How to Plant a Spring Bulb Garden

How to Plant a Spring Bulb Garden

There are two times that bulbs can and should be planted — fall and spring. Most of us think of tulips and daffodils when we talk about bulb gardens. There is nothing better than the first flowers blooming after a long winter. However, if you want the joy of blooms in the spring, you need to plant those spring bulbs in the fall. 

Adding planting to the list of fall chores is easy to put off, only to regret that decision in the spring when you badly need the blooms to start the garden season. Luckily, all is not lost if you didn’t get to the bulbs last fall. There are lovely bulb garden gifts available that include lots of spring bulbs either as a single type of flower or wonderful combinations. 

Keep your bulb garden gift in your home or use it to welcome guests at the front door. Once they finish blooming, transplant the flower bulbs to an outdoor location and enjoy them again next spring.

Bulbs You Can Plant in the Spring

The type of flower bulbs that can be planted in the spring tend to be corms, tubers or rhizomes. Many of these are not cold hardy and will need to be dug up (lifted) in the fall when the frost hits. However, these are such beautiful and unique looking plants that digging them up is well worth the effort for northern gardeners.

Your spring bulb garden can be a unique garden with only the spring plantings, or they can be interspersed with perennials in the perennial beds. The preparation for planting will be the same. 

What to Do When Starting a New Bed

If you are starting a new bed, it is best to start in fall. The first step is to remove the sod. Before digging, we recommend calling the 811 system to ensure that there are no cables or other utilities that you may dig up. Depending on the size of the garden you are developing, it may be worth renting a sod cutter. This machine cuts horizontally under the sod and the roots. The advantage of this method is the sod can then be used in other areas of your landscape as there is enough root system attached to the grass for it to re-root in a new location. 

planting bulbs into soil

If you don’t need the sod, give it away or compost it. Once the sod is removed, the soil can be amended with a good layer of compost. In the spring, test the soil for nutrient levels and apply any supplements or fertilizer that is lacking. Mix it all together with a tiller or with a hand fork and you will be ready to plant. 

Another method to address the sod is to cover it with cardboard or several layers of newspaper. This should also be done in the fall to prepare for planting in the spring. Cut the grass where your new garden will be located on the lowest setting of your lawn mower as you want the lawn as short as possible. Then, cover the sod with overlapping cardboard or six to eight layers of newspaper. 

Using your garden hose, saturate the cardboard or newspaper with water. Add a few rocks or bricks to hold it down if you have a lot of wind. The idea is to block light from the remaining grass which will effectively kill the grass in the area that is covered. If any grass weeds grow through gaps you missed in the barrier, add another layer of paper or cardboard. Once you are satisfied that no grass is growing through the barrier, you can add a mulch over the top. 

When spring comes and you are ready to plant, simply cut an opening through the paper to plant your bulbs and tubers. The cardboard and paper will decompose naturally over the next year or two. In the meantime, they will block the grass and any weeds from growing but are still permeable to water for the flowers you plant.

How to Plant a Spring Bulb Garden

plant spring garden steps

If you are planting your bulbs in an existing garden, the best time to choose the location is also in the fall. You want to fill gaps in the garden, but you also want to be sure the bulbs are planted where they won’t overcrowd the existing plants. Mark the locations in the fall when you can see the leaf spread of the existing plants. 

When spring arrives, check for the last estimated frost date in your grow zone. The last thing you want to happen is for the bulbs to send up a tender shoot only to have it killed off in a late frost or freeze. Check the long-range weather predictions and when it looks like the cold and frost danger is over, you can safely plant your spring bulbs.

Check the instructions for planting your bulbs at the correct depth. When you are ready to plant, mix in a little compost to the soil to give the bulbs a good start. While iris is planted with the rhizome partially exposed, dahlias are planted deeper in the ground so they are completely covered. 

If there is existing mulch, pull it back so it will surround the new shoots but not cover them. If you have used the newspaper or cardboard method of starting a new garden, cut an opening in the paper to allow the new plant shoots to grow through.

Shop Bulb Garden Gifts to Give Today

What Kinds of Bulbs Can You Plant in the Spring?

While most bulbs are best planted in the fall, here are some of the best bulbs to plant in spring, including:

Lilies

A favorite for the flower garden as they are very low maintenance, the large trumpet-shaped flowers come in many different colors. There are several types of lilies to choose from including the popular Asiatic lily and the Oriental lily. These plants grow from a bulb and many are cold hardy so they won’t need to be lifted in the fall.

spring bulb idea lilies

Gladiolus

These flowers actually grow from a corm. Gladiolus bloom with 10-12 florets along a single stem that can be three feet tall or more. They come in colors ranging from pale pastels to vibrant reds, purples, oranges and yellows. 

There are also gladiolus that are bi-colored. These flower stems look great in a formal floral arrangement but are just as beautiful in an informal grouping in a Mason jar. These plants are cold sensitive and will need to be lifted in the fall in zones 3-7.

Caladium

These plants are grown for their very colorful foliage. Caladiums grow from tender tubers and need to be lifted in the fall. The heart-shaped leaves will be red, white, pink or green. Caladiums love the shade, and they grow well in containers or hanging baskets.

Canna Lilies

These flowers look like they came right from the tropics with their large flowers and tropical-looking foliage. The flowers grow from rhizomes and come in oranges, reds, yellows and more. 

The traditional canna is a large plant that grows from three feet to five feet tall. It will make a statement in your garden. If the size is a deterrent, look for the dwarf canna which stays about 20 inches tall. The dwarf canna can even be used in a container garden.

Elephant Ears

Staying with the tropical look, you can’t beat the Elephant Ears. As its namesake indicates, the foliage on this plant is huge. It is hard to believe a plant can grow this massive in a single season. 

Elephant Ear grows from a corm and is not cold-tolerant. Some gardeners plant a single corm in a large patio container and bring the plant indoors for the winter. If planting in a garden, you will need to dig up the corm and store indoors to replant next spring.

spring bulb idea dahlias

Dahlias

Dahlias are covered with blossoms in a multitude of colors from midsummer until the first frost. Dahlias come in many styles of flowers — from small button shapes to huge pom-pom style flowers. They can be in the front edge of the flower border, or you can choose the type that grows four to five feet tall for the back of the border. 

They look stunning in your garden but also make a great cut flower in a vase. Keep cutting the flowers because they will be replaced with even more flowers. The tubers will be multiplying underground so you will have even more dahlias for next year. These tubers are tender so dig them up right after the first light frost if you live in zone 7 or colder. 

Calla Lilies

Calla lilies have an elegant, cup-shaped flower that comes in a wide range of colors. They bloom from early summer to midsummer from rhizomes. Calla lilies do well in the garden but also in a container. The rhizomes are cold tender so must be dug up in the fall.

Crocosmia

This brightly colored flower grows 24-36 inches tall and looks great in the garden but also in the vase as a cut flower. It will start blooming in midsummer and end mid-fall. Crocosmia grows from corms and is not cold-tolerant. The corms will need to be dug up with the first frost.

Begonias

If you want flowers in your shade garden, begonias are a great choice. They grow from tubers and come in a great range of colors and sizes. Some have flowers that grow quite large and will give your shade garden a pop of bright flowers. Begonias are also a favorite for hanging baskets. These tubers are not cold-tolerant and need to be lifted in the fall.

Learn More About the Best Bulbs to Plant This Spring

Lifting Your Spring Bulbs for Winter Storage

uprooted bulbs garden tools

When the first frost comes, it is time to lift your corms, tubers, rhizomes or bulbs. Some gardeners prefer to treat these bulbs as annuals and just replace them each year. That’s perfectly fine, but saving them for next year will obviously save money. This is an easy process if you follow these simple steps:

Cut Back the Foliage

First, cut away all the foliage to ground level and dispose of it in the compost bin. If you have had any disease on your plant, dispose of the foliage in the regular trash. Adding diseased material to the compost could spread the disease throughout all your gardens.

Dig Up the Tubers and Bulbs

Use a garden fork to dig the tubers and bulbs from the soil. Remove as much soil as possible and lay them in a single layer in a sheltered area like a garden shed or garage. 

Use newspaper or a shallow cardboard box to make cleanup easier. Keep them out of direct sunlight in a frost-free space. Once soil on the corms, tubers or rhizomes is dry, gently remove most of the soil. 

You can also leave the clump of tubers or rhizomes together with soil and place in a container. A lot depends on how many you have and how much storage room you have for the winter. Don’t forget to label your plants!

Divide the Clump

This can be done now — or if you kept the clump intact, you could divide it in the spring.

Find a Container

Store your plants in a large pot partially filled with damp potting soil. Another method is to store them in a well-ventilated cardboard box or plastic bin. Add a damp growing mix, vermiculite or peat moss to partially fill the container. Lastly, you could even use a large black plastic trash bag to store several clumps together. You want to gather the top to help keep moisture in but still allow some air circulation.

Find Cool Storage

Keep your plants in a cool, unheated basement, or an attached garage. The ideal temperature is between 40 and 50 degrees. Remember the tubers will die if they freeze.

Monitor Moisture

If the plants are too moist, increase the air circulation to solve the problem. If they get too moist, they could rot and become mushy and will need to be removed. If the plants are dry and wrinkled, they need more moisture. Use a mister to add more water or add more damp growing mix.

potted bulbs and flowers

Prepare to Replant 

When spring comes, do a final health check on all your tubers and corms and you are ready to enjoy your favorite spring bulb plantings for another year.

Besides the spring blooming plants planted as bulbs in the fall, there are several bulbs that can be planted in the spring.  Follow these simple steps to add these beautiful flowers to your garden designs.

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