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Why, When & How to Add Spring Flower Bulbs to Your Garden

November 12, 2012
Checker Lily

Tiny Checker Lily (aka Frittillaria) blooms in early spring. Before you choose a Frit, double-check your size and color. They are very diverse!

Whether your garden beds are newly planted or lush and mature, adding spring flower bulbs provides surprising color, texture and often fragrance that helps remind us winter really will be ending soon. And, designed with bloom succession in mind, you can have a blooming bulb garden for months on end.

The trick: remember to buy your bulbs and plant them in fall. This may mean ordering bulbs in summer for shipping by fall, or it may mean remembering to pick up a few bulbs during that time of year when many of us are more focused on cleaning up leaves and other signs of fall dormancy in the garden.

Certainly, forced bulbs will be available at the nurseries come spring. But, these will be significantly more expensive than the dried bagged and bulk ones available in fall. Plus, they were forced, which may have stressed them quite a bit. Stressed bulbs may have difficulty rejuvenating in the future — meaning these spendy little pretties will be one-time wonders.

Choosing the right bulbs for your garden can be mind-boggling. There are so many options from highly hybridized tulips (that often only bloom one or two years before giving up the ghost), tiny dwarf daffodils and iris that only get to be about 6″ tall, fragrant narcissus in an array of flower forms and colors, and so many more.

So how do you add spring flowering bulbs to your garden design?

First, keep an eye on spots in your garden that aren’t filled in or perhaps need renovating. Has a groundcover taken up so much space that your bed barely has color? Is there a perennial that would perform better if moved into a new environment? Is one corner of the garden lush with ferns but devoid of any color but green? These are prime spots for bulbs.

Next, consider when it is that your bed needs some color or fragrance. As you gaze out the kitchen window, is there a spot where you’ll thrill to the sight of an emerging flower poking through the last of winter’s snow? Or, perhaps you desperately need some fragrance out the front door in mid-spring.

Then, think about the color theme of your garden bed. And remember: color theme may change as the seasons pass.

Once you have narrowed down the place, timing, color, size and fragrance, you can begin selecting your bulbs.

Species Tulip

Using photos to keep track of newly planted species Tulip ‘Chrysantha’ mixed into a gold and red bed planted with native columbine, Lobelia laxiflora, Doronicum, Witch Hazel and golden Alstromeria. With glass art by Glass Gardens NW.

If you’re looking for tiny and early, consider crocus, snowdrops, dwarf iris, tiny daffodils or even miniature tulips.

Want flowers that naturalize, returning year after year? Try daffodils, crocus, grape hyacinth or even species tulips. Avoid hybridized tulips.

Looking for fragrance? Many narcissus and even some iris emit delicious perfume.

And, don’t forget to check the bloom timing. Some spring flowering bulbs can begin popping up in mid-winter. Others won’t flower until nearly summer.

Too, most spring bulbs will thrive in sunnier spots where they are more likely to stand up tall and flower well. If you’re trying to fill in an area in deeper shade, try popping in Trilliums, which work well as forest understory and will eventually naturalize in the right settings.

If you are able to feel your bulbs before buying them, select firm ones that are well dried. Do not choose any that are mushy or totally shriveled up.

If you live in an area that doesn’t experience a cold winter, you may need to refrigerate your bulbs for at least a couple of weeks before planting. This will give them the “cold period” they require in order to bloom. If you’re unsure what’s required in your location, ask the catalog vendor or nursery person before you buy.

Once your bulbs are planted, be sure to make note of what you planted where. Otherwise, you may end up putting a spade through them later on. Because I’m dreadful at keeping a mapped design of my own garden anywhere else other than my head, I’ve started taking photos of each bed with the bulb wrapper photo in it. I do this immediately after I’ve finished planting the bed with bulbs. These photos then go into my garden photo archives where I can double check “what the heck is that thing” when it begins to emerge in spring.



  1. […] spring bulb leaves look stippled from the hail. While similar looking to damage from sucking insects, this is […]

  2. Karin Peterson says:

    Hi Robin,
    Wish I had some of your blackberries for a Cobbler – my favorite one! My small Massachusetts Bberry weed patch doesn’t produce enough and they are pricey here.
    Regarding bulbs, will I get blooms next spring from last year’s indoor Paper White bulbs planted outside? Lv, Aunt Karin

  3. Karin, you *must* come visit and pick blackberries with me next summer — and blueberries to make G’ma’s blueberry buckle too! As for the paper whites blooming outside, I’ve had good luck in the past for at least one year. Sometimes they poop out fast outside. It’s certainly worth trying! 🙂

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