Fall Bulbs Made Easy: What, When and How to Plant

Updated August 18, 2021
Planting Crocus Fall Bulbs

The best time to plant fall bulbs is usually when it's still comfortable enough to work outside and the ground isn't frozen, but there's no likelihood that temperatures will turn warm again. That balancing act can be tricky, especially when Mother Nature turns her whimsical eye on your gardening zone, but for the most part, you can use several rules of thumb to judge when to plant fall bulbs.

Spring-Blooming Bulbs to Plant in Fall

There are so many different types of plants to choose from when selecting your fall bulbs. One thing to keep in mind is to try to plan a bit so you have something blooming all spring long; look for early-, mid-, and late-spring bloomers to keep you in blooms from the last cold days of winter right through until early summer. It's also worth keeping in mind that certain bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, have early, mid, and late-blooming varieties, giving you even more options for spring color.

Early Spring Blooming Bulbs

Some of the earliest bloomers, such as aconite, bloom even when there is still snow on the ground, giving your garden what is likely to be a much-appreciated dash of color very early in the season.

Fall Bulbs blue scilla luciliae flowers

Mid-Spring Blooming Bulbs

Mid-spring bloomers often fill that lull before the late spring and early summer cacophony of color that so many gardeners look forward to.

Fall Bulbs Hyacinth

Late Spring Blooming Bulbs

These bulbs take a bit more time to bloom, almost acting as a herald for all of the summer blooms ahead, and can be a wonderful way to add an additional pop of color to your garden

Fall Bulbs White Dutch Iris flowers

When to Plant Fall Bulbs

Fall bulbs are actually spring flower bulbs. All those bags full of things that look like miniature onions at the garden center are actually full of bulbs, a portion of the root system of a plant. They must be planted in the fall before they blossom in the spring into cheery crocus, fragrant hyacinth, sunny daffodils and majestic tulips.

Spring Flowers Need Winter Chills

You've probably heard the old saying, "April showers bring May flowers." What also brings May flowers such as tulips is a long period of cold weather. Most spring flowering bulbs need several weeks of near-freezing or below-freezing temperatures in order to bloom. That's why spring bulbs must either be chilled in the refrigerator if forcing them to bloom indoors in pots or planted during the fall to ensure they receive natural chilling over the winter.

Although it's more pleasant to garden during warm fall days, planting fall bulbs too soon may trick the bulbs into sprouting in the fall rather than waiting for springtime. Garden centers and retail stores stock bulbs many weeks before they should be planted in the ground. While it's fine to pick up packages of bulbs during the last half of summer, and indeed may be desirable to obtain the best selection, wait to plant them until cooler days arrive. Store them in a cool, dark place such as a garage, shed or basement until you're ready to plant them.

Plant Near Your Area's Frost Date

Most bulb packages are rather vague about when you should plant bulbs, and there's a good reason for that. There's really no hard and fast day by which you should plant them. The best time to plant fall bulbs varies according to the weather conditions, your gardening zone, and your availability. One easy way to know when to plant fall bulbs is to look up the frost date for your garden zone and schedule time to plant them near that date. The frost date is the average first frost date for your area, and it is usually a good indicator of the time of year when temperatures dip near freezing. This is usually a reliable indicator that fall has truly arrived.

Another way to remember when to plant fall bulbs is to use a holiday reminder. Columbus Day, Halloween, and even Veterans Day are days already marked on the calendar, and you may have off from work or school on or near that date, so you have plenty of time to garden. These days fall near or after the frost date for most gardening zones, so they make perfect memorable dates to know when to plant your fall bulbs.

Use Nature as a Guide

In olden times, farmers knew when to plant crops by nature's signals. These subtle signals may be more reliable than a calendar, for each year they shift slightly based on the current weather patterns and conditions. A sure sign that fall has truly arrived is seeing trees shedding their leaves. If you know one particular tree in your area, such as an oak tree, loses its leaves last, watch for the time of year when that tree starts to shed its leaves. It's time to get those fall bulbs into the ground.

How to Plant Fall Bulbs

Planting fall bulbs is fairly straightforward, though there are a few important things to keep in mind. The first is to make sure you've selected a site with the light and soil requirements your particular bulbs need. Most spring-blooming bulbs need full sun. You'll also want to make sure you're not planting in an area that stays soggy, because your bulbs will be more likely to rot than bloom. Once you have the right site selected, there are just a few more steps.

How to Plant Fall Bulbs
  1. Dig your holes. You can use either a bulb planter or a shovel or trowel. The important thing is to dig the hole so it's two to three times as deep as the height of the bulb. This is a general guideline, but you can also check the label on whatever bulbs you purchased, and that will tell you how deep they should be planted. If you're planting a lot of bulbs at once, you can dig one wide hole for all of them, or do them one at a time.
  2. You don't need to worry about fertilizing your bulbs at planting time; they have all the nutrients they need for root growth and to sprout in the spring. Fall bulbs are best fertilized in spring, when the leaves emerge.
  3. Once your hole is ready, it's time to plant the bulb. It's important to make sure you're planting it in the right direction; there's a root end and a stem end. The stem end is the pointier end, and you'll want to make sure you plant it with that end of the bulb facing up.
  4. Cover the bulbs with soil.
  5. If pests are an issue, consider covering the area with chicken wire, and then mulching over that to keep animals from digging up your bulbs.
  6. Mark the location so you remember what you planted there. You'll thank yourself next spring when you're wondering where you planted the bulbs.
  7. If garden space is an issue, or you'd like bulbs for porch or patio planters, you can also plant bulbs in containers.

Plan Ahead for Spring Color

With a bit of planning and some work in the fall, you can make sure your garden is full of blooms next spring, and for many springs to come. To get continuous color, it pays to pay attention to the bloom time on any bulbs you purchase, and you can have blooms from very early spring, straight into summer.

Fall Bulbs Made Easy: What, When and How to Plant