How to Plant Bulbs for a Low-Maintenance, Colorful Garden

Arricca Elin Sansone
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From House Beautiful

Bulbs are a super-easy way of adding low-maintenance color to your garden. They’re almost foolproof for newbies because all you need to do is plant them. Mother Nature does the rest! The term “bulb” includes bulbs and other types of bulb-like structures including corms, tubers, and rhizomes, which all look slightly different from each other. But they all provide energy for a plant to grow and bloom in a season—and sometimes to rebloom the next year.

The most important factor is knowing when to plant your bulbs. Some, such as dahlias and gladiolus, are planted in spring for a summer show that same year. Other types of bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, need to be planted in the fall to bloom the following spring. They typically require a period of “chilling” or cold weather to flower. That means in areas with warm winters, they must be purchased “pre-chilled” from the nursery. (You can DIY the chill period, too, but it does take 2 to 4 months and steals space from your fridge).

Here’s what else you need to know about planting flowering bulbs:

Buy healthy bulbs.

Look for bulbs that are firm and have the papery outer skin intact. Skip those that are mushy or moldy. And plant them as soon as possible. If you have to store them for a few weeks before you can plant, place them somewhere dry and cool away from direct sunlight.

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Pick a sunny spot in your garden.

Most bulbs need full sun; that’s an area that gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day. Don’t forget that many areas of your garden are full sun in the spring when deciduous trees haven’t leafed out yet. Also, make sure the soil is well-drained, not soggy, because bulbs don’t like wet feet.

Choose the right time of year to plant.

Planting spring-flowering bulbs is all about delayed gratification: You plant them in fall for a show next spring. These bulbs can be put in the ground in early to late autumn before the ground freezes. Summer flowering bulbs should be planted after the danger of frost is past where you live. Check with your university coop extension service (find yours here) to learn frost dates in your region.

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Plant at the correct depth.

Generally, bulbs go in the ground at a depth 2 to 3 times the height of the bulb. Place them in the hole pointy-side up. Some bulbs, such as crocus corms, look like a round grape that got squashed so it can be difficult to tell which end is up. If you can’t figure it out, plant the bulb on its side and the plant will do the work! Cover with soil, gently press down, and water. For the most visually appealing effect, plant them in clusters rather than one bulb here, one bulb there.

Let the leaves die back naturally.

After the flowers fade, allow the leaves of spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils to turn yellow before removing—the bulb needs them to make food to bloom next year (remember photosynthesis from science class?). You can, however, cut off the dead flower heads. If you don't want to see the leaves withering, interplant bulbs with annuals and perennials, which will hide the fading foliage. Some bulbs, such as tulips, may not return again next year; they’re generally treated as annuals, like petunias or marigolds, and enjoyed for one season.

Dig up tender summer-flowering bulbs after the first frost.

Some types of summer flowering bulbs, such as gladiolus or ranunculus, cannot survive cold winters. In northern climates, gently lift them from the soil in the fall after a frost. Use a digging fork or spade a few inches away from the base of the plant. Shake off loose soil and let bulbs dry a few days before storing at temperatures around 60 to 70 degrees until you plant them again next spring.

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