A Complete Guide to Planting Spring Bulbs in Fall

Spring Flowers

Did you know spring flowers like tulips and daffodils are planted in fall? In this complete guide for planting spring bulbs, you’ll get all your bulb-planting questions answered: Why they are planted in fall, how and where to plant them, which ones are the most reliable, how to protect them from squirrels and other wildlife and more.

What is a spring bulb?

Spring bulbs are planted in the fall and bloom in late winter to early spring. Here are a few things to know about spring bulbs:

  • A bulb has a flaky tunic around it, like an onion. Most bulbs have a flat end and a pointy end.
  • Tulips, daffodils, allium and hyacinths are examples of popular spring bulbs.
  • A corm is a bulb-like structure, but it is flat, with roots on the bottom and a slightly sunken center on the top. Plant with the roots down. Crocus is a common corm.
  • Almost all bulbs attract bees early in the season and provide nourishment just as the insects emerge from their winter hibernation.
  • Spring bulbs bloom early, mid or late season. They are classified as perennial plants. Always cut a few bulb flowers for indoor use for seasonal fragrance and beauty.

Why plant spring bulbs in fall?

Tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and many other spring bulbs are planted in fall because they need a cold period to trigger their underground development. They require roughly six months of cold to develop and bloom successfully. In Northern states, they should be planted in October or November because they need at least six weeks for roots to develop before the ground freezes.

In Southern states, gardeners may need to chill the bulbs in a refrigerator or buy them pre-chilled from online retailers. Look for bulbs recommended for Southern gardens. Plant in late fall to early winter.

Where to plant spring bulbs

Plant spring bulbs in garden beds amid perennials, under shrubs, around trees or in the lawn. Plant in full sun to partly sunny spots in average soil that doesn’t stay wet.

You should also consider the look of spring bulbs’ ripening leaves. The leaves need to stay attached to the bulbs until they turn yellow, then brown and fall flat. The leaves take in nutrients that bulk up the underground bulb for next year’s flowers. At a minimum, the leaves should remain for six weeks before removing.  

What spring bulbs to plant

Early- to mid-season bulbs are recommended for landscapes with a lot of shade. Early spring bloomers include scilla, muscari, glory-of-the-snow, wind anemone, snowdrops and crocus. Some tulips and daffodils also bloom early to mid-season. These bulbs will get enough sun to bloom before trees leaf out.

Early blooming bulbs like crocus frequently are planted in the lawn, called naturalizing. Because they bloom early enough, their leaves ripen before the first lawn mowing. Take a handfuls of crocus corms and toss them on the lawn. Plant them where they land for a natural look.

Think about which perennials or shrubs bloom or leaf out mid to late spring. Plant bulbs that bloom at the same time. As they grow, perennials like lungwort, hosta, coral bells, daylilies and sedum help hide the ripening foliage of the spring bulbs.

The best selection of spring bulbs is through online retailers that specialize in bulbs. Garden centers will also have a good selection of bulbs in packages or in bulk. 

  • Shovel or spade, good for digging to plant groupings of bulbs
  • Garden knife, trowel or garden dibber, good for planting individual bulbs in the lawn
  • Bulb auger, which attaches to a drill
  • Bulb planter works best when digging in soft soil

How to plant spring bulbs

In general, plant bulbs three times deeper than their height. If a bulb is 2 inches tall, plant it 6 inches deep. In the chillier upper Midwest, plant a 2-inch-tall bulb about 8 inches deep.

For smaller bulbs, plunge a garden knife or dibbler in the soil and push it forward without taking it out of the ground. Drop in the bulb or corm pointed side up and pull out the tool. Use a shovel in the same way but drop in two or three bulbs. Push back or pat down the soil as needed.

To plant clusters of bulbs, dig a hole the appropriate depth and wide enough to accommodate an uneven number of bulbs a couple of inches apart. Backfill with the soil dug from the hole. This eliminates having to dig individual holes.

For large displays, use an auger to plant individual bulbs in the pattern you want. Rather than plant tulip bulbs in a straight line, for instance, plant them in staggered or offset rows.

There’s no need to fertilize bulbs at planting time. The bulbs are loaded with the energy to grow and flower. Water well after planting. Fertilize in spring as the bulbs break ground and again as they ripen.

How to protect spring bulbs from wildlife

Squirrels, voles, rabbits, and deer like spring bulbs almost as much as humans do. For these critters, spring bulbs equal food. The bulbs are in danger from the time they are planted until about forever. Wildlife usually doesn’t bother daffodils because they are toxic (to humans, too, so don’t eat any).

Here are some strategies for keeping critters away:

  • Cover the area with chicken wire, hardware cloth, screens or plastic netting to keep squirrels out.
  • Camouflage the barrier with a layer of mulch. This prevents squirrels from digging up the bulbs. 
  • Pull up the barrier as soon as bulb growth emerges. Voles tend to eat the bulbs from underground. 
  • Protect spring bulbs by placing them in baskets made of hardware cloth before planting.
  • Repellents also deter squirrels and voles. Treat the bulbs before planting and once they break ground in spring. Rabbits and deer have big appetites for tulips, so using a repellent helps. Repellents also work on keeping rabbits and deer away from other ornamental plants later in the season. Always read and follow the label directions.
  • Some spring bulbs are considered deer resistant, but where deer pressure exists, gardeners know if the animal is hungry, your plants are food.

What to do with spring bulbs after they bloom

As mentioned above, allow the leaves to remain attached to the bulb for at least six weeks. It’s best to allow the foliage to ripen naturally, so don’t braid or band the leaves. This practice disrupts the leaves’ ability to move nutrients to the bulb. Apply a balanced fertilizer as the ripening process begins.

Remove the flower stalks as they quit blooming to keep the plants looking neat. Use a scissor or hand snip. Use a hand pruner or similar tool to cut the ripened leaves close to the ground. Sometimes the leaves will pull free from the bulbs when ripened.


Q. Why don’t my tulips bloom every year?

A. Just like some perennials, tulips are short lived and generally stop blooming after a couple of years. The leaves show up but no flowers. Consider planting new tulip bulbs every year or so. Some tulips, especially species of wild tulips, do come back every year. These include ‘Tarda’, ‘Bakeri Lilac Wonder’, and ‘Lady Jane’.

Q. What is a “minor bulb”?

A. Minor bulbs are the smaller plants, such as scilla, grape hyacinth or glory-of-the-snow. The Dutch call them special bulbs. These minors are frequently used to naturalize a landscape bed or lawn.

Q. Are spring bulbs fragrant?

A. Yes, many spring bulbs are fragrant, including daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. Bulb packages, mail-order or online catalogs should indicate if a bulb is fragrant.

The final word

Contact a Lawn Love professional in your area for help in planting bulbs or other landscape maintenance.

Main photo credit: Mike Mozart | Flickr

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp award-winning garden writer, editor, and speaker. (She speaks at libraries, garden clubs, public gardens, home and garden shows, Master Gardener groups, and horticulture industry events.) Known as a hortiholic, she frequently says her eyes are too big for her yard. She blogs at hoosiergardener.com.