Plant Bulbs in Fall for Spring Flowers

By Melinda Myers - horticulturist and gardening expert
September 17, 2022

Fall and early winter are the time to plant tulips, daffodils, and other spring flowering bulbs. They spend winter in the garden where they receive the needed chill.  As harsh winter weather fades the bulbs begin to sprout. Soon they flower providing welcome color after a long winter and signal the start of another garden season.

Each fall I look for new places to include them in my gardens. Their flowers lift my spirits by filling my spring gardens with color before the weeds begin sprouting and need my attention.

Order your bulbs early for the greatest selection. Mail-order bulb companies carry the most popular as well as some of the harder-to-find bulbs. Many of these companies take orders in spring when the bulbs are flowering and we are inspired to add more to our gardens. They continue to promote and sell in summer and fall. These companies ship the bulbs to you when it is time to plant them in your area.

Check with your favorite local garden center starting in late summer and early fall when most begin selling fall-planted bulbs. Consider purchasing the bulbs as soon as they are available and store them in a cool dark location until it is time to plant.

Right Bulbs for Your Garden

Tulips, hyacinths, and most hardy lilies prefer sunny locations. Grow tulips and hyacinths in areas that receive lots of sunlight during spring when they are actively growing and flowering. Save a few sunny spots for summer-blooming hardy lilies.

variety of daffodils

Variety of Daffodils

Daffodils, grape hyacinths, winter aconites, and snowdrops are some of the more shade-tolerant spring flowering bulbs. Martagon lilies are more shade tolerant than most other hardy lilies.

Reduce frustration and the risk of animal damage by growing critter-resistant bulbs like daffodils, fritillaria, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, and alliums. I have lots of wildlife visiting my garden but still have a wonderful spring flowering bulb display thanks to these animal-resistant bulbs.

All these bulbs thrive in moist well-drained soil. Adding compost, peat moss, or other organic matter into the top twelve inches of soil prior to planting will improve drainage and increase your success.

Those gardening in areas with mild winters need to purchase low chill or pre-chilled bulbs. Your local garden center will sell what is appropriate for the area and bulb companies will label them as such.

Or give bulbs the needed cold treatment yourself. Leave the bulbs in their original mesh bag or place them in a paper bag in the lowest part of the refrigerator. Do not store these bulbs in the drawer with apples and pears. The fruit gives off ethylene which can result in poor flowering in the spring.  Be sure to label the bulbs so no one tries to eat them.  Plant these in early winter and treat them like annuals replacing them each winter.

Get Creative with Bulbs in Your Garden

Look for new ways to include bulbs in your landscape. Plant a wide ribbon of blue grape hyacinths to create the illusion of a river in your spring landscape.

Fill the front lawn with shorter bulbs for added color. Just wait until they are done blooming to mow the grass at its highest possible setting. Squirrel-resistant little Tommies (Crocus tommasinianus) work well in this situation. Once bulbs are added to the lawn they are nearly impossible to remove without damaging the lawn.

tommie flower fall bulb

Little Tommies

Combine bulbs to double the impact or extend their flowering beauty. I was lucky enough to visit Keukenhof Gardens in Holland where I was inspired by so many beautiful combinations. Try combining equally assertive daffodils and grape hyacinths or ground-hugging Grecian windflowers for a double layer of color. Plant tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths together to create a striking display.  Plus, if the animals do munch on the tulips you still have the pretty hyacinths and daffodils to enjoy.

Plant bulbs among perennials to help mask the bulb’s declining foliage. Leave the bulb’s leaves intact for at least 8 weeks after flowering or better yet until they yellow and dry. During that time the leaves create energy that is stored in the bulbs for next year’s spring flower display.

Plant daffodil bulbs among your daylilies. The daffodil leaves last for months but can easily be camouflaged by the daylily leaves that resemble those of the daffodils.

Extend Bloom Time with a Variety of Bulbs

Use a variety of bulbs with various bloom times to fill your landscape with color from early spring into summer. Use this Bloom Time Chart to help plan months of color in your garden.

Jumpstart the season with small-scale, early-blooming bulbs. Most of us are familiar with crocus, but there are many more to help kick off the growing season. Dainty snowdrops are at home in the garden or wooded areas and are one of the first to appear. Winter aconites bloom around the same time adding a welcome splash of yellow to the landscape. Include some netted iris (Iris reticulata) for a bit of blue and white in the spring garden.

Plant these and other small (minor) bulbs in groupings of 12 or more for greater impact in the landscape. Most will spread quickly, creating splashes of early season color.

Keep the color coming with mid-season bloomers. Include some early, mid, and late blooming daffodils and tulips for a long season of flowers to enjoy in the garden and spring bouquets.

Don’t forget about fragrance. Perfume your garden with an array of white, red, purple, blue, or pink hyacinths. These combine well with daffodils and mid-season tulips.

hyacinths and tulips

Tulips & Hyacinths

Add a unique flare to any garden with checkered lilies (Fritillaria meleagris). The nodding bell-shaped flowers have an interesting design in cream, lavender, purple, and burgundy. Or go big and exotic with crown imperials (Fritillarias). The large yellow or orange bell-shaped flowers are topped with a tuft of greenery and stand 2 to 3 feet tall. The crown imperial flowers are long-lasting and deer resistant.

As mid-spring fades add some pizzaz with mid to late-spring blooming anemones. You’ll find single and double-flowered varieties in white, pink, purple, red, and hot pink. Like many bulbs they provide nectar for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators visiting your spring gardens.

Continue the tulip display with late spring bloomers. Include some of the unique shaped tulip flowers like fringed, parrot, and lily as well as other single and double late blooming varieties.

Brighten the shade with the sky blue, white, and pink Spanish Bluebells (Scilla hyacinthoides) also known as wood hyacinths. Their dangling clusters of bell-shaped flowers adorn 12 to 15” tall plants.

But don’t stop there. Add some bold beauty with alliums that provide a colorful bridge between spring bulbs and early summer perennials. And of course, the summer flowering hardy lilies add elegance, vertical interest, and flowers to the summer garden.

How to Plant Bulbs in Fall

Wait to plant your bulbs until night temperatures are consistently in the 40’s and 50’s. Planting too early can result in bulbs sprouting in the fall and being injured over winter. You can keep planting until the ground freezes. I must admit that some years I have had to break through the frosty soil surface to finish planting some of my bulbs. It was not the most pleasant experience but the bulbs were fine and bloomed the following spring.

hands planting bulbs

Plant bulbs 2 to 3 times their vertical height deep in properly prepared soil. Check the label for proper spacing. Add a Milorganite to the soil at planting. This slow-release fertilizer provides all the needed nutrients. The phosphorus in Milorganite supports root growth and flowering and the low nitrogen will not encourage leaf growth in fall that can be damaged over winter.

Forcing Bulbs to Flower

Buy a few extra bulbs to force into flower to enjoy indoors or outdoors in containers on patios and decks. The bulbs need 15 weeks of temperatures between 35 and 45 degrees to initiate flowering in spring. 

Use a container with drainage holes that is deep enough to accommodate your largest bulbs.  Fill the bottom of the container with a well-drained potting mix.  Place larger bulbs like tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths in the lower level.  The tallest bulbs should go in the center surrounded by shorter varieties.  Place tulips with the flat side of the bulb facing the pot for a better display.

woman planting flower bulbs in container

Cover these bulbs with soil and add the smaller bulbs like squills, grape hyacinths, and crocus to the next level if space allows.  Plant the bulbs close to each other, covering the surface for greater impact. Cover this layer of bulbs with soil.

Water until the extra runs out of the drainage holes. Move the pot to a cool location with temperatures between 35 to 45 degrees, for at least 15 weeks.  Those in colder climates can move the pot of bulbs to an unheated garage or sink the pot into a vacant spot in the garden for the needed chill. Mulch the pots placed in the ground once the soil begins to freeze. Straw or evergreen boughs help keep the soil consistently cool and the winter mulch makes it easier to lift the pots out of the soil in early spring.

Or place the bulbs in their mesh bag or once planted in a container in a spare refrigerator for the needed chill. Be sure they are kept away from apples and pears that give off ethylene that can interfere with flowering.

Water the containers whenever the soil is thawed and dry.  Or sink the container into a vacant garden space in your landscape. 

Once the bulbs receive the needed chill they can be moved out of winter storage. Move them outdoors for added spring color or to a cool bright spot indoors.  Water as needed and watch for leaves for flowers to appear in about 4 weeks.

Make this the year you find new spots to add colorful bulbs to the landscape and force a few to enjoy indoors. You’ll be glad you invested some time and effort now when those first flowers appear next spring.