10 ideas on where to plant bulbs this fall and which ones to use

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Siberian squill are some of the earliest bulbs to bloom in spring. They make a colorful groundcover, even in partly shaded spots.
© George Weigel

Spring-blooming bulbs are some of the most under-used plants in American yards. Despite being low-care, relatively inexpensive and the showiest way to get spring off to a colorful start, most yards have just a smattering of tulips or daffodils – if even that.

A big reason is that bulbs are not instantly rewarding. Spring bulbs need to go in the ground the fall before blooming – ideally around the first fall frost – to give them time to root and then push up shoots once sufficient winter chill triggers that development. At planting, though, the flowers-to-be look more like dead onions. Then the gardener is left with a bare bed for months after all of that digging and planting. For gardeners who overcome that little patience issue, the reward is great.

The first snowdrop and winter aconite bulbs can bloom as early as January, while a stream of hyacinths, daffodils, tulips and alliums can keep the bulb show going into June. Most bulbs are perennial, too, meaning they come back year after year. After the initial planting, ongoing care amounts to little more than an annual cutback and a twice-a-year scattering of fertilizer. The cutback should come only after the post-bloom bulb foliage has at least started to turn yellow, or better, turned brown.

The two best times to fertilize are early to mid-spring and again in early fall, ideally using a granular, long-acting fertilizer.

Bulbs offer plenty of versatility around the landscape. They’re far more useful than the traditional band of red and gold tulips lined up along a house front. Here are 10 other situations to plant bulbs this fall along with some of the best bulb choices in each of those settings:

1. If you have shade: Most of the small-flowered, early-emerging bulbs do fine with even with a few hours of sunlight. Two of the best are Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), early-April bloomers with hanging, blue, bell-shaped flowers on 4-inch plants, and striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica), late-April bloomers with blue-streaked white flowers on 8- to 10-inch plants. Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) also tolerate life under trees, even though they don’t send up their blue flower spikes until May.

2. If you have a wet spot: Most bulbs rot in soggy soil, but a few species tolerate wet soil. Try summer snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum), which get white, bell-shaped flowers in April to early May; snake’s head fritillaria (Fritillaria meleagris), a foot-tall plant with nodding, checkered, burgundy-purple flowers, and quamash (Camassia esculenta), one of the few native American bulbs, which produce spikes of purplish-blue flowers in late April to early May. An alternative: add enough soil and compost to build raised beds that lift less wet-tolerant types out of the sogginess.

3. If you have animal troubles: Rabbits and rodents mainly like tulips and most crocuses. Hardly anything messes with the daffodil (Narcissus), that familiar cupped flower that comes in a variety of sizes, bloom times and colors (gold, yellow, white and peachy pastels). Also try anything in the onion (Allium) or fritillaria families. Lay a sheet of chicken wire over the bed and under the mulch if you’re dead set on growing tulips in rodent country. The bulb shoots will poke up through the openings.

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Some bulbs, such as these grape hyacinths, are good at filling into colonies to make a carpet of spring color.
© George Weigel

4. If you want fragrance: Dutch hyacinths (Hyacinthus orientalis) are more fragrant than almost any other flower of any type. These perfumed beauties are foot-tall, April-bloomers that get fat flower spikes of purple, blue, white, pink or pale yellow.

5. If you have no yard: Try tulips in a pot, especially shorter types. Plant so that the bulbs are nearly touching in a pot that you can let sit outside all winter (i.e. not breakable terra-cotta or ceramic). If you’re setting the pot under a porch, water occasionally during above-freezing spells to keep the soil mildly damp. Ditto for pots out in the open if rain or melting snow isn’t doing the deed. You can even “layer” the planting by inserting tulips 4 to 6 inches deep and then smaller grape hyacinths 2 inches deep. Those two overlap bloom times and will give a full look to the pot.

6. If you want something even before spring: Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) look like tiny dripping snowballs with their hanging white flowers. They also pop up in late winter – usually the first plant to show new life. Another option is winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), which is a mat-growing, late-winter bloomer with buttercup-like yellow flowers that typically spreads by seeding.

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Kids will especially like the big, softball-sized purple flower heads of allium ‘Globemaster.’
© George Weigel

7. If you want a mass of color: Several smaller bulbs are good at colonizing into short carpets of color, which make nice early-spring displays under trees or in beds that you plan to replant in annual flowers in April or May. Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa forbesii) is an early-spring bulb with star-shaped flowers of blue or pink that makes one of the best spring carpets. Siberian squill and crocus are two other good choices.

8. If you have kids: Three big-flowered alliums are some of the showiest oddball plants that will impress anyone under age 6 (and most people above age 6, for that matter). Allium ‘Globemaster’ gets softball-sized, round, purple flowers atop 3-top stalks in May to early June, while Allium schubertii and Allium christophii have similar-sized flower heads that look like exploding purple planets. Crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis) is another tall oddball with imposing May-blooming, red, gold or orange flowers that form a “crown” of hanging blooms around a strappy green “hairpiece.”

9. If you want indoor color: Most bulbs can be “tricked” into blooming inside over winter by a process called “forcing.” Pot the bulbs in fall, then either bury them outside in a leaf-lined pit or store them at just above-freezing temperatures for about three months. In mid-winter, bring the pots inside and watch the warmth cause shoots to emerge a few weeks later while the snow is still flying outside. Some of the best bulbs for forcing are compact tulips and daffodils, grape hyacinths, Iris reticulata, Dutch hyacinths, crocus and Siberian squill.

10. If you have a boring house front: Dress up your boxed-off green yews and later-blooming azalea balls by planting a 1- to 2-foot-wide band of bright bulbs in front of them. That’ll give you a few weeks of color in early to mid-spring – and maybe much longer if you plant several kinds of bulbs with varying bloom times instead of all of one thing. Bulbs look best in bands or clusters as opposed to being lined up single file. And lots of them give far more front-yard impact than a pair of tulip 6-packs. Good choices include daffodils, compact tulips, and especially near doors and walks, Dutch hyacinths to take advantage of their fragrance.