Planting bulbs

If you are new to gardening, one of the easiest and most rewarding things you can do, is plant some bulbs. Think of swathes of flamboyant tulips, the bright cheery flowers of daffodils, dainty but dramatic crocus and heady scented hyacinths, or even spectacular globes of purple alliums; they are all bulbs.

Swap your regular morning coffee this week for a pack of bulbs a day and you’ll have a garden full of wonder, vibrancy and colour for the same outlay and one that will bring you hours and hours of enjoyment too.

Autumn planting

Most garden bulbs are sold in the autumn and there’s a fantastic array to choose from. These days you can buy colour co-ordinated packs with varieties that will flower at the same time to create stunning spring effects. But the very best thing about garden bulbs is that they are virtually guaranteed to not just grow, but to flower as well. Each bulb already contains the embryo of a flower, deep inside and all you have to do is to coax it out. Pretty much all that entails is planting your bulbs in good garden soil or container compost and making sure it doesn’t dry out completely between now and spring.

bag of bulbs
Most garden centres allow customers to pick their own bulbs. Image: Martin Mulchinock

Bulb know-how

Most packs of bulbs will include simple planting instructions on the packet.  You need to work out which is the top of the bulb – where the shoot will emerge – this is usually pointed. The other end, where the roots form is often flatter. It is important to plant them the right way up.


If you are starting out, then plant them in a large container. A pot with a 30cm radius would take half a dozen tulips or daffodils or maybe a dozen crocus. If you are planting in pots or containers it’s very easy. There must be drainage holes in the base to allow excess water to escape.

  • Simply half-fill your planter with quality container compost, or bulb compost if you can get it and arrange the bulbs on the top of this.
  • Keep them about a bulb’s width apart and cover with fresh compost until the pot is almost full.
  • Firm down gently and top up with more compost if needed.
  • The pots can stay outside all winter. Stand them in a sheltered spot against a wall and water them occasionally if it doesn’t rain or the compost looks dry.

More adventurous

If you have grown bulbs before be a little more adventurous and plant them in layers like lasagne. The idea is that you plant the taller growing (and larger) bulbs at the bottom of the planter, add a layer of compost and plant a middle layer and then add another layer of compost before planting the top layer. You need to space the bulbs further apart to give them space to grow, so a wide, deep planter is a good choice.

How to Layer Bulbs YouTube
Layering bulbs in containers promises a great display come spring.

If you choose bulbs that flower at similar times you can create quite a display, but if you choose an early flowerer such as crocus, a mid season bulb such as an early tulip and a later flowering tulip you can have a planter looking good for several months. Read Jean Vernon’s article on planting bulbs in layers. Planting bulbs in the borders is much the same as planting in a container, but you’ve probably got more room and you can usually rely on the rain to do the watering for you.

  • Decide where you want to plant them; a group is more effective than a row. Clear the area of weeds by digging over with a fork and remove any roots. Then dig out a hole that is at least twice the height of your bulbs.
  • Loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole and arrange the bulbs, with the tops pointing up, in the hollow. Don’t let them touch each other, leave a bulb space or more between each one.
  • Cover over with soil or more compost and water gently. It’s a good idea to mark where you have planted them so you don’t dig them up if you forget where they are.

When to plant

Plant the bulbs as soon as you can after you buy them. Don’t leave them in their packs kicking around the house. You can plant tulips late, so if you see bargain packs and want to have a go, then that’s a great way to get started, but remember they may flower later than they would normally. For the very best results buy the biggest, freshest bulbs you can find.

More on bulbs

Five bulbs to plant and forget.

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