There’s more to fall gardening than just raking leaves. It’s also the perfect time to prepare for a gorgeous spring by planting bulbs. For the most part growing bulbs is super simple. But if you’ve ever been disappointed in your bulbs’ performance or haven’t planted them because you weren’t sure where to start, help is here.
The word “bulb” is often used to describe a plant, even when it technically grows from a corm or a tuber. To keep things simple, I’ll call them all bulbs as I share a few tips for planting bulbs this fall that will ensure success next spring. Let’s get started!
How to choose a healthy flower bulb
There are lots of bulbs at the garden center in fall but you have to be careful about which ones you bring home. A good bulb grows into a strong, healthy plant while a poor-quality one produces a spindly plant, if it grows at all. Here’s how to choose the best:
First choice bulb
- Big — it’ll give you more and bigger flowers
- Heavy — it has more stored energy
- Unblemished — it’s healthiest
Second choice bulb
- No damage, but the papery tunic may be missing
- Just a few small blemishes
- A little bit of fuzzy mold that wipes off easily
- A dry, shriveled or lightweight bulb — it’s lost moisture and won’t recover
- Soft spots — these mean rot
Bulb planting basics
Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms grew up around the mail-order bulb business her dad started in the 1950s; now she’s the CEO of both John Scheepers and Van Engelen mail-order bulb companies and has plenty of experience and advice to share:
Best place to plant bulbs
A spot with full sun that doesn’t get a lot of additional water in summer is best for most spring-blooming bulbs if you want them to return year after year. Tulips are probably the most finicky and don’t do well planted in annual beds or with thirsty perennials. Choosing the right varieties helps, though.
The best soil for bulbs is well-drained with a neutral pH — sandy loam is ideal. It allows for strong root growth and water drainage, so the bulbs don’t rot. By the way, don’t bother adding bone meal to the hole at planting time. It isn’t very nutritious, can burn or kill newly emerging roots and may even attract animals that might dig up the bulbs. Instead, apply a granular organic plant food with a 5-10-5 formula to the soil’s surface after refilling the planting hole.
Which side of the bulb is up?
Planting a bulb with the growing tip up and the flat basal plate down helps conserve energy since it doesn’t have to correct course. But sometimes it’s hard to tell which end to put where. If you’re not sure, just plant the bulb on its side and it will grow the right direction.
Best time to plant bulbs
Buy your bulbs as early as you find them in stores. But that may be too soon to plant, so keep the bulbs in a cool spot, such as a basement that stays at 55 to 65 degrees. Get bulbs in the ground in fall once soil temperatures are 55 degrees F — Jo-Anne knows the time is right when nighttime temperatures have been in the 40s for a couple of weeks. These cooler temperatures trigger a biochemical response, called “vernalization,” in the bulb that tells them to stop growing roots and settle in for the winter.