7 Things You Need to Know About Planting Bulbs


Submitted a year ago
Created by
Henry Homeyer

The How, When and Where

When can I plant?  When the soil drops to 55 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit at proper planting depth, you can plant bulbs. You’ll need a soil thermometer, but that’s a handy device anyway – they’re useful in the spring to see if the soil is warm enough to plant tomatoes or eggplants without making them recoil in shock like a skinny sixth grader wading into a chilly pond. According to some experts, you can plant for 8 weeks after the first frost. Once I shoveled snow of a bed in November to plant, and they did fine. 

A soil thermometer is a good investment

Soil thermometers are similar to the probes sold for testing turkey temperatures in the oven. A steel probe with a dial on top. You just poke it into the soil and wait a moment. Sometimes I put a pieces of tape at different locations: 3 inches for crocus, 6 inches for daffodils, 8 inches for tulips. Then I can easily see the temperature without digging. They are available at garden centers, or on-line.

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Why sixty degrees? In soil warmer than that, your bulbs may sprout, thinking it’s spring. That’s not lethal, but not desirable. You do want the soil warm enough so that the bulbs will establish roots now, getting them ready for action in spring and holding them in place against frost heaves. 

I tested the soil in a few places recently to see if it’s ready to plant. In full sun in my vegetable garden, the soil was slightly above 60 degrees, but in a shady flower bed the soil was in the high fifties. And down 8 inches it was 4 or 5 degrees cooler. I’ll plant crocus later, as the soil at crocus depth (3 inches) is warmer than deep down.

What about planting in the lawn?  I bought my house 47 years ago, and I’ve been planting bulbs – lots of bulbs - most years ever since. Most places suitable for bulbs, have bulbs. So this year I shall plant some in the lawn. Not daffodils, as the foliage can’t be cut back until July, and that would keep the lawn looking unkempt. But I could plant small bulbs like crocus, snowdrops or scilla. Their foliage dies back early enough that I’ll be able to mow the lawn when needed without compromising the bulbs. I’ll plant them by poking holes in the lawn with my CobraHead weeder (www.CobraHead.com).

Scilla (the blue ones) and snowdrops (the white ones) are fine to plant in the lawn

How can you get that random look? Some years ago I was visiting a garden in Wales. The gardener had a bucket of tennis balls, and was tossing them onto the lawn. “What in the world are you doing,” I asked. He explained that he wanted to plant bulbs in a random pattern. Wherever a ball landed, he planted a bulb. Maybe I’ll try that.

I like to consider tulips as annuals. For me they come back in year two at a rate of about 50 percent of year one, and year 3 is usually about 50 percent of that. So in general I buy 100 tulips, plant them all in the vegetable garden, and enjoy a big burst of color. I cut most and use in the house, or as gifts. I plant right over them after they bloom, not worrying at all if they survive. A few will pop up in the lettuce the following year.

I consider tulips as annuals

 What about critters? Daffodils are not attractive to rodents or deer as bulbs or as flowers. In fact, they are vaguely poisonous. But tulips are tasty to critters. Last year I planted a few cloves of garlic in with my tulips to repel rodents. I don’t generally have trouble with deer – I have a ferocious corgi who scares them off. They think she is a wolf, I suppose.

If you have deer problems, you probably will want to plant tulips in big swaths and then surround them with a temporary fence before they bloom. Even a 4-foot chicken wire fence should deter them, I think. There are repellents, of course, but I’ve never used any with tulips.

How many bulbs should I plant? I have 3 books in my personal library about bulbs. All say to plant tulips and daffies 6 inches apart. I don’t. It uses too much space. I plant them three inches apart, and they do fine. One bulb catalog tells me to plant 5 tulips or daffodils per square foot, or 15 scilla or 9 crocus. That seems reasonable.

I plant bulbs close together for maximum visual impact.

Do  I need full sun? There are two keys to success when planting most spring-blooming bulbs: First, plant in full sun. Yes, in principle, you can plant daffodils in the woods if there are no evergreens and they will get enough energy from the sun before the maples leaf out. But they will do better in a sunny border. Root competition from trees diminishes their vigor.

Is soil important? Always plant bulbs in soil with good drainage. Soggy soil is a death knell to most bulbs. If you have a heavy clay soil that holds water, plant your bulbs on a slope. Toss away half the soil you dig out and mix a light, fluffy compost with the other half. Dig deeper than needed, and fill with that same fluffy mix.

Snowdrops naturalize for me, especially on a hillside.

Don’t ignore the smaller bulbs. Snowdrops on a south–facing hill will bloom as soon as the snow is gone. They seem to burn through frozen soil, coming up in February or March even here, a cold Zone 4 area.

Early crocus are a joy.

I don’t regret a penny I’ve spent on bulbs. Yes, some can be expensive. Yes, some don’t perform well. But by the end of a long New England winter I am so ready for blossoms I am willing to do almost anything (short of a deal with the devil) to get flowers blooming outdoors.

So go buy bulbs now. Later, when it’s time to plant, the best ones will be sold out. Start at your local garden center and look on-line for a few fancy things. Do this every year, and you’ll be delighted!

Is it okay to prune shrubs now? Learn which ones can be pruned by clicking here

Want help in your garden? I make house calls - consultations - to help you plan and improve your gardens. Call me at 603-543-1307 or e-mail me at henry.homeyer@comcast.net 

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