There’s not much that rivals spring bulb bloom in the garden. The anticipation all winter. The inevitable forgetting where you planted bulbs or that you planted any at all. And then the show. It’s a wonderful annual event. But it takes work this time of year to make the magic happen.
Fall bulb planting is an annual ritual. You go out, dig up a chunk of earth, work in some organic matter, plant your tulips … and then the squirrels dig up 50% of them and the deer eat the other 50%.
But there is hope. Planting bulb containers this fall is a great way to flex your creative muscles without breaking the bank or your back. It also provides a way to minimize the frustrations we’ve all experienced as we battle the garden varmints.
First, here are a few basics to know about bulbs.
Why do I need to plant spring bulbs in the fall?
A spring-blooming bulb like a tulip, daffodil, or crocus, is a fleshy storage organ that contains the coming season’s leaves and flowers. They sit in the ground all winter, push out a few roots, and then when the conditions are right, they throw up their fresh heads and do their thing.
But before a tulip can put on its typical spring show, it needs to suffer through a little winter to break its internal dormancy, just like seeds of many temperate region tree and shrub species. If you buy a bulb this fall, pot it up, and place it on a sunny windowsill, chances are it will just sit there, and eventually rot. Without that few months of cold in the soil, it can’t do much.
The other one-two punch of bulb basics that many people miss is that bulbs do best when planted at the correct depth and the shallower the planting depth, the earlier the bulb will tend to bloom. An early-blooming, 1-inch diameter crocus bulb is best planted 2 inches below the soil surface while a much later-blooming, 3-inch diameter tulip will be most at home covered with about 6 or 8 inches of soil.
Why you should plant bulbs in containers
The benefits of growing bulbs in containers (rather than in the ground) are numerous and varied. Here are a few reasons:
1- Save your back:
Planting a few dozen bulbs in a 5-gallon container eliminates the need to work up a big bed of heavy, clay soil. It allows you to work on a nicely situated potting bench and limits creaky knees spending time in cold, damp soil.
2- They fit just about anywhere:
Don’t have a 5-acre backyard but still want a spring bulb display? No problem. Only have access to a small balcony but still have the garden bug? Easy peasy. If you have enough outside space for a bowling ball, you’re in good shape.
3- Variety is almost limitless:
If you’re a beginner, you’ll want to start out with the easy ones like crocus, daffodils, and tulips. There are hundreds of varieties, the colors range far and wide and their bloom times can range from late winter to mid or late spring.
4- Investment is minimal:
For a reasonable bulb planting to look good in a garden, it takes lots of bulbs – there’s not much that looks goofier in the garden than a single soldier row of red tulips along the front walk. But a bulb container on the terrace can be thrown together for minimal cost. Twelve to 15 bulbs each of three varieties, a bag of good quality potting mix and a container is about all you need.
5- They can sit just about anywhere:
What spring bulbs are best to grow in containers?
Mixing a few different types of bulbs is the best way to give you a nice, long bloom season. Starting off with the early blooming snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) or crocus (Crocus species and hybrids) will get you going nice and early. Following that up with some mid-season daffodils adds a bolder statement and offers tons of variety choices. Finishing up the season with a bold statement of hybrid tulips will take you right up to Kentucky Derby planting time. Of course, there are hundreds of species and thousands of hybrid bulb selections out there so once you get the bug with the basics, the sky’s the limit.
How do you plant spring bulbs in a container?
Start with a nice, large container. I like to go with a minimum of a 20-inch diameter container. And it’s best to use something that won’t be damaged by freeze/thaw cycles of winter. I like to plant my container bulbs in old black nursery containers that are indestructible. When they are ready to start flowering, I drop the planted plastic container into an appropriately sized decorative container. But the key is to go bigger than you think you need to give the bulbs room to flex some muscle.
For potting mix, get yourself a bag of good quality, soilless potting mix to make sure it will provide both the support and drainage the bulbs will require.
When it comes to planting, the idea is to plant the largest/latest bulbs deepest and the smallest/earliest bulbs near the surface. Start with 6 inches of potting mix in the bottom of the container and then alternate bulbs and potting mix, covering the top bulbs with about 2-inches of mix. I like to cover the top of the container with a layer of hardware cloth (secured with a piece of string around the outer rim of the container) to frustrate the chipmunks and voles. Just remember to remove it once the bulbs start popping their heads up in spring.
Once the container is all planted and watered, place it somewhere it will get nice and cold for the winter. I have used basement window wells, my unheated garage and have even had luck plunging the container in the middle of my compost/leaf pile. When they start showing a little green, move the container to your favorite spot and enjoy.
This article was originally published in the Courier Journal on October 20, 2023.