returns. When heat has other plants resting, summer-flowering bulbs can continue to thrive. Their bountiful blooms make splendid bouquets.

In the next section, we'll give you some great tips for working with bulbs year-round.


Working with Plant Bulbs Year-Round

Plant flower bulbs can be stored inside when the ground freezes.
Store bulbs for the winter in plastic storage box.

Bulbs can bloom from early spring until late summer, but they require a bit of year-round tending. The following tips will help you maintain healthy bulbs throughout the seasons.

Spring Flowering Bulbs

  • Plant spring-flowering bulbs to give early seasonal color to lifeless perennial beds. While the perennials are just beginning to stir and arise, the bulbs are decked with color. As the bulbs are fading, the perennials are beginning to come on strong. It is an ideal partnership.
  • Plan ahead to find the best place for interplanting bulbs with perennials. Although they bloom in the spring, early spring bulbs must be planted in the fall. They look best set in clumps around or between perennials such as hardy geraniums, daylilies, and Siberian irises that don't need frequent division (which would disrupt the bulbs).

Working with Dahlia Rhizomes

  • In the spring, take dahlia rhizomes out of storage. Cut the crown longitudinally into several pieces, each with at least one rhizome and growth bud. Now each division can act as an independent plant. Divide dahlias to make more plants every year.
  • Dahlias contain underground food-storing rhizomes -- a modified form of stem that looks a little like a potato. The rhizomes connect to a central stalklike crown, which contains all the growth buds. Look closely to find the small scaly bumps or sprouts that indicate where a new shoot will arise. Both rhizomes and shoots are necessary for a new division to succeed.
  • Pre-start dahlias indoors six weeks before the last spring frost arrives so you can have extra-early flowers. Plant the tubers in large nursery pots filled with compost-enriched peat-based potting mix. Put the pots in a warm, bright location. The plants will begin rooting and sprouting. Dahlias can stay in large pots all summer, as long as you keep the soil moist and add extra fertilizer. Or you can transplant them outdoors into the garden when the danger of spring frosts pass.

Planting Fall Bulbs

  • Don't wait until the bulbs arrive in October. Mark ideal planting places with a tag or stake in spring or summer, when your existing bulbs are blooming and clumps of perennials are still small. Later in the autumn, when the perennials are dormant, you'll already have the best planting places marked.
  • Mark the location of bulbs with a stake, stick, rock, or tag so you know where they are while they're dormant. Without an above-ground reminder, it's easy to dig into the bulbs by mistake when planting other flowers or vigorously hoeing out weeds.

Planning for the Cold Winter Months

  • Dig cold-sensitive tropical bulbs such as cannas and caladiums before the first fall frost to prevent damage to the bulbs. Damaged bulbs are likely to rot in winter storage. Dig cold-tolerant tender bulbs such as dahlias and gladiolus after a light frost has killed the foliage. Point the shovel blade -- not the handle -- straight down into the soil when digging bulbs. This prevents the shovel from angling into nearby bulbs and slicing them in half.
  • Cover large patches of bulbs with a ground cover that will fill the void when the bulbs go dormant. Bulbs brighten the ground cover in spring, and the ground cover helps keep the bulbs cool and dry in summer. You may need to fertilize more often since twice the amount of plants will be growing in the same space.

In the next section, we'll give you some great ideas for displaying your bulbs.



Displaying Bulbs in Your Garden

Knowing where and when to plant your bulbs is just as important as knowing how to do it.
Bulbs planted in a deeper nursery pot result in a lovely display.
Bulbs planted in a deeper nursery pot result in a lovely display.

Bulbs bloom into flowers with vibrant color. The following creative ideas for displaying bulbs in your garden will help you make the best of these lovely plants:

  • Plant a triple layer of bulbs in the garden. The idea here is to have a shallowly planted layer of early bloomers like crocuses, snowdrops, or squills for early spring color. Just below them, at a planting depth of about 5 or 6 inches, put daffodils that bloom in mid-spring. Underneath the daffodils, plant late-blooming tulips, which benefit from deep planting and finish up the flower display. You can also plant up a large pot in the same fashion for a burst of early color.
  • Brighten up dull spots in the garden with pots of tender bulbs such as agapanthus, tuberous begonias, caladiums, pineapple lilies, or tuberoses. The versatility of pots combined with the bright blooms of summer-flowering bulbs keeps gardens looking exceptional all summer and fall.
  • Plant a double layer of Paper White narcissus bulbs for twice the flower display. Paper White narcissus, with sweetly scented clusters of small, white daffodil flowers, are warm-climate bulbs that naturally bloom during winter. Pot them in late fall or early winter, and then watch them come to life in a sunny window, even as the snow falls outside.
  • Plant the same cultivar of daffodil together in groups of 10, 20, or more. Then all the flowers will bloom together -- at the same time, in the same color -- making a maximum impact. Just a few daffodils look lonely, and a clump of mixed colors and cultivars looks chaotic.

In the next section, we'll give you some great times for planting and caring for bulbs.



Caring for Planting Bulbs in Your Garden

Being attentive to your planting bulbs' needs can ensure they grow strong.
Cutting a lily stem prevents stem rot.

Bulbs are unique plants that require a few special gardening approaches. The following tips will help you grow healthy, beautiful flowers:

Feeding and Separating

  • Soak fall-planted bulbs for 12 hours in warm water before planting. This moisturizing method works with tunicate-type bulbs (neatly enclosed round or teardrop-shaped bulbs) and is not suitable for lily or other bulbs with loose, fleshy scales. Soaking allows suitable bulbs to absorb enough water to begin growth immediately, saving two or three weeks of time. This is particularly helpful in northern climates, where early-arriving winter weather limits leisurely rooting.
  • Divide or fertilize crowded daffodils to increase their bloom. Daffodils that have multiplied to form a large clump may have depleted the soil nutrients and riddled all the rooting space in the process. The result may be plenty of green leaves but few or no flowers. The solution is as easy as fertilizer or as down-to-earth as division.
  • Start by applying fertilizer. Slow-release bulb fertilizers can be used in fall for good root growth and continued effectiveness in early spring. Or you can use an all-purpose, balanced fertilizer when growth begins in the spring.
  • To divide daffodils, dig up the bulbs as the foliage fades. Separate old and new bulbs, refresh the soil with organic matter, and replant with generous spacing.

Pruning for New Plants

  • Remove the bulbils from the stems of lilies and plant them to make new plants. These bulbils, or secondary bulbs, look like small, dark berries but contain no seeds at all. They are similar to miniature bulbs and have the ability to sprout into new plants. Give them a chance, and watch them grow.
  • Cut lily stems to the ground in fall to avoid stem rot. It's better to be safe than sorry!
  • Leave bulb foliage loose to ripen properly. Cutting off the foliage before it yellows severs bulbs' food supply and weakens them. Putting daffodils in bondage by tying up their leaves also reduces food production and makes them more prone to disease attack. Taking care of bulb foliage, even though the bloom is gone, helps ensure more flowers in the years to come.
  • Cut the tall, spent stems of tulip flowers down to the first leaf. This removes the old flower, an important task called deadheading. It also leaves the attractive broad foliage to ripen in the garden as nature intended.

Storing Tender Bulbs

  • Store tender bulbs in vermiculite or peat to keep them from drying out. These materials are a packing cushion and more. They help keep the bulbs from drying out and rotting. Peat moss, which is naturally disease-resistant, is particularly good for this job.
  • Dig the bulbs when the soil is relatively dry so they won't emerge caked with mud. Gently brush off any extra soil, and remove any old vegetation. Throw out any damaged bulbs.

In the final section, we'll talk about avoiding rodents and disease when growing bulbs.



Avoiding Disease and Rodents

Whether you're planting tender bulbs or hardy bulbs, beware of pests and plague!
Plant bulbs in well-drained soil.
Plant bulbs in well-drained soil.

Rodents and disease can pose challenges to the home gardener. The following tips will help you prevent disease and rodents from harming the bulbs in your garden:

  • Make intensive bulb plantings work smoothly by discouraging competition or disease spread. Use only well-drained soil for bulbs. In wet soils, bulbs will rot. Plan to fertilize in the fall with a product formulated for bulbs so they won't have to compete for nutrients. Water during spring while bulbs are actively growing, but allow the soil to dry out in summer, when they are dormant.
  • Plant tulips 8 to 10 inches deep to prolong their life and protect them from rodents. When set deep, tulip bulbs are slower to split and stop flowering. They also take some serious digging to be reached by rodents. It's a win-win situation.
  • Discourage rodents from eating crocuses and other bulbs by planting them in fine-mesh or chicken wire baskets. If animals can't dig the bulbs out, they can't eat them. Wire cages also help prevent accidental human damage with shovels and hoes.
  • Add liquid rodent repellent to bulb-soaking water (at the lowest recommended concentration) to make the treated bulbs unappetizing to rodents. Bitter-tasting rodent repellent is absorbed by the bulbs, which then become unattractive to mice, chipmunks, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, and most other animals. It's particularly helpful for crocuses and other edible, shallowly planted bulbs that are easily unearthed and eaten by passing critters.

Want more gardening tips? Try:

  • Gardening Tips: Learn great helpful hints for all of your gardening needs.
  • Annuals: Plant these beauties in your garden.
  • Perennials: Choose great plants that will return year after year.
  • Gardening: Discover how to garden.