If you’ve never experienced the pleasure of watching masses of daffodils pop up in spring or waiting for dahlias to steal the show in your garden, this is the year to get started with flower bulbs.
Growing flowers from bulbs is like getting the reliability of perennial nursery plants without having to pay that premium for them. Sound like something you can get on board with? Read on as we take you through the basics of flower bulb care.
Easiest Flowers to Grow from Bulbs
Fortunately for novice gardeners, most bulbs are extremely easy to grow. You’re not likely to go wrong with any of the conventional favourites.
Nursery manager Barbara Pierson adds that “big bulbs such as daffodils, tulips, and alliums” are good bulbs for beginners because with their large size, it’s easy to tell which way is up when you go to plant them.
How to Find Flower Bulbs
As with anything related to plants, you’ll have better luck if you buy bulbs from someone who specializes in plants. Local nurseries and garden centres will be a solid bet for healthy stock. If their selection is limited or you’re looking for something more unusual, you’ll find knowledgeable nurseries who sell bulbs online, as well.
When you buy them, look for bulbs that are firm and large. Bigger is definitely better when it comes to bulbs. Try to find bulbs that have the husks intact. Avoid any that are damaged, soft, moldy or diseased.
How to Grow Flowers from Bulbs
Where to Plant
The most important thing to consider with bulb placement is drainage. Ground that’s too wet will rot your bulbs, so aim for a location that drains well. A sandy loam is ideal for bulbs, as is a neutral pH, but honestly, aside from the drainage thing, most bulbs are pretty tolerant.
Most flowers that grow from bulbs like the sun, so pick a spot that gets at least 4-6 hours of sunlight. For spring-flowering bulbs, your options might be wider since deciduous trees won’t be in leaf yet.
When to Plant
Hardy bulbs are the bulbs that are planted in the fall and bloom in spring. Hardy bulbs need to go dormant and then chill for a few months before they can flower each year. Folks in Zones 1-7 should plant spring-blooming bulbs 6-8 weeks before the ground freezes in your area.
If you live in a climate where the winters are warm, like Zones 8-11, you might need to chill your bulbs before planting. Put them in a cold, dry place or in the refrigerator for 12-15 weeks, depending on variety, then plant them when winter is coldest.
Working backwards, that means that to plant in January or February, you’ll need to start chilling bulbs in October or early November.
Tender bulbs, on the other hand, are planted in spring and bloom in summer. Summer bulbs generally go in the ground after the last frost date. In warmer climates, they can typically go into the ground in March or April, but the best date always depends on the species.
How to Plant Bulbs
Plan out how you’ll arrange your bulbs. If you’re short on space, you can plant in layers using the lasagna method. To follow this method, plant the latest-blooming bulbs deepest and the earliest-blooming bulbs above them, staggering them slightly to give the plants room to grow up.
Loosen the soil to a depth of 8-10 inches and mix in some good quality compost or mulch.
One rule of thumb is to plant a bulb 2 to 3 times as deep as the bulb is tall. For best results, though, read the package or consult a good gardening website for specific planting depths for your species.
Plant your bulbs pointy side up so the roots can grow down. If you can’t tell which side is up, put the bulb on its side.
Water the bulbs after planting. Unless it’s very dry, you won’t really need to water them again. A good organic mulch should reduce the need for artificial fertilizer. Adding nutrients to your soil through composting will also be better for your wallet and for the environment. Test the pH of your compost, though—bulbs have a preference for neutral soil.
How to Care for Bulbs After Flowering
Cut back the flower stem when the blooms are spent, if you wish, but be careful to not cut the foliage—the plant needs its leaves to grow and to store energy for the next season.
Once the leaves die back, the plant has entered dormancy. That’s the time to dig them up if they need digging up. Only tender bulbs need to be dug up in colder climates. Spring-blooming bulbs can be left in the ground. In warmer zones, spring bloomers should be dug up so they can be chilled.
How to Store Bulbs
When digging up bulbs, don’t pull them by the stem. Dig down and around them so you don’t lose track of where they are.
Once you have them, gently shake them to remove soil from the roots. Gently rinse them to clean. Let them dry for 2-3 days or longer depending on the species.
Store somewhere cool, dark and dry. Wisconsin Horticulture says that “bulbs should be held in a location with temperatures between 35 and 45°F and relative humidity of about 50%.” Keep your bulbs in paper or cardboard with some sawdust or dry peat moss to keep the bulbs from touching.
Always keep the bulbs together with their label or some identifying marker—future you will thank you.
A Few Design Tips for Bulbs
Plant your bulbs in odd-numbered groups. Think clumps rather than rows. Planting bulbs closer together will create a fuller look when the flowers bloom.
You can plant them with a design in mind, but for a more natural look, try scattering them and planting them wherever they land. Planting bulbs under trees and in your lawn also creates a wilder, more natural aesthetic.
You can experiment and find colour combinations that really pop, or plant similar hues next to each other to give the impression of a continuous swath of colour.
Pair early bloomers with later-blooming companion plants that can hide the early ones a bit as they die off.
And that’s about all there is. A bit of digging here and there—beautiful flowers everywhere.