Plant Bulbs in the Fall for a Spring Celebration

For a beautiful spring display, you should plan to plant bulbs in the fall. Find out how to select, plant, and care for bulbs in your garden.

Football season and school have started. Gardeners are harvesting their vegetables and planting their second round of cool-weather crops. These harbingers of fall are subtle reminders to plant spring bulbs now to enjoy their parade of color next spring and summer. Given the array of variety, size, color, and bloom time, bulbs add a significant return on financial and time investment to any home garden or landscape.

The term bulb is associated with a family of perennial plants formally called herbaceous geophytes. Bulbs store nourishment for the plant’s life cycle during dormant periods when the weather is either too cold or too hot for them to flower. The major types of bulbs include: true bulbs (daffodils and tulips), corms (crocus), tuberous roots (dahlias), rhizomes (iris) and stem tubers (potato).

Spring-blooming bulbs are planted in the fall, before the first frost, for an early to late spring or early summer bloom. (Summer bulbs are planted in the late spring after the last frost, typically May 31, for summer to early fall blooms. Summer bulbs are dug up and stored over the winter as they are not winter hardy like spring bulbs.)

Plant bulbs with attention to their site location and preparation, soil characteristics, and planting depth. Site selection and preparation are key to many years of successful bulb growth and flower production. Select a site that accentuates the bulbs’ best features, such as their size, color, and bloom time. Bulbs prefer full sun. Planting spring bulbs under deciduous trees takes advantage of the sunlight before the trees leaf out. Excellent soil drainage is crucial for root development and bulb rot prevention during the dormant season.

Conduct a soil test to measure soil pH and nutrients, and amend the soil based on the test’s recommendations. Bulbs prefer a soil pH between 6 and 7. Introducing organic matter, such as compost, helps stimulate and support root development in our clay soil.

Create a design that incorporates bulbs into your existing spring and summer garden beds. A solid wave or drift of flowers provides more impact from a distance as compared to a small mixture of colors and varieties. Learn about the bulbs’ bloom time, size, and color to contrast and complement spring perennials, shrubs, and trees. In general, keep kinds and colors of all bulbs together. Tall bulbs should be planted near the rear of your selected site or garden, with shorter bulbs planted towards the front.

Purchase high-quality bulbs from a reputable grower. Quality bulbs are typically larger and free from cuts or gashes. Healthy bulbs should feel firm to the touch. Bulbs are typically planted two and one-half to three times deeper than the bulb height. For example, a tulip bulb that is two inches long should be planted at a depth of five to six inches. Follow the recommended planting directions found on the bulbs’ packaging. Dig the bulb bed to the proper depth, and press bulbs into the soil with the pointed end up and the root base down. Cover with soil and approximately two to three inches of mulch. The mulch protects the bulbs over the winter by minimizing temperature fluctuations while maintaining soil moisture. In Pennsylvania, the best time to plant bulbs is September to early November, before the first frost of the season. Bulbs will have time to develop a solid root system before the ground freezes.

Once planting is complete, be patient and wait for spring. As the spring days gradually become warmer and longer, the long-awaited display of color emerges! After blooming, keep the green foliage on the bulb, which provides the bulb with much-needed nutrients for the next year’s blooming season. Water the bulbs whenever the soil is dry. If bulbs are going to be maintained in the same planting bed year after year, fertilize with a bulb-specific fertilizer. Divide bulbs when they become crowded, overgrown, or not flowering. Spring bulbs can remain in the ground year round.

The gorgeous shapes, varieties, and colors of spring bulbs make even and overcast and damp spring tolerable. As we enjoy fall harvest festivals, think about how wonderful next year’s spring blooms will be in your garden. Invest in your garden’s spring splendor by planting favorite or new bulbs in fall!


This educational blog is a series of informative articles from the Penn State Master Gardeners volunteers plus news concerning the group and their activities. For more information, click here.