Gardenwise: Fall For Bulbs

An assortment of tulips brightens this garden in late spring.
An assortment of tulips brightens this garden in late spring.

Gardenwise: Fall For Bulbs

by Susan Tito

Spring is coming.

Lest you think I’ve just awoken from bear-like hibernation into a state of confusion, I assure you that I’m well aware of the time of year. Dwindling daylight, bronzing foliage and a nip in the air tell me it’s time to plant spring-flowering bulbs.

And, oh yeah, it’s autumn.

Dazzled by daffodils? Head over heels for hyacinth? Those are just two of many favorite springtime blooms that start out as fleshy, squat protuberances called bulbs. They may not look like much, but these storehouses of energy are nothing short of miraculous.

Once planted deeply into the soil, bulbs will transform — resurrect, if you will — into the familiar plants we know and love, assuming we follow some basic protocols, such as not removing foliage until it has withered. Why? Through photosynthesis, the plant’s leaves feed the bulbs for next year’s blooms.

In general, bulbs have a very forgiving nature. They should be planted pointed ends up, but oftentimes those that are accidentally planted sideways or even upside down manage to send out a stem that somehow finds its way to the surface.

One of the best things about them is that they extend the growing season. With few exceptions, bulbs are among the first plants to bloom in the garden — some starting in late winter. And although they are not the focus of this column, there are bulbs that bloom in the summer and fall.

Because of their versatility, bulbs play an important role in the landscape. “They add an extra layer of interest to your garden composition,” said Marta McDowell, who teaches a class on bulbs at the New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York. “I like to think of them like spice in a recipe — that extra ingredient that makes the whole thing come together.”

Many people think of bulbs as the spring triumvirate of daffodil, hyacinth and tulip, but there are many more types gardeners should consider, such as crocus, squill and woodland anemone.

“There are hundreds of types of bulbs for every situation,” said Ms. McDowell.

At the garden center, choose bulbs that are firm, avoiding any that are spongy or desiccated. Research site conditions and choose the best location on your property. Although most bulbs prefer full sun, their bloom time might occur long before trees leaf out, so they might be fine planted underneath deciduous trees or in woodland conditions.

Be mindful of wildlife, such as squirrels, that may consider your plants a tasty treat. Research what you can do to protect your bulbs — you might have to plant them in a cage, for example — or select daffodils, which contain toxic alkaloids and are critter-proof.

Make sure to choose a well-draining spot, as wet soil is a death sentence for many bulbs and they will rot, especially during their dormant time in the summer. For best effect, plant in large clumps or drifts and you will be rewarded with a show-stopping pop of color in the spring.

Daffodils, tulips and hyacinth should be planted about six inches deep, while smaller bulbs such as crocus and glory of the snow require just three or four inches. You can use a garden trowel or shovel to make your holes but I prefer a bulb planter, a handy tool available at most garden centers or online.

Before you drop in your bulbs, mix some bone meal into the bottom of the hole. This will encourage the bulbs to put down strong roots, which are the foundation for a healthy plant. Replace the soil on top of the bulbs, water and you’re on your way to a beautiful spring!

Even though I like the instant gratification of going to a garden center and coming home with bulbs that are ready to plant, I prefer mail order. Companies such as McClure and Zimmerman and Old House Gardens offer many heirloom and rare varieties that you won’t find locally, along with indispensable cultivation information. Other reputable mail order sources are Breck’s, Brent and Becky’s and Van Engelen, to name a few.

What happens if you bought a lot of bulbs but just can’t get around to planting them this month or next? No worries. As long as the soil isn’t frozen and you can dig a hole, you can plant them. But don’t wait too long…

Winter is coming.

Susan Tito
Susan Tito

Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting ( She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Writers Association. She can be reached at

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