Spring just wouldn’t be the same without colorful bulbs leaping out of the ground to greet us. Tulips, daffodils, hyacinths – their very names put smiles on our faces. But if we’re going to enjoy these spring beauties at their best (or at all), we need to plan – and plant – ahead.

‘Pickwick’ Crocus

A group of ‘Pickwick’ crocus in spring look great under deciduous trees.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

HyacinthBlasting_225x148

Bulbs that don’t get enough cold treatment over the winter “blast” and won’t live up to their true potential.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Yellow daffodils

Sunny yellow daffodils greet spring warmly with their happy faces.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Tulips

Plant tulips very close together for a stunning spring display.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

It may seem kinda weird – preparing for your bright spring garden well before you’re even thinking how long it takes to prepare your Thanksgiving turkey. But like that roasted 21-pound bird, bulbs need time if they’re gonna “cook” properly. (Fortunately, planting these springtime bloomers is easier than defrosting a frozen turkey at the last minute.)

The most common spring bulbs, like tulips and daffodils, need a period of cold to signal the bulb to put down roots. If you don’t give your bulbs enough cold, they’ll repay you in spring with really short stems and flowers hidden in the foliage (a condition known as “blasting”). For a majority of garden-loving homeowners, this means bulbs should be planted in fall when the weather’s starting to cool. But if you live somewhere with mild winters, like the Gulf Coast, Southwest or coastal California, you’ll need to provide this cooling period without the help of Mother Nature and give your bulbs the cold shoulder in your fridge: Just put the bulbs in paper bags and stick ’em somewhere out of the way. (I used to put mine in the produce drawer.) Keep them there until things cool off around your house, or for a couple of months (like from October to December).

For the rest of us, October’s the perfect month for planting bulbs in most areas of the country. When planting, the general rule of thumb is to bury bulbs two to three times as deep as they are tall. So a 2-inch-tall bulb should be planted 4-6 inches below ground, and a 3-inch-tall bulb should be planted 6-9 inches deep. (Planting depth is taken from the base of the bulb.) Plant your bulbs with the pointed end up. If there’s no pointed end, look for threadlike roots, and plant that end down.

There’s really no date that makes it “too late” to plant bulbs. November – or even December – is okay in warm climates. You just don’t want to miss too much cold, since bulbs need those three or four months of cold temperatures, and they need time to put down a healthy root system. The problem you run into is rain and snow: Who wants to plant bulbs into soggy soil (or while wearing a winter coat)?

How you get your bulbs in the ground is up to you. Some people like to use a bulb planter, but I think these are too much work. I prefer the good ol’ shovel. I dig an area big enough to plant half a dozen or more bulbs, then I plant them really close. I place crocus bulbs about an inch apart, tulips 2 inches apart and daffodils 3 inches apart. I like to mix and match colors, too.

Another bulb-planting method is to go for the “natural” look and just drop or throw your bulbs like you’re shooting craps, then plant them where they fall. (Just don’t forget to make sure they’re pointed in the right direction before you bury them.) Last year, I bought 40 mixed daffodils and planted them in random-color groups of five or 10. I ended up with every color, from all-yellow to white to shades of salmon. (Waiting to see what colors would pop up in spring was half the fun of growing the bulbs in the first place.)

Bulbs can be tucked into small spaces just about anywhere in the garden. Plant them under deciduous trees like maples, next to a mailbox post or anywhere in a flower bed. I like to put very early bloomers (like crocus) in a highly visible place – next to a driveway or sidewalk, for example.

Bulbs can be planted in containers, too. You can plant a mixture of spring bulbs, or mix them with spring annuals like pansies. One word of caution: Bulbs planted in containers can be killed by very cold temperatures, since there’s less soil around the bulbs to insulate them. If you live in the northern US, play it safe and plant your bulbs in the ground. For more Southern gardeners, move pots into the garage on those really cold nights.

In late winter or very early spring, the first flowers to emerge are usually crocus, followed by daffodils and then tulips. (With daffodils and tulips, leaves come up first and are followed about a month later by the flowers.)

Spring bulbs are easy to grow because there’s not much to do other than dig, plant and enjoy. So why not invest a little time and money in them this fall? Come spring, you’ll be glad you did.