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Plant Flower Bulbs Now for a Blast of Spring Color

A little advance planning can translate into gorgeous springtime blossoms

Tulips
GETTY IMAGES

When flower bulbs bloom, they can be showy, brilliant and bright, serving as the antidote for many gardeners suffering through the winter doldrums.

But it takes a bit of thinking ahead to plant bulbs before the frost, and some patience to wait for them to poke their green stalks out of the cold ground months later. The payoff is that spring riot of color as they bloom from February into June, often before perennials and grasses.

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Avid gardeners like Jim Jonker, 72, of Holland, Michigan, appreciate the “delayed gratification” of flower bulb planting. 

“You plunk them in, and then you wait. You think about something else all winter, and then all of a sudden in the spring — boom! — there they are,” he says. “It’s very rewarding.” 

Choose the right bulbs for your space

Most true bulbs — tulips, irises and daffodils — require six hours of sun per day to thrive, return the following year and can be incorporated without detracting from a landscape design or stealing nutrition from other plants.

When planting, make sure to choose a sunny spot. Some bulbs, particularly native ones like Virginia bluebells or camassia, spring beauty, and trout lily, can be situated in partly shady areas as long as they get enough sun to recharge before trees get their leaves. 

Look for bulbs that are firm, with no signs of mold or rotting, and plan to plant six weeks before the first freeze in your area to give the roots time to establish.

If you need to purchase bulbs earlier, store them in the refrigerator to keep them fresh. If the ground doesn’t freeze where you live, you can give bulbs a dose of cold by refrigerating for eight to 10 weeks and then planting. But avoid storing bulbs with fruit that emits gases, such as apples, which can cause rot. When planting, look for spots with good drainage and give bulbs a soaking when first planted, but don’t water after that.

Jonker recommends planting bulbs in pots at least 6 to 8 inches in diameter. Plant them, water them and store them in an unheated garage (or your refrigerator) for at least 12 weeks.

“In the spring, take them out and put them in the sun, and you can have beautiful tulips or daffodils anywhere,” says Jonker, the former owner of Jonker’s Garden in Holland, Michigan. You can also plant them in elevated planters, raised beds or in window boxes. 

Daffodil
The Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek planted more than 80,000 bulbs last year.
Raymond Bojarski for the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek

Go for a more natural look

Stephen Pryce Lea, the director of horticulture at the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek in Dagsboro, Delaware, wanted to give visitors more early season colors in the mainly native Meadow Garden, designed by the renowned Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, who also created the plan for New York City’s High Line.

Last November, with Oudolf’s approval, volunteers planted 80,000 bulbs in the Meadow Garden, including eight crocus varieties and nine tulip varieties, along with scilla (a low-growing lily) and muscari (grape hyacinth). With Pryce Lea’s direction, volunteers followed the line of native grasses and perennials, which flourish later and will hide the spent bulbs.

“The bulbs have really bridged that gap for us,” says Pryce Lea. “We have eight weeks of succession, from the crocus right through to the species tulip.” 

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Species tulips — which grow low to the ground, unlike the more recognizable tall, showy tulips — and some bulbs like daffodils multiply year after year and provide a more natural look in the Meadow Garden. These bulbs “will clump up and give you a really nice show early on in the spring,” Pryce Lea says. 

In your own garden, avoid the “toy soldier syndrome,” Jonker says, and plant in irregular drifts or clusters of six to 12 bulbs of the same color for greater impact. Or plant bulbs in layers, a design the Dutch call “flower bulb lasagna.” Also known as double-decker planting, this technique involves planting different types of bulbs in the same spot at varying depths. Plant smaller species, like crocus and scilla, at a shallower depth over the deeper tulip and daffodil bulbs. 

Plant with the pointed side of the bulb up and the roots down. If you can’t tell which is which, plant the bulb sideways. The rule of thumb is to plant a bulb at two to three times its height. Interspersing grape hyacinths among other bulbs, says Pryce Lea, may discourage deer and some pests. Other experts recommend placing chicken wire, mesh or mulch over the bulbs for protection. 

Pryce Lea cautions against cutting back the leaves after blooming because that’s how the plants gather their energy for the next year.

And they need that energy to continue using their bright colors to usher in spring. It’s something that Rudianto “Rudy” Tanumihardja, 83, looks forward to annually.

Having grown up in Indonesia and spent time living in Singapore, Tanumihardja, 83, had never encountered tulip bulbs before moving to Seattle when he retired. “They were very exotic for me,” he says. 

Tanumihardja has planted tulips as well as irises, daffodils and grape hyacinths in his 5,000-square-foot garden. He and his wife, Juliana Suparman, 72, who was a florist in Singapore, enjoy touring the nearby Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in April. “It really is amazing to me,” he says. “I don’t need to go to Holland.” 

Planting Bulbs
Getty Images

Tools for Easier Planting

If you’re planning on planting a lot of bulbs, be ready to do some digging. But there are some tools that can make the task a little easier. 

“The first thing I recommend is using a kneeler,” says Lindsay Miller, a horticultural writer for Gardener’s Supply Company, based in Vermont. 

Most varieties are lightweight, easily portable and cushioned for comfort. Some feature a movable surface so they convert into a bench. The company also just released a lightweight “wicked big dibber” tool for planting bulbs and seeds at precise depths; it includes a measuring gasket and is “great for people who are interested in no-till gardening to avoid disturbing the nearby roots and soil layers,” Miller says.

Using long-handled bulb planters, such as the ProPlugger, will enable you to plant from a standing position and use your leg strength. These tools have nonslip grips and require stepping on the tool for leverage. Working with a partner who drops the bulbs in as you dig can double your efficiency.

Seasoned gardener Jim Jonker of Holland, Michigan, uses a planting augur that he attaches to a cordless drill to make 3-inch-diameter holes. The Delaware Botanic Gardens offers a variety of planting tools for volunteers to do their digging, says director of horticulture Stephen Pryce Lea. This includes garden knives and trowels with teeth to insure that “volunteers with differing types of abilities can get involved in planting bulbs,” he says​.