Fall is the time to plant bulbs! There’s nothing more uplifting than seeing the first early spring flowers pop up from the cold ground! Our updated Spring-Flowering Bulbs Chart lists which bulbs work in your zone, how deep to plant the bulbs, and more information—plus, we highlight the most popular bulbs.
When to Plant Spring-Flowering Bulbs
Spring-flowering bulbs (also referred to as “fall bulbs”) often offer the first glimpse of color that bursts into our garden in late winter and early spring. Think crocus, daffodils, tulips, and hyacinth, among others! This is in contrast to summer-flowering “bulbs” such as dahlias, elephant ear, caladium, gladiolus, and cannas, which are planted in the spring.
They’re generally planted when soils are below 60°F in the late fall. This is usually during September and October in the North, or October and November in the South. (Tulips are one exception—you can plant tulips as late in winter as you can get them into the soil.) In general, the time to plant fall bulbs is about 6 weeks before a hard frost is expected.
→ Consult our Frost Dates Calculator to see when the first fall frost is likely to hit your area.
In the warmest parts of the South, you may need to pre-cool some bulbs. Most spring-flowering bulbs require a 12 to 16 week cold period in ventilated packages in the bottom of your refrigerator at 40° to 50°F before planting. Check with your bulb supplier to determine whether the bulbs you purchase have been pre-cooled or whether you may need to give them a cold treatment.
Also, in warmer climates, note that some bulbs will only bloom once and then they’re done for the season. For example, you will have to plant tulip bulbs again each year. Still, they are a beautiful sight to behold and well worth the effort! Other fall bulbs, such as daffodils, will act as perennials and come up year after year.
Spring-Flowering Bulbs Chart
See our chart below for a summary of each bulbs’ preferences—in terms of soil type, soil depth and spacing, and other details. Below this chart, we’ll add some additional information to each spring bulb choice.
Buying Fall Bulbs
Bulbs are easy to find at all the local garden centers and even big-box stores and grocery tores. We suggest you buy bulbs from reputable nursery or garden centers. Second-rate bulbs produce second-rate flowers, don’t sprout at all, and often don’t return year after year. Don’t forget to plant extra for cutting so you can bring some of that spring color indoors.
Bulbs can also be ordered from a mail-order catalog to ensure high quality. Another advantage to ordering online is to find more unusual varieties. There are many wonderful high-quality online nurseries incuding Dutch suppliers such as Brent and Becky’s Bulbs.
Good bulbs should be fresh and firm, not brittle or rotted or moldy. Also, choose bulbs with intact husks to better fight any disease. When you receive bulbs, plant immediately or store in a cool, dark, dry place at around 60° to 65°F. Temperatures above 70°F. may damage the flower buds.
Spring-Flowering Bulbs to Plant in Fall
Here are some of the most popular spring-blooming bulbs planted before winter.
We prefer daffodils over any other bulbs because squirrels, deer, and chipmunks leave them alone! Daffodils come in many colors, not just yellow (pink, orange, white, multi-colored) and their flowers range from trumpets to flat rings to little rose-like cups. They grow best in well-draining soil that has been amended with organic matter or compost. They should be planted at least 6 inches deep and 6 inches apart. They look great in large drifts in groundcover beds or in meadows or planted under hostas.
See the Almanac’s Daffodil Growing Guide.
- Jonquils is the term usually used for a specific type of daffodil known as Narcissus jonquilla. They have tiny blooms and naturalize. They’re one of the first flowers to bloom—and look especially lovely when planted in a grove or field together.
One of the earliest spring flowers, we’re always delighted when crocus appear. These low-to-the-ground bulbs flower in purple, white, yellow, and striped variations, growing about 4 to 6 inches high. Crocus prefer well-drained soil and will grow in partial shade or full Sun. They are perfect for garden borders and even look great when planted in a lawn. They’ll finish their bloom before it’s time to start mowing!
See the Almanac’s Crocus Growing Guide for more planting information.
Snowdrops (Galanthus) are dainty little little white bells that are just delightful in the late winter and early spring. When blooming en masse, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a fairy tale. They are adaptable, growing well in full or partial shade and in moist or dry soil but they do need plenty of organic matter (compost) for plentiful blooms. Plant three inches deep and three inches part. We love them when planted in drifts in groundcover beds.
Like daffodils, snowdrops are rodent-adverse. See our article on Rodent-proof Flower Bulbs.
One of the best-known spring bulbs, tulips come in a rainbow of colors and variations. They prefer well-drained or sandy soil that is rich in fertlizer. Tulips looks beautiful when planted en masse and bloom after the daffodils. They look great paired with grape hyacinth.
A word of caution: Tulips today are often one-season wonders. Due to hybridization and the fact that squirrels love these bulbs, we tend to treat them as annuals. Expect no more than ¾ of the bulbs will return in their second year and even less in their third year. You’ll just need to plant more tulip bulbs every year (it’s not hard) or protect the bulbs with a nylon mesh.
Some readers claim that planting tulips with allium or daffodil bulbs helps since critters find the latter two bulbs “stinky.” Let us know if this works for you.
These spring beauties bloom around the same time as daffodils and tulips, and have a wonderful fragrance! Small blue clusters of tiny bell-shaped blooms, hyacinth are also good for naturalizing. (They also come in paler pinks, baby blues, yellows, and white). An annual application of compost should provide adequate nutrients. Flower size may decline in subsequent years, so some gardeners treat hyacinths as annuals and plant fresh bulbs each fall.
See the Almanac’s Hyacinth Growing Guide.
These tall beauties are hardy, reliable, and easy to grow, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds and making lovely cut flowers. Irises need at least a half a day of sun with EXCELLENT drainage. Planting on a slope or in raised beds helps ensure good drainage. If your soil is heavy, coarse sand or humus may be added to improve drainage.
It’s imperative that the roots of newly planted Iris be well-established before the growing season ends, so we’d plant irises on the earlier end of the range (September in the North and October in the South).
Get more information on how to plant irises.
Ornamental Onion (Allium)
Ornamental alliums are great for cutting and bees adore them, too! Planted in the fall for spring blooms, these purple pom-pom flowers make a dramatic statement when planted en masse. Even better, they’re from the onion family so they are generally deer- and rodent-resistant. Depending on variety, these easy-to-grow plants add color to the flower garden from spring through fall. Select a site with well-drained soil in full sun. Learn more about growing allium.
How to Plant Fall Bulbs
Planting bulbs is generally an easy task (unless you’ve ordered hundreds of them), but there are some things that you want to make sure to get right. Here are tips to keep in mind:
- Of course, the first tip is to remember to plant bulbs with the point facing up! Examine bulbs carefully before placing them in the planting hole, being sure to set them with the roots facing downward.
- Bulbs need soil that drains nicely or they are prone to rot. Work a few inches of compost or organic matter into the soil before planting for nutrients and drainage, especially if you have heavy clay soils. If your soil is sandy, plant bulbs slightly deeper; in clay soils, slightly shallower.
- The general rule is to plant bulbs at a depth of three times the width of the bulb, but refer to our chart above for specific planting depths.
- Consider bloom time for each bulb (early spring, mid-spring, late spring) and plant bulbs with different bloom times so that you have flowers throughout spring!
- Place shorter bulbs in the front of beds and borders.
- Plant bulbs generously in case some do not sprout (or are devoured by hungry squirrels). Plant them in random order and spacing for a more natural appearance. Or, if you love groves of daffodils and blanketed landscapes of tulips, be prepared to buy and plant a large quantity of bulbs together!
- You can use a special bulb-planting hand tool to assist you, but if you are planting en masse by the dozens, just use a shovel and make a wide hole for planting many bulbs at once.
Bulbs look great planted en masse—in a grove, near the mailbox, as swaths of colors in garden beds, and as colorful borders.
- After planting, apply fertilizer that’s fairly low in nitrogen, such as a 9-6-6 formulation.
Water bulbs deeply after planting—and remember, if your bulb was planted 6” deep into the soil, that water needs to soak in 6” deep to benefit the bulb. This will help settle the soil in the planting bed plus provide needed moisture for the bulbs to start rooting.
Water again before the ground freezes — the wintertime is when they are developing roots. Don’t overwater which can lead to bulb rot. Gardeners in southern locations can water again in late December or early January if it’s been an unusually dry winter.
Apply mulch to the planting area to keep the weeds down, hold in moisture, and avoid heaving from wintertime thawing and freezing.
- Do you have voles or squirrels? Consider planting your bulbs in a “cage” fashioned with chicken wire. Also, check out our tips for preventing vole damage and squirrel damage. Or try planting some rodent-proof bulbs.
Note: You will not need to start watering again until the flower buds first appear on the plant in the spring. Once bulbs start growing in the spring, water once a week (if you haven’t had any measurable rain) — this is especially important while they’re flowering. Water with a soaker hose to keep water off the bloom.
Now that you’ve mastered the art of the fall bulb, check out our page on how to grow spring-planted bulbs!