Guide to Fall Bulb Planting: What to Plant, When and How

Page from 1949 Dreer's fall bulb catalog

Soon, summer will wind down. The weather will turn colder, the leaves will change colors and begin falling, and many of us feel sad our gardening season is wrapping up. It doesn’t have to be that way! Fall gardening can include more than yard cleanup and winter prep. As gardeners can get a jump start on early spring flowers by planting bulbs in the fall months. When temperatures begin to climb in the spring colorful blooms will open up to bring life back to our yards!

Planting bulbs in the fall is the primary way to ensure early spring color in the garden and flowerbeds. Some flowers bloom so early in the spring season it’s nearly impossible to get them in the ground quickly enough after it thaws (or warms up in general) to blossom in time. Many bulbs also need to be exposed to cold soil temperatures to force or encourage flowering.

Best Bulbs to Plant in the Fall

Let’s start by talking about some of the best bulbs for fall planting. Some of these are spring-flowering bulbs while a couple bloom a bit later in the season.

  • Daffodils – Members of the narcissus family, daffodils erupt in shades of white and yellow in mid-March to announce the arrival of spring. Historically, the yellow daffodil symbolizes rebirth and new beginnings.
  • Iris – Hardy, reliable, and easy to grow, irises make beautiful arrangements of cut flowers and help to attract butterflies and hummingbirds to your yard.
Fall bulbs catalog from 1916
As this 1916 catalog shows, fall bulbs have been popular a long time.
  • Tulips – A later bloomer than other spring-blooming ornamental, the iconic tulip still helps to announce warm weather has arrived. Most tulips wait to bloom until after the grape hyacinths and daffodils have made their appearance.
  • Lilies – Known for their sweet, strong scent, lilies are a staple in many landscapes. These beauties bloom for weeks in the summer, adding color after other fall-planted bulbs have stopped blooming.
  • Anemone – Symbolyzing fragility and love, anemone are similar in appearance to some varieties of poppies but are much easier to grow. Coming in many flower forms and colors, they make great cut flowers.
  • Crocus – Available in shades of purple, blue, pink, yellow, orange, and white, the tiny crocus is one of the first of all flower to blossom. Plant them by the dozens for a great show of color.
  • Grape hyacinth – The intensely fragrant grape hyacinth blankets the landscape with compact carpets of bright purple in early to mid-spring. Tiny flowers stand about 6” tall and easily spread.
  • Snowdrop – One of the first flowers to show in the spring, these little white bells often push through a light layer of snow. Hence, their name!
  • Scilla – One of the few bulbs that will survive in partial shade, scilla can be planted under shrubs or trees, providing waves of brilliant blue color in early spring.
  • Winter aconite – Another yellow beauty, the winter aconite pops up in later winter or early spring to a diminutive 3-6 inches tall. They are deer resistant and self-propagate through spreading seeds.
  • Allium – The allium family includes veggies such as onions, shallots, and garlic. Plant ornamental allium to add rodent and deer-resistant plants that require little care and thrive in dry, sunny spots in your yard.

Choosing Flower Bulbs to Plant

Flower bulbs in a box
To get the most out of your bulbs, you need to start with high-quality specimens. When shopping locally use the following guidelines.

Look for firm, plump bulbs with no soft spots or off odors.

Buy the largest bulbs you can find, unless you are naturalizing (planting in informal plantings so bulbs self-propagate and spread freely), then you can purchase smaller bulbs.

Lastly, make sure any flowers you choose to purchase are appropriate for your hardiness zone!

When to Plant Fall Bulbs

Similar to planting times for the different types of grasses, planting time for bulbs varies slightly depending on where in the United States you call home.

  • For Northern climates, it’s best to plant usually in late September to mid-October, to get bulbs in the ground ideally before the first frost of the season. Make certain you plant before the ground freezes solid so roots have a chance to start growing. Please note though, that tulips are an exception; as long as you can still get them into the ground in the fall or early winter, you can plant them.
  • For Southern climates, plant bulbs in mid-October through November. If it’s necessary you can plant them as late as December but the later you wait, the less time the bulbs have to establish themselves before the cold temperatures set in for the winter.

How to Plant Your Bulbs Planting bulbs using specialized tool

If you’re already familiar with planting other perennial or annual ornamentals, the steps to planting bulbs will seem somewhat similar.

Keep in mind though, bulbs are difficult to tell apart, so when you’re about to start planting keep the labels close by so you can keep your yellow tulips separate from the red ones or prevent an errant daffodil from ending up planted in the middle of your irises.

  1. Start by preparing the flowerbed to make it light and friable. Bulbs need well-drained soil to keep from being waterlogged and possibly rotting. If need be, work compost or sphagnum peat moss into the top 8-10 inches of soil. That will add organic matter and improve drainage.
  2. Determine the planting depth for each bulb type. The rule of thumb when planting flower bulbs is to bury them two to three times as deep as the bulb is tall.
  3. Dig holes at the recommended planting depth. Set bulbs in the bottom with the roots down and pointy side up. Specialized bulb-planting tools, available online or at gardening stores, include augur-style drills and tubular steel planters. If you’re unsure which end should go up, plant it on its side. Through a process known as geotropism, the roots of most bulbs will make their way down into the soil while the shoots grow up.
  4. Fill in the hole with soil, tamping gently without packing the soil too much. Water well initially and then avoid watering through the winter unless you live in an area with very low winter precipitation.

Tips for Growing Flowers From Bulbs

  • Plant in groups or clumps for the most impact visually.
  • Choose full sun locations in your garden or flowerbeds.
  • In cold areas cover bulbs with a couple of inches of mulch to protect during the winter. Be sure to remove it the next spring.
  • Protect bulbs from rodents or other animals. Place a mesh or screen over the soil surface to prevent critters from digging.
  • Add companion plants with different blooms times (early spring, late spring, early summer, late summer) in various heights and colors. That will extend color well past your spring garden.
  • Leave the foliage in place until it turns yellow or brown. This helps the bulb prepare for next year by storing food.
  • Dig up Tender summer blooming bulbs — also known as “spring bulbs” — every fall to avoid them succumbing to winter temperatures. Replant them in the spring. Spring bulbs include canna, amaryllis, calla, dahlias, elephant ear, caladium, ranunculus, and gladiolus.

Main image: Page from Dreer’s 1949 Fall Bulb Catalog

Amanda Shiffler

Amanda Shiffler

Most comfortable with soil under her fingernails, Amanda has an enthusiasm for gardening, agriculture, and all things plant-related. With a master's degree in agriculture and more than a decade of experience gardening and tending to her lawn, she combines her plant knowledge and knack for writing to share what she knows and loves.