From formal flower beds to carefree cottage gardens and wildflower fields, adding spring-flowering bulbs to your design can take your landscape to greater heights. Whether you are planning to plant a great swath of scented hyacinth or small smattering of dainty daffodils, here are a few essential gardening tips and tricks to ensure spring bulb success. 

 

When should I start my bulb garden?

If you want a show-stopping spring bulb garden, the time to design and dream up your ideal landscape is late summer into fall! For most climates in the U.S, bulbs like tulips, hyacinth and daffodils should be planted in the mid to late fall, where they stay nestled in the ground all winter, coming to life in the spring, bursting with fabulous color and fragrance! 

 

When is the best time to buy bulbs?

Spring-flowering bulbs will typically be released for sale in summertime. This is an ideal time to start dreaming up ideas and do some research on varieties. For example, determining whether your tulips will bloom early, mid or late season will help you to plan your bloom times in harmony with the opening of other plants. Figuring out what height the plants will reach at maturity will help you to decide whether to plant your bulbs in the background or foreground of bed designs. 

Fruit cocktail tulip blooms

Fruit Cocktail tulip

What is the best time to plant?

You can start to prepare the planting bed any time from late summer to fall; the bed prepping process typically  includes clearing garden space, double digging the soil and amending with well-rotted compost to provide that rich, well-drained soil that bulbs love. Just don’t put those bulbs in the ground until the hot weather has tapered off and the soil has cooled or even experienced a frost, otherwise you risk the plants sprouting in fall and dying off in winter. For many gardeners, the ideal planting time is October-November. 

 

Timing for Southern Gardeners:  Spring-flowering bulbs mostly hail from regions with a cold winter, so they will require consistently cool winter weather in order to grow and bloom correctly. This means that southern gardeners in USDA zones 7 and warmer will have to add one extra step to their spring bulb planting process: vernalization. This is just a fancy term for when gardeners trick bulbs into thinking that they have just experienced winter. Place your bulbs in the refrigerator for a few months to mimic a northern winter; then pull the bulbs from the fridge and plant in late winter to early spring. Southern gardeners should also remember to plant in an area with a bit of shade, preferably avoiding harsh afternoon sun.  


Hyacinth blooms in pink, white, blue and yellow

Gipsy Queen hyacinth

How do I design a bulb garden?

The design possibilities for spring-flowering bulbs are seemingly limitless. In April 2016, Baker Creek visited the Bollenstreek, or flower bulb region, in the Netherlands.  This trip brought us to the Keukenhof in Lisse, which is one of the world's largest flower gardens, with over 7 million tulip bulbs planted each year.  We were astounded by the brilliant design ideas and creative combinations of color and form. We also visited the trial fields of an incredibly talented and passionate bulb company, where we were introduced to the wondrous diversity of bulb varieties, from the wild tulips of antiquity to stellar new heirloom innovations. Here are a few design tips that we learned from our visit to the heart of bulb country. 

General Design Tips: The first step in designing is to compile data on the varieties that you will be using in your design. Keep a list of each variety, detailing the color, height and bloom time. With this data you can organize plantings by elements such as color or form. For example, finding a mass of pink to create a blanket of color, or accenting your design with small dabbles of the eye-catching Parrot tulip. You can sketch out your design on paper first, indicating color and height. On planting day you can arrange the bulbs in the design you are planning before setting them in the ground. 

Mass Planting: A mass planting makes a bold statement, smothering a landscape in blankets of color. Plant tulips in clusters of 15-50 or even more! At the Keukenhof we saw a “river” of muscari grape hyacinth that was arresting. Hundreds of tourists were clustered to see this magnificent river of purple blooms! 

Lasagna Planting: We learned about this design technique from the lead garden designer at the Keukenhof, Martin Ellig. Bulbs are planted together in a bed almost on top of one another at varying depths in layers, making for  beds with long seasons of blooms. This can be done both in pots or in the ground. Plant the latest flowering crops with larger sized bulbs such as alliums and late-season tulips on the very bottom layer. Next place mid-season hyacinths, tulips and daffodils in the middle layer, and then finally the earliest-flowering crops (with the smallest bulb size) like crocus at the top. This technique can be tailored to your liking and is very versatile. 

Keukenhof gardens Shutterstock photo

Keukenhof gardens (Shutterstock photo)

What flower bulb variety is right for my garden? 

Tulips: Tulips are hardy from zones 3-8.  They prefer sandy soil, and full sun to light shade (with afternoon sun). Avoid planting them in areas with standing water or soggy soil, as they need well-drained, rich soil to thrive. Tulips have a wide range of bloom times. With careful attention to timing you can enjoy an array of tulips blooming in your garden from early to late spring. While there are some varieties that are longer-lived perennials, most gardeners will find that their tulips need to be replanted each year. Tulips can range in height widely, from diminutive dwarf varieties to towering types reaching 20-30 inches tall. It is essential to keep in mind the height of the variety that you are planting, as this will determine where to place them in the design. Most varieties just produce a single stem per bloom, so they are best planted in clusters of 10 or more.  Plant tulips late in the season, ideally November, when the cooler fall temps can help to protect against fungal pathogens and hungry squirrels. Plant tulips 6-8 inches deep and 4-6 inches apart. 

 

Hyacinth: Hardy to grow year round from zones 3-8, hyacinths also prefer rich, well-drained, sandy soil and full sun. Each bulb produces a single stem and bloom. Plant in clusters of 10 or more, as they look best planted en masse! Beware that hyacinth bulbs contain oxalic acid and can potentially cause a minor rash on your hands, so be sure to wear gloves. Plant bulbs 4 inches deep and 3 inches apart. Plant in fall, just before the first hard frost. 

 

Daffodil: Hardy in most regions of the U.S., except the southernmost part of Florida. Daffodils are an easy-to-grow perennial; they prefer rich sandy soil and full sun to part shade but are considered more adaptable and tolerant than other bulbs. Each bulb will produce a tuft of foliage and many stems with blooms. Plant a few together for a nice effect. Daffodils should be planted 6 inches deep and 3-6 inches apart. Plant in fall, just before the first hard frost. 

 

Learn more about the fascinating history of tulips!