Things I Wish I Knew Before Planting Fall Bulbs

Avoid these rookie mistakes by learning when, where and how to plant bulbs this fall.

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Like most gardeners, I love to start my garden off with a colorful spring by planting bulbs the autumn before. The first fall I lived in my house, I planted lots of daffodils — and made a few mistakes. Over the years, I’ve gained wisdom with each batch of bulbs I’ve planted. Here’s what I wish I would’ve known before I started planting bulbs.

Cheap Bulbs Are No Bargain

Discounted bulbs may be tempting, but they are not usually the best value. They may produce fewer flower stalks and be more likely to be old or rotten. If you want to save on quality bulbs, look for early bird and bulk pricing deals instead.

Plant Pointy End Up

Okay, this one I knew. Most bulbs have a pointy tip where the stem will emerge. The root side is flatter and should face down. What I didn’t know is what to do when the ends aren’t so distinct. Growing edible flowers is similar and is not that hard, here’s how you can grow saffron.

Becky Heath of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs suggests you lay the bulb on its curved side when you plant it. This way the roots can grow down from one end while the flower stalk can grow up.

Plant Perennials on Top of Your Bulbs

Perennial expert Stephanie Cohen taught me to get two seasons of interest out of one hole by planting late-emerging perennials like daylilies over bulbs. As the bulbs fade away after blooming, the summer perennials will provide cover and color. Planting them at the same time also avoids the risk of damaging the bulbs.

Keep Track of Where You Plant

Stephanie’s tip also helps me prevent another mistake I still make — forgetting where my bulbs are planted. If you don’t use perennials to help mark the spot, a garden journal can help you keep track. You can also make cute labels as plant markers.

Measure With Your Hori Hori Knife

My favorite garden hand tool is my hori hori knife, a traditional Japanese digging and weeding tool. So it’s a little embarrassing to admit how long it took to notice that my hori blade is printed with ruler markings. Now I use it to make sure I’m planting my bulbs to the right depth, which varies by type of flower.

Ask Nature When to Plant

Tim Schipper at Colorblends, a wholesale bulb supplier, knows you should plant spring bulbs when fall nighttime temperatures are between 40 and 50 degrees F (a lighted outdoor garden thermometer makes this easier to see). But he knows folks who follow cues like when crickets stop chirping, squirrels are busy burying acorns or hostas start to wither. Also, a good mail-order supplier will ship at just the right time to plant.

If You Can’t Dig Down, Cover Up

Between the clay soil and tree roots in my front yard, I wish I had known you can pile soil and compost on top of your bulbs if you can’t dig down far enough. Becky of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs says this can help the bulbs avoid rot over the winter and will give you what she calls a “luscious raised flower bed.” A layer of mulch and some edging around your garden bed can help keep this cover from washing away.

A planting auger that attaches to a drill can also make it easier to dig into heavy soil.

These Bulbs Don’t Appeal to Deer

I have lots of deer dining in my garden, but I’ve learned that daffodils, allium, winter aconite, glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa) and Spanish bluebells are deer-resistant spring-flowering bulbs.

Some Bulbs Will Do the Work for You

Want big swaths of color without planting thousands of bulbs? Choose bulbs that naturalize or spread on their own over the years. Gibbs Gardens in Northwest Georgia has more than a million daffodils across acres of woodlands thanks to this trick. Crocus, grape hyacinth, scilla and snowdrop bulbs naturalize well, too.

Helen Newling Lawson
Helen Newling Lawson is a published garden writer and freelance content marketing professional. She is a lifelong gardener, originally from central New Jersey but now digging in Georgia clay. She has been a University of Georgia Master Gardener Extension Volunteer since 2002 and earned the Georgia Certified Plant Professional certification in 2017. A regional director of GardenComm, the Association of Garden Communicators, Helen is a contributor to magazines including Country Gardens, Birds and Blooms, Georgia Magazine, Nursery Management, State-by-State Gardening, and Atlanta Parent. She has also developed content for clients in a range of industries, from tech to the green industry. She enjoys photography, often supplying her own images for editorial use, and hikes and does yoga in her spare time.