How to plant bulbs - A Beginner's Guide

Bulbs do nearly all the work for you, it's the simplest way to grow plants of all!
If you only have room for one pot, you have room to grow bulbs, and if you want a low maintenance garden, this could be the answer.

This is the third of four "Back to Basics" posts covering some easy ways of propagating new plants for your garden. I hope you found my beginner's guides to sowing seeds and taking cuttings useful. This post aims to convince you to plant some spring flowering bulbs this autumn by showing you how easy it is. In the final post of the series I'll be growing new plants from runners. 

How to sow seeds - A Beginner's Guide

How to take cuttings - A Beginner's Guide

How to grow new plants from runners - A Beginner's Guide

Why plant bulbs?

It's so easy! Bulbs contain all the energy plants need to grow and flower, so once they are in the ground you don't really need to do anything else. It's one of the simplest ways of adding colour and interest to your garden, and because they don't need much space you can grow them in the smallest of spaces, including containers on the smallest of patios or balconies. And many will come back year after year without much looking after.
Tulips in container Green Fingered Blog
Even a single container of tulips can add a big splash of colour

When is the best time to plant bulbs?

It depends on what you are planting, but the most common time is right now, in the autumn. The most popular bulbs are ones that are planted in autumn to flower the following spring, including daffodils, crocuses, bluebells, tulips and alliums. But there are also bulbs that flower in summer like Lilies, Gladioli and Dahlias, and in autumn like Nerines, some Crocuses and Cyclamen hederifolium. Some even appear in the middle of winter like Snowdrops. 

Where is the best place to plant bulbs?

Most bulbs like a sunny spot, though some are woodland plants that are happy in a bit of shade. Most of these have evolved in deciduous woodland, meaning they've adapted to flower in spring before the trees are covered in leaves, when there is plenty of light, so they don't do well in deep shade. The most familiar woodland bulbs are Bluebells, Snowdrops and Anemone blanda. Most others like plenty of sun. Bulbs generally need well drained soil. They sit under the ground for several months before doing their thing, so if the ground is too wet they may rot rather than grow.
Bulbs are great filler plants. Any gaps in your borders early in the year can be filled with colourful spring bulbs. All you have to do is slot them in between the dormant perennials, or the holes left by the annuals that last just the one season. In containers, or if you give them their own space in a border they can be the stars of the show. 
Tulips in garden border Green Fingered Blog
Tulips fill the gaps before other plants get going in spring

How to plant bulbs in pots

Planting bulbs in pots couldn't be easier. First, work out how deep they need to be planted. This varies but the bigger the bulb, the deeper it usually needs to go. Three times the height of the bulb is a good guide. The packet usually gives the ideal depth, as well as the recommended spacing between bulbs.
How to plant bulbs Beginner's Guide Green Fingered Blog

Take a pot and part fill it with compost. Leave enough room from the top of the pot to place your bulbs at the right depth. Before planting, check none of the bulbs feel soft and spongy, they should be firm. If they're not, don't bother planting them they may be rotting already. As long as they're ok, place your bulbs on top of the compost, a suitable distance apart, and the right distance from the top of the pot, allowing an inch to spare from the rim.  The flat end will produce the roots, and the pointy end the shoots, so always plant bulbs pointy end upwards. 
How to plant bulbs Beginner's Guide Green Fingered Blog

Cover them with compost and fill the pot up to just below the top. Label them so you don't forget what they are and put them somewhere with a bit of sun. You only really need to water them if they get really dry. A bit of rain every now and then and you can just leave them alone. 

GREEN FINGERS TIP: One container of bulbs can stay interesting for months if you plant bulbs in layers. Get several different bulbs with different flowering times, and different planting depths. Plant the deepest ones and cover them with compost. Then plant the next deepest in a layer above the first ones (without putting bulbs directly on top of others). Add further layers until the shallowest bulbs have been planted at the right depth. Cover these over and fill the pot as above. With this method you get a succession of flowers over many weeks, with each variety taking over from the previous one. You can have daffodils, followed by irises, followed by tulips, followed by alliums, for example.    

How to plant bulbs in the ground

If you're planting bulbs in a border, first work out where you're going to put them. Put the bulbs on the ground so you can see the spacing.
How to plant bulbs beginner's guide Green Fingered Blog
Position your bulbs before you plant them
Then make a hole - remember to make it the correct depth - and pop them in.
GREEN FINGERS TIP: If you're not sure whether you're planting bulbs at the right depth, bear in mind that it's better to plant a bit deeper rather than a bit shallower. Bulbs planted a bit deeper will almost certainly still make it to the surface and will be more firmly anchored in the ground. Bulbs planted too shallow have a tendency to be weaker and get blown over in windy weather. 
You can buy special bulb planting tools to dig out a column of earth. You pop the bulb in and put the earth back in place on top. This is especially useful if you're planting bulbs in a lawn, but in a border, if the ground is soft enough, I normally just shove the trowel in with one hand and wiggle it to loosen the earth enough to make a large enough gap to drop in the bulb to the right depth with the other hand. Be careful not to force the bulb down by pressing too hard, you could damage it. 
How to plant bulbs beginner's guide Green Fingered Blog
Once you've covered the bulb over you're done! If you're planting a large group of bulbs in a dedicated space you can dog up the earth to the required depth and plant as if you're planting in a container. Put them all in and cover them all over. Most of mine are slotted in between everything else.

GREEN FINGERS TIP: Plant onion bulbs in just the same way for an easy edible crop instead of flowers. Garlic is also easy but break the garlic bulb into individual cloves and plant these rather than whole bulbs. Each clove will produce a whole bulb to use in the kitchen! Plant garlic early to guarantee some cold weather while they're in the ground - they won't develop properly without this. Harvest onions and garlic by pulling up carefully once the leaves die back. Dry them off and you can store them for months.

How to look after bulbs

Apart from making sure they don't dry out completely, you don't need to do anything else to your bulbs until they're flowering. Watering will make sure they flower well and stay upright. When they've finished flowering, let the leaves die back naturally. The plant will build up a reserve of energy, stored in the bulb for next years flowers. You can help by removing the spent flowers and feeding the plants with a general liquid feed. The leaves and stem will eventually go yellow and brown, dry up and fall off.
How to plant bulbs Beginner's guide - Green Fingered Blog
In some cases it's worth digging up the bulbs before you lose sight of where they are. Storing them in a dry place can be better than leaving them in the ground to rot or be dug up by squirrels. If your ground isn't too wet in winter, and the squirrels aren't a problem in your garden then you don't need to bother, just leave them to come up again next year. It is worth putting a discrete marker in the ground like a small stick, to avoid slicing through the bulbs when planting something else during the year.

So come on, get some bulbs in the ground this month. All you have do then is wait for spring!
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  1. we recently cleared out old plants from under a crape myrtle tree and replanted with bulbs. the soil was really wet from all the rain so we added in top soil, planted the bulbs and put more top soil on top of them. it's been raining a lot so I put garden tents over the bulbs so they wouldn't get too wet. how long should I keep the tents on. I'm worried they will rot with too much rain. thank you

    1. Hi, it's difficult to give a definitive answer, it very much depends on the conditions, and on the type of bulbs. You don't mention what species they are, but you are certainly thinking along the right lines - some bulbs can rot if too wet. Remove the tents when you feel confident the conditions are not too wet - its a matter of judgement and trial and error. One additional safeguard you could try when planting bulbs in future is to add plenty of grit into the soil to reduce the opportunity for water to settle around the bulb.