These beginner tips show how to plant flower bulbs in fall including tulips, daffodils, snowdrops, hyacinth, and more for beautiful blooms in spring.
Looking for bulb options? See 20 Flowering Bulbs to Plant in Fall.
Planting Bulbs in Fall
Once you have selected some of your favorite 20 Flower Bulbs to Plant in Fall, it’s time to prepare for planting.
For fall-planted bulbs, we need to know:
- When to plant (soil temperature and timing in relation to first frosts)
- Where to plant (preferred soil, water, and light conditions)
- How to plant (soil depth)
These are all explained in the tips (below).
The reason we plant bulbs like tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, crocus, and snowdrops in autumn is because these cold-hardy bulbs need a period of dormancy during the winter to provide flowers in spring. Without that cold chill, they may not have what it takes to grow and bloom.
Your bulb packets should say how many weeks or months of cold they need in the ground for successful planting.
For many of us, bulb planting is a simple task. Pick a fine fall day, dig a hole deep enough to bury the bulbs, toss them in, cover them with soil and call it a day. And that often works. Plus, it may also be the only way it gets done if you’re short on time or have a lot of bulbs to plant.
But it’s helpful to know this casual approach to bulb planting works because the basic conditions needed happen to be met. It’s not green thumb versus brown thumb. It’s good circumstances.
If you’ve had trouble with bulbs in the past, you may want to be more intentional and use the tips listed below to be sure you are providing what they need.
Where I am in Ontario, Canada (hardiness zone 6), optimum planting time is from mid-September through October, when various natural signs and signals like leaf drop tell us it’s time, prior to first frosts in late October or November.
Practically speaking, you must get it done before the ground freezes when digging is impossible. So, once most trees are losing their leaves, get those bulbs out and start planting.
Top Tips for Planting Bulbs in Fall
1Start With Healthy Bulbs
How can tell if flower bulbs are still good?
If possible, examine the bulbs before you buy or plant them.
Are they firm and dry? Healthy looking? Free of mushy spots, mold, or bruises? Good! If not, choose others.
If you have received unhealthy bulbs by mail order, contact the company and exchange or return them.
Some people ask about the papery skins that peel and come off. That’s fine! It’s a natural protective layer but they will come off over time. Just don’t force them.
2Plant at the Right Time
Best Soil Temperature for Bulb Planting
In general, the optimum time to plant bulbs in fall is when the soil temperature is 60°F (16°C) or cooler but before first frost.
If you want to check soil temperatures, use a kitchen thermometer, and check the soil at planting depth. Measure at different hours of the day over several days to get the average. There is more on checking soil temperatures here.
If you don’t want to take your soil’s temperature, find out your average first frost date (you can look it up here) and be sure to get them planted at least two weeks earlier.
Many bulbs need 16 to 18 weeks of cold temperatures to produce blooms the following spring or summer. Missing this dormancy period is one of several reasons our bulbs may not bloom.
In addition to planting in the ground, you can also grow bulbs in containers. See Tip 4 for more.
3Plant in the Right Place
Depth and Location
Just as for other plants, the location in your garden and how deeply you plant the bulbs both matter.
I mentioned how many gardeners casually bury bulbs in the ground and call it a day, and that’s great if conditions happen to be right, but it won’t go so smoothly if your bulbs are planted too deeply, get limited sunlight in spring, or find themselves soaking in a boggy area.
All bulbs need well-draining soil to prevent rot, and some like tulips do best with full sun while bulbs are fine with part sun. You can use this easy test to check your soil’s drainage.
To get it right, check your product labels for planting instructions.
Wrong location? Yes, You Can Transplant Flower Bulbs.
What if I don’t have a plant tag or label?
If you know what the bulb is (tulip or whatever), look it up. Otherwise, here are some tips.
In general, bulbs should be planted at twice the depth as the bulb is tall.
If your flower bulb is approximately 3-inches tall, you would dig 6-inches deep in the soil for planting.
You will find all sorts of advice on best planting depths—much of it contradictory—but this is my best guesstimate.
If your climate is colder (zone 5 or lower), you can also insulate everything with a few inches of mulch on top until things warm up in spring.
4Know Thy Bottom from Thy Top
Each bulb has a top and bottom. On some, it is more obvious than others. The top is often somewhat pointy. The bottom is flatter and there may be fine roots already there.
When planting, the bottom sits on the soil and the top faces up.
If your bulbs are not making this obvious, don’t sweat it. They will still grow and bloom when planted upside-down: it just requires a little extra growth to get turned around.
TIP: Be sure to mark your planting locations with plant markers or rods so you don’t accidentally dig them up during spring planting.
And put the markers in before the bulbs so you don’t accidentally pierce them.
This shows how to make long-lasting plant markers
that do not fade and can stay in the garden year-round.
5Plant in Containers (Optional)
I consider planting bulbs in containers an insurance policy of sorts. While I cannot completely stop wildlife from digging up bulbs in the ground, I can usually keep them from getting into containers.
If you do plan to use containers, there are a few extra steps needed.
- Have a winter storage space ready where you can keep the container accessible (for monthly checkups). The temperature should be just above freezing.
- Choose a container wide and deep enough to accommodate the bulbs you have chosen (read your label) and make sure it has drainage holes.
- Use container potting mix.
- Water at planting time and cover with hardware cloth (fine wire mesh) to keep critters including mice out. I put a brick on top to secure it.
- Store in a garage or shed with insulation around the pot to prevent freezing. I use old blankets, old coats, bubble wrap, foam, or whatever I have on hand.
- Set a reminder on your phone to check on the pots monthly.
Bulb Layering Tip for Extra Beauty
For a single growing season, consider layering bulbs in a container.
- Plant from largest to smallest working from the bottom up.
- This will provide continuous blooms and a lovely array of flowers.
- After the foliage has died off, dig up, dry, and store the bulbs for future planting.
Spring Care for Potted Bulbs
In spring, the containers are re-introduced to light, warmer temperatures, and watered so the plants can grow and bloom. These tips on overwintering potted trees follow the same steps.
Generally speaking (again), when temperatures hover around 60°F (15°C), it’s time to wake up the bulb containers from storage.
You can also force bulbs indoors using these instructions.
No. It’s not needed for outdoor planting. Bulbs have tiny roots at the base and the idea behind pre-soaking is that perhaps the roots should be hydrated before planting. But, when planting in fall, there should be adequate moisture in the soil to provide what the bulbs need. If your soil is really dry at planting time, you can always water the soil after planting.
While it’s best to get them in the ground a few weeks before frosts, so long as the ground is not frozen you can still do it. Just be sure for the type of bulb you are growing that there is enough winter chill time to give it the dormancy period it needs. This time (listed in weeks or months) should be noted on the product packaging.
Bulbs should be firm, healthy-looking, free of mold, mushy spots, or bruises. It is normal for the paper-like skins to be peeling off.
Yes. Leftover bulbs should be dry (but not dried out) and can be stored in a cool (above freezing), dark location like a fridge until next planting time.
Whether on not bulbs grow perennially, flowering year after year, will depend on several things including the type of bulb, how old it is, and your growing conditions. Many types of flowering bulbs provide several years of blooms or more, either by blooming repeatedly or multiplying into new plants. Some, like alliums, may need replacing every couple of years.
No. You often see fertilizers sold with bulbs but it’s really not necessary. Bulbs already have the energy to produce leaves and blooms. And too much nutrition in the soil can be a problem.
Colchicum, fall crocus, and cyclamen are three options. They can be planted in summer for flowers the same year.
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~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛