Bulb Planting Methods

What Is A Bulb?

The gardeners’ definition of a bulb is not strictly accurate botanically. In the garden a bulb may be taken to mean any kind of swollen underground tuber or fully dormant rootstock which can conveniently be lifted and stored dry during its resting season without harm to the plant, but some bulbs are certainly best left undisturbed from year to year, Madonna lilies for example; this is mainly because the resting season of lilies is very short, and it is not easy to move them without damage if the new season’s roots have begun to form. These exceptional bulbs are mostly grown in the herbaceous border, with the other hardy perennials, or among shrubs. The common bulbs, grown in formal flower beds and planted fresh seasonally are, however, what concern us.

planting bulbs

The spring bulbs are the showiest of all—tulips, narcissi, hyacinths and so on; they are well known to every gardener. It is not absolutely necessary to buy fresh bulbs every year, but it certainly pays to buy fresh ones for formal bedding schemes where strict uniformity of size, and in the date of flowering, are important.

The cultivation of bulbs is simplicity itself. When the natural soil of the garden is sandy, it is sufficient preparation to dig over the beds, and incorporate any available old decayed manure, leaves, etc. On heavy soils, however, bulbs may be inclined to decay if care is not taken. The soil should be dug well, to improve the drainage, and dressed with lime after digging to assist in breaking down the sticky lumps.

When the bulbs are planted a trowel should be used to open a hole for each, and a little sand should be kept handy, so that a small handful can be dropped into the prepared hole before the bulb is set in place. This prevents the accumulation of water at the base of the bulb, and so minimizes the danger of decay.

The depth and distance apart of bulbs used for formal bedding can be roughly estimated by the planter. About twice the bulb’s own depth of soil shoufd be over it, and the distance apart should be roughly about the same number of inches; e.g., assuming that a tulip bulb measures 2 in. from tip to base, it can be planted in a hole made 6 in. deep, and from 4 to 6 in. can be left between the bulbs. Remember, when planting in heavy soil that the holes must be a little deeper to allow for the handful of sand referred to above.

This is merely a rough guide, and some bulbs, particularly those that are to remain and naturalize themselves in the less formal parts of the garden, can do with deeper planting.


In planting large quantities of bulbs, an easy plan is to spread a layer of sand all over the beds first : then as each hole is made some of the sand falls in, the bulb is dropped in, and rests on the sandy base. All the holes can be filled in at one operation with the rake, leaving the bed neat and tidy. If other plants are set out from the nursery, with the bulbs, the planting is done alternately and the bulbs covered as the planting proceeds.

In this case the bulbs are best laid out on the soil surface first, so that the exact numbers necessary can be calculated.

When spring flowering bulbs have finished blooming they have not finished their normal season of growth. It is important to keep this fact in mind, since the bulbs will be useless another year if they cannot grow on through the early part of the summer, develop- ing more foliage, and by this means also making a fresh store of plant food in the bulb. However, since the appearance of gradually dying foliage is not pleasant in formal beds, the bulbs can be lifted, as carefully as possible, with soil round the roots, and these roots can be replanted in the nursery plot, or some part of the garden where they are not on view. They can then, if space is precious, be packed into deep boxes of soil and left there to finish their season of growth. Only when the foliage has completely turned colour should the bulbs be dried off, in the open air, and then stored until the autumn planting season.

Apart from the use of bulbs in the formal beds they are valued by gardeners for the patches of colour they give in the spring in all other parts of the garden—e.g., in groups in the mixed borders, in the rock garden, in the shrubbery, and under trees, where they can naturalize themselves in the grass.

A good practice is to buy fresh bufbs each season for the formaf beds, and to use those from the store shed for informal groups. In the mixed borders, or for naturalizing.

To plant for naturalizing a good way is to take a handful of bulbs and scatter them over the grass or woodland, planting them where they happen to rest. Irregular drifts are much more attractive than circles of bulbs round trees—an irregular drift spreading out widely to one side will appear very natural. Bulbs naturafize happily in banks, especially in grassy banks where the mower is seldom if ever used. The foliage of naturalized bulbs must, of course, die down gradually if the bulbs are to remain healthy season after season. The planter should remember that this will prevent the use of the mower until about midsummer. In the lawn, portions of turf can be turned back and replaced when the bulbs have been firmly set in place.

Certain bulbs do better than others for the various purposes. All the narcissus family—which includes the trumpet daffodils, short cup daffodils. Poet’s narcissus and many other types, all of which are fully described in catalogues—prefer early planting, and like if possible to grow on year after year without disturbance. They gradually increase in number and beauty in gardens where they can be left alone in this fashion. August is not too early to plant, if the bulbs are obtainable then.

Hyacinths are best planted in late September or October, and are fine for formal beds. The bedding size hyacinths should be used; they are less expensive than “top size” and generally more uniform. Hyacinths invariably deteriorate in gardens as the seasons pass, and old bulbs are only fit for woodland and orchard planting.

Tulips are the bedding bulbs that deservedly take pride of place in popular favour. They are uniform, brilliant, neat and reliable. Tulips should not be planted until November, for if they are too far forward in the early days of the year, and are subjected to too many hard frosts while the flower-bud is unprotected, they will fail to flower. Certain tulip types—the May flowering tulips for instance, and a number of the tulip species—will grow well if left undisturbed, but the main plantings of florists’ tulips should be regarded as bedding subjects, and lifted and dried for storing when the foliage yellows. Do not dry tulips in scorching sunshine, or the bulbs may be damaged; but see that they are thoroughly dried off before storing, or they may become mouldy.

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