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flower bulbs

Plant Bulbs in the Fall for Spring Blooms

Benjamin Kilbride, Editorial Assistant at The Old Farmer’s Almanac

As fall sets in, cleaning up the garden might be your priority, but set some time aside to plant and divide spring blooming bulbs in the garden for a colorful display. You’ll thank yourself in the spring. 

What Is a Bulb?

A bulb is a plant that contains its entire life cycle in an underground storage structure. Some plants that are commonly referred to as bulbs are not true bulbs. True bulbs have five major parts: Basal plate (bottom area where roots grow), scales (fleshy storage tissue), tunic (papery covering that protects scales), the shoot (developing flower and leaf buds), and lateral buds (sections that grow into offsets).  

Why Plant Bulbs in the Fall?

Spring bulbs are planted in the fall because they need a 3- to 4-month chilling period to produce flowers. In areas where soil temperatures don’t drop below 60°F during winter for the chilling period, spring bulbs will have short stems, bloom close to the ground, or won’t bloom at all.

Consider Location

  • Most spring-blooming bulbs enjoy an area with full sun, but always read the label.
  • Spring blooming bulbs planted on a south-facing slope will bloom earlier than the same bulbs planted on a north-facing slope.
  • Bulbs on a hillside will bloom earlier than bulbs planted in a valley.

Prepare the Soil

Bulbs do best in soil with a pH between 6 and 7, which is about neutral. You can test the soil by purchasing a soil pH testing kit or by trying a more do-it-yourself method with a few household items.

You Will Need:

  • 2 clean bowls or buckets
  • 2 clean 1/2-cup measuring cups
  • 1/2 cup baking soda
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar 

Scoop several handfuls of soil from a depth of about 8 inches (where roots grow). Put the soil into one of the bowls. Pour 1/2 cup water into the bowl of soil and mix. Then add 1/2 cup baking soda. If the mixture bubbles and fizzes, the soil is acidic: Add wood ash or lime to the garden to balance the pH. If there is no reaction, scoop several additional handfuls of soil into the second bowl and add 1/2 cup white vinegar. If the second mixture bubbles and fizzes, the soil is alkaline: Add sulfur or peat moss to balance the pH. If there is no reaction to either test, the soil is neutral and requires no change in pH.

No matter the results of the pH test, it’s always a good idea to amend the soil in your garden with compost. Spread a 1- to 3-inch layer of compost over the soil and mix or till it to a depth of up to 8 inches. 

How to Plant a Bulb

Pick a day to plant your bulbs when temperatures in the evening have reached 40° to 50°F, and as soon as the ground is cool (about 6 weeks before the ground freezes). Keep bulbs grouped by color and variety, as you can’t tell a white tulip from a red one just by looking at the bulb. If you’re not careful, you might end up with a surprise in the spring. Bulbs don’t like wet feet, so plant them in an area that has well-draining soil.

Loosen the soil to a depth of 8 inches, removing any rocks and weeds as you go. This is a good time to mix in extra compost or slow releasing fertilizer if you feel your soil needs a nutrient boost.

As a general rule, plant small bulbs about 5 inches deep and big bulbs about 8 inches deep. Set the bulb in the hole with the pointy bud side pointing up and the basal plate or root side facing down. If you’re unsure about which side is which, plant the bulb on its side and it will figure out the rest.

Fill the hole back in with soil, covering the bulb. Lightly compress the surface soil but avoid packing it tight: The bulb needs a small amount of space. Water the bulb to get the root growth started, and then let it be! There’s no need to continue watering during the winter months unless you live in an area where there is low precipitation.

Five Varieties of Flower Bulbs to Plant

Great for the tentative beginner or the veteran gardener, these flower bulb varieties can produce a stunning display in the spring.

  • Alliums (the onion and garlic family) bulbs include a wide range of flowers, from short delicate buds to towering purple giants. Alliums bloom in late spring, preparing you for the beginning of summer.
  • Crocuses are early spring bloomers, usually one of the first to pop through the last layers of snow. They provide a beautiful carpet of short flowers to mark that spring is here! 
  • Daffodils blooms range from soft white to delicate shades of yellow. They bloom early in the spring with the crocuses.
  • Irises are a popular choice with their stunning range of patterns and colors. They bloom in late spring to early or mid-summer. 
  • Tulips are one of the most renowned and easily recognizable spring-blooming bulbs, with greenhouse colorful displays popping up all over the place in early spring. They are easy to grow and a definite first choice for beginner gardeners. 

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