How and when to plant bulbs for spring

Create a splash of colour in the garden this spring by planting bulbs

Knowing when to plant bulbs at the right time, and how to do it, are key to enjoying a beautiful display of flowers in spring.

When it comes to selecting spring bulbs for the garden, you are spoilt for choice. Their flowers come in a range of different colours, shapes and sizes, making them ideal for planting almost anywhere, including beds, borders and baskets.

So, whether you want to naturalise large drifts of daffodils along the edge of your wildflower meadow or just plant a few stately tulip bulbs in containers on your bijou roof terrace, we’ve got you covered.

Spring bulbs such as daffodils, tulips and crocus reward you with a stunning display of flowersCredit: Shutterstock_Neirfy

The diverse range of colours that bulbs offer can also be used to create atmospheric moods and ambiences in the garden. They range from exuberant reds, oranges and yellows, to subdued and muted hues of cream, whites and pale blues.


This is why you should plant tulip bulbs in November

Tulips can suffer from a fungal disease called tulip fire and so to avoid this problem they are usually planted later than other spring flowering bulbs, in November or even December.

Walker’s tip for planting tulips is to plant a handful of bulbs into large plastic containers instead of directly in the ground, and then plunge them below the soil among flower borders.

“You can them enjoy them while they are in full flower, but when they start to go over and look scruffy, you can simply lift them out and place them out of sight to naturally die back. It helps to avoid the border being full of spent tulips.”

Plant bulbs as they’re low-maintenance

Another reason to grow bulbs is they are easy to grow. They almost look after themselves. Once they are in the ground, many of them can be left to naturalise. They don’t usually require much aftercare once they have flowered. In most cases, leaves and flowers can be left to die back naturally so that all their goodness goes back into their bulbs for next year. What could be easier!

Bulbs are usually cheap to buy

An additional benefit of growing bulbs is they are relatively cheap compared to other plants. In terms of flowers, you get a lot of bang for your buck. A bag of bulbs can cost just a few pounds and yet create a dazzling display in your containers or borders. The cost would be substantially more if these were traditional herbaceous perennials, bedding plants or shrubs.

1. When to plant bulbs for a spring display

Spring bulbs should be planted in autumn

As a general guide, spring and summer flowering bulbs are planted in autumn, whilst autumn flowering bulbs are planted in spring.

Cassie King, public relations manager for British Garden Centres, says: “Autumn is the perfect time to plant spring bulbs for a colourful lift as winter ends. Plant them while the soil is still moist and warm to give them the best start. From daffodils to tulips, snowdrops and crocus, bulbs planted now will create a fantastic display in any border or container.”

Ali Marshall, head gardener of Torre Abbey Gardens, says she follows a logical chronological pattern when it comes to planting spring bulbs in autumn. “I start with snowdrops in early September as they will be the first to appear in late winter. This is followed by crocus bulbs later in the month and then daffodils and other narcissus in October. I finally plant tulip bulbs in November.”

Peter Freeman is the buyer and product development manager for Sutton Seeds and explains how important the timing of planting bulbs is. “Aim to get your bulbs in the ground or containers about six weeks before the soil starts to freeze. Bulbs actually need a period of time in the cold ground before they flower.”

Designing by colour

Planting tip from Saul Walker, co-host of gardening podcast ‘Talking Heads’

“If I am planting against a dark background, such as a wall or a formal yew hedge, I like to use light-coloured flowers such as whites and yellows because they stand out so much better. I avoid any of the dark or multi-coloured types as they tend to get lost in the composition. This is particularly the case on dark or overcast days.”

2. Make sure they are at the right depth

Ensure bulbs are in the correct position

Bulbs are usually planted to a depth of two or three times the size of their bulb. For example, if a bulb measures 4cm (1.6in) deep, it should be planted between 8cm (3.1in) and 12cm (4.7in) under the surface of the soil or compost.

It’s important to plant bulbs the correct way round too. Although bulbs are roughly round, they will usually have a pointy end, which needs to be facing upwards when planted. There are also usually roots at the base of the bulb and these need to be placed in the bottom of the planting hole.

Freeman adds the following advice regarding how far apart bulbs should be planted.

“Don’t be too concerned about planting your bulbs a certain distance apart, because getting the depth right is more important.”


3. How to plant bulbs

Bulbs are easy to get in the ground

For a naturalised look in a lawn or meadow you can scatter the bulbs across the area and then plant them where they land.

If you prefer more precision, perhaps for a more formal area, you can use a trowel to create individual holes and plant bulbs directly into them.

Alternatively, you can use a bulb planter, which is pushed into the ground and twisted, removing a section of soil for the bulb to be placed into. This section of soil is then replaced on top. For those people with a bad back or just requiring a bit more comfort, there are long handled versions of bulb planters.

If you have lots of bulbs to plant, you can dig one large hole or trench and place the bulbs into them before covering them back over.

Planting bulbs en-masse can be back breaking. For large areas it is possible to hire bulb planting machines that will save you having to dig any holes.

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4. Carefully consider where to plant them

Location, Location, Location

Different types of bulbs have different planting requirements. Whilst many don’t like it too wet, as some bulbs can be prone to rotting in damp ground, there are exceptions, such as snake’s head fritillaries, which like some moisture. Even some narcissus (daffodils) don’t like it too dry. So always check the planting requirements before sticking bulbs in the ground.

It’s not just the soil you need to consider, though, when planting bulbs. Their sunlight requirements can also vary. Some will prefer full sunlight whilst others like to dwell in the shade. Bulbs such as bluebells, trilliums and epimediums are examples of woodland plants that will struggle if exposed to too much direct sunlight.

Saul Walker is host of the popular gardening podcast Talking Heads. He explains it is important to understand the weather patterns in a garden, as it can influence what you plant where.

“I garden in the southwest of England on a quite exposed site, meaning it can be very windy down here. I therefore tend to avoid tall varieties of daffodils and tulips because they simply get blown over by gusts of wind.

Saul Walker's top bulb picks for an exposed garden

“Instead, I grow miniature and species types of daffodils which are much lower to the ground such as Narcissus ‘Tête-à-tête’ and Narcissus cyclamineus. With regards to tulips, I grow the dwarf ‘Darwin’ hybrid types, which are robust with a thick stem, staying upright even in the windiest of conditions.”

5. Plant bulbs in containers

Bulbs are perfect for growing in pots you can move

Bulbs are perfect for planting in containers, and because many of them are seasonal, they can be moved in and out of sight easily to ensure they are only on display when looking at their best.

Marshall suggests packing lots of bulbs into a container for maximum effect. “There is nothing worse than looking at a sparsely filled floral display in a container. I like to cram about 12 tulip bulbs into a 30cm (11.8in) wide container.”

“Although these are much closer together than if you were planting directly in the garden, the display in a container is short-lived. So long as you feed them weekly when they’re flowering and look after them, they’ll be fine.”

Marshall adds: “Good drainage is also essential when planting bulbs in containers. Otherwise, they will rot if stuck in a wet, soggy pot. I use a peat-free, general-purpose compost, mixed with horticultural grit to ensure water doesn’t stagnate.”

Our favourite spring bulbs

Create your own ‘bulb lasagne’ with a mix of these

There are literally hundreds of bulbs to fill your garden with, but we have selected six of the most popular ones.

Six of the best bulbs

You can cheer up even the dreariest of winter days with these white nodding beauties. Appearing from mid-winter to early spring, these bulbs are best planted in dappled shade, naturalised under trees and shrubs, or on the edges of verges.

If you wish to lift and divide them to increase numbers, it should be done “in the green”, which means when they are in leaf and after flowering. This would usually be from mid to late spring. Alternatively, new bulbs can be purchased and planted in early autumn at three times their depth, or 8cm (3.1in) deep.

For many, daffodils signify the arrival of spring, with their brazen, bright yellow colours and distinctive trumpet shaped flowers. There are so many different types and sizes to choose from.

Most of the common ones found in garden centres will thrive in sun or dappled shade. Plant them between September and early November in well-drained, moist soil at a depth of 15cm (5.9in) or three times the depth of their bulbs. They also make great additions to containers.

Who cannot but admire the stately, spherical shapes and patterns of ornamental allium flowers. Their bold, purple-blue floral balls look best when placed towards the middle or back of a border. Closely related to onions, they too require a well-drained soil as they tend to rot in damp conditions.

If you have a heavy clay soil, you might want to consider growing them in containers. Plant bulbs in autumn at two times their depth or 12cm (4.7in) below the surface and they will wow you with their presence in late spring and early summer.

ust to confuse us, there are two types of crocuses; spring-flowering ones and autumn-flowering ones. Plant autumn- flowering bulbs in spring, and spring-flowering ones in autumn.

Check which ones they are before purchasing, although usually the ones for sale in September and October should be the spring-flowering ones.

They like moist, well-drained soil in full sun or dappled shade. Plant them at three times their depth, or 10cm (3.9in) deep, with their pointy end facing upwards.

They look great when naturalised under trees or in lawns, so try scattering them over the ground and plant them where they land.

These bright and bold bulbs are the real showstoppers of the gardening world. Their bright vivid colours and intriguing flower shapes cannot help but attract your attention when they burst on the scene between March and May.

In fact, they are so impressive that during the 17h century, individual tulip bulbs would exchange hands for the price of a small house in Amsterdam. Thankfully they are now a lot cheaper!

Most tulips like to be planted in full sun in well-drained soil at three times their depth, or 20cm (7.8in).

Despite their bright colours, it is more likely that it will be the scent that you first notice if there is a hyacinth growing nearby, as they perfume the early spring air with their exquisite floral fragrance.

For this reason, they are best appreciated when planted in containers near windows or front doors, because you may still capture their aroma if it’s too cold to venture far into the garden.

Alternatively, grow them at the front of a flower bed to enjoy their early spring fragrance. They come in a range of different colours, including pink, lilac, violet, cream white, blue, red, yellow and purple.

Plant them in early autumn at twice their depth, or 10cm (3.9in) deep.

Simon Akeroyd

Written by Simon Akeroyd he/him


Simon Akeroyd was previously a Head Gardener for the National Trust and RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) and has written more than 30 gardening books during his career. He also writes regularly for national newspapers as well as garden and lifestyle magazines.

Simon has presented and been featured in TV gardening programmes and worked as a horticultural researcher, writer and producer for the BBC.

During his career, he’s also managed many gardens including RHS Wisley, RHS Harlow Carr,  Sheffield Park, Polesden Lacey, Coleton Fishacre, Compton Castle and Agatha Christie’s Greenway.

He believes passionately in encouraging everyone to grow plants. Not only do plants make our surrounding space look more beautiful, but they help the wildlife and the planet too.

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