How to Plant Early Spring Flower Bulbs in Fall

Just as winter reaches the point where it seems it may never end, there is a glimmer of hope. Tiny green foliage emerges from the frosty ground in very early spring, followed quickly by pretty blooms. Aptly named snowdrops are the first blooms that emerge, followed by showier mid-season blooms, such as daffodils and tulips.1 By planting a variety of early spring-blooming bulbs, you can enjoy the progression of winter into spring with each new flower. But that means planning ahead and planting bulbs in the fall.

Selecting the Right Bulbs

While it is tempting to select a bulb variety solely based on its appearance, you must first make sure that type of flower will grow in your hardiness zone. Every region in the United States is assigned a hardiness zone by the United States Department of Agriculture, based on the average annual minimum winter temperature.2 Once you know your flower selection can grow in your region, choose a color scheme. With so many varieties of spring bulbs, you can select a collection to best match your landscape, or choose a wide variety of colors for a more "wildflower" look.

Consider selecting at least one bloom from each category below to keep a steady supply of color in your landscape.1

Early season blooms:

Mid-season blooms:
Late season blooms:
Mid-season tulips
Giant Onions (Allium giganteum)
Late Tulips
Early tulips
  Siberian Squill

Planting Flower Bulbs

Well-drained soil is necessary for bulbs to survive year after year. Soggy soil causes bulbs to rot3, [Link to Root Rot story] so amend dense soils before planting. Since bulbs should be left undisturbed in garden beds for several years before being divided, do all soil work prior to planting. Take the following steps to plant:

  1. Select a location with good drainage in full sun.3
  2. Loosen the soil with a tiller or spade, and then remove debris, such as rocks and sticks.
  3. Add any necessary soil amendments, blending them in well. For dense, clay soils, add Pennington® Fast Acting Gypsum, which starts working immediately to help loosen compacted soils. Pennington® Earthworm Castings 1.5-0-0 contains natural plant nutrients for healthy growth and adds valuable organic matter to the soil. A traditional plant food for bulbs is Lilly Miller® Bone Meal 6-12-0, which adds phosphorus to support healthy bulb development to produce the best blooms.
  4. Bulb planting depth differs between varieties, so dig a hole to the depth recommended on the package instructions.
  5. Place the bulb in the hole, pointy side up.
  6. Backfill the hole with soil, and water thoroughly.
  7. Top with 3 to 5 inches of light mulch, such as leaves or straw, to help keep the soil temperature consistent.1
Tulips Daffodil

Caring for Bulbs Annually

Bulbs are low-maintenance, but they do require some attention to enable them to reach their full potential. As the soil begins to warm in the spring, remove mulch to allow the soil temperature to get warm enough to encourage growth. Allow the greens and flowers to grow undisturbed.1

After the blooms begin to fade, fertilize with Alaska® Morbloom Fertilizer 0-10-10, which promotes vigorous root growth and colorful flowers. Once the blooms are spent, remove the flower heads but leave the green foliage.4 While the foliage can be unattractive, it is necessary to leave it undisturbed as long as possible to allow the plant to store up food and energy for next year's bloom. Once the foliage begins to turn brown, remove the foliage by cutting the plant to the ground.

Because bulbs multiply underground, the garden bed can get crowded, causing the flowers to not bloom as well. Dig up and divide bulbs every three to four years, or as needed, and replant or share the extra bulbs with friends.

This autumn, get the whole family involved in your garden by choosing a beautiful day to plant spring bulbs before the ground freezes. Winter may be long, but by the time the cold weather departs, your patience and work will be rewarded with beautiful spring flowers.

Pennington is a registered trademark of Pennington Seed, Inc. Lilly Miller and Alaska are registered trademarks of Central Garden & Pet Company.


"Spring Flowering Bulbs," University of Minnesota Extension, 2013

"U.S.D.A. Plant Hardiness Zone Map," United States Department of Agriculture

James R. Feucht and James Klett, "September is the Ideal Time to Plant Spring Bulbs," Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, 2010

Ron Cornwell, "Bulbs & More: Planting & Care," University of Illinois Extension, 2015