How To Plant Bulbs

How To Plant Bulbs

Planting bulbs is a little bit like investing in the future. You are putting faith in that little store of energy to produce a flower months down the line. Planting bulbs is one of my favourite things to do in the garden just for the pure joy of when they finally make an appearance later on in the year.

Beautiful Bulbs

Bulbs are great planted in borders, containers or naturalised in grass and the variety available include some of the earliest flowers of the year (snowdrops and daffodils) as well some of the most dramatic (alliums and dahlias).

In most cases once a bulb goes in and cared for in the right way the flowers will come back year after year. Getting the planting right will ensure you get a great display from your bulbs and it is a simple process that doesn’t take long at all.

What Exactly Is A Bulb?

what is a bulb

The bulb itself is a store of energy. The energy required for the plant to grow, produce leaves and flowers. 

The simplest way to picture a bulb, although they come in many forms, is just like an onion, which in itself is a bulb. You will notice the top of the bulb has a central growth shoot which is where the plant will grow from and a basal plate that is where the roots will form.

Types Of Bulb

There are two main types of bulb which can be categorised just like annuals as hardy or tender. The difference between the two is when the are planted and flower.

Spring Flowering Bulbs

Hardy bulbs are planted as the weather gets colder from autumn into winter. They spend the coldest part of the year in the ground and when the weather starts to warm in the spring this is what they flower. 

spring flowering bulbs

This cold period in the ground is needed for the bulb to actually grow and flower so this is why spring flowering bulbs need to be planted before the ground hardens over winter.

Summer / Autumn Flowering Bulbs

summer flowering bulbs

Tender bulbs flower during the summer months and right into autumn depending on the species. Tender bulbs are usually planted in spring once the soil has warmed.

Being tender these bulbs are not tolerant of cold or frost and often need to be lifted or moved to a sheltered spot where they can be stored over the winter and replanted again in the spring each year.

Tools To Plant Bulbs

Planting bulbs is as simple as making a hole large enough to fit the bulb in the covering it over.

What can be intensive is planting lots of bulbs. To get a great show you likely want to plant lots of bulbs and depending on where you are planting them the going can be tough.

For example planting bulbs to be naturalised in grass means more work than planting them in a border. Using a dedicated tool speeds things up and makes the job much more enjoyable.

Dibber: a dibber is a small pointed tool that is great for planting smaller bulbs. Whilst you may not be able to plant large bulbs with a dibber it is by far the fastest tool for planting small bulbs. 

It is simply a case of taking the dibber, pushing it into the ground to the depth the bulb needs to be planted (more on that in a moment) and then dropping in the bulb and covering with soil. 

A dibber will work in borders, containers and is equally good at planting in grass and leaving minimal evidence.

Bulb Planter: A bulb planter is great for any size bulb and equally is very quick and simple to use. 

Bulb Planter

A bulb planter is either a hand held device or has a long handle allowing it to be used standing up. The shape of a bulb planter is a tapered cylinder which is pushed into the earth. When pulled out a plug of soil is removed, a bulb can be dropped in and the plug of earth pushed back onto the bulb.

A hand bulb planter is good for softer soil and if you are planting a few bulbs, I would recommend a longer bulb planter with a shoulder to allow it to be pushed in with your foot if you are planting a lot of bulbs or into grass.

Garden Auger: If you are planting in very hard ground and have lots of bulbs to get through an auger is a good tool to have. Attached to a cordless drill you can create a lot of holes very quickly.

How Deep Do Bulbs Need To Be Planted?

There seems to be a lot of conflicting information about how deep you are planting bulbs. 

The easiest way to determine the depth a bulb needs to be planted at is to use the height of the bulb. In most cases you simply need to plant the bulbs at a depth of 2 – 3 times the height of the bulb.

bulb depth

This indicates that the larger the bulb the deeper it needs to be planted which makes perfect sense. A Hyacinth which has a large bulb needs planting about 7 inches / 18 cm deep whereas a Crocus which is fairly small needs planting at a depth of around 3 inches.

In most cases if the dept of the bulb is not exactly right it isn’t going to cause any problems. In a few cases if the depth of the bulb is to shallow or much to deep the plant may not bloom. If you plant multiple bulbs in the same area you are likely to not even notice.

Which Way Up?

If you put in bulbs upside down then they are not going to grow. Fortunately, it is quite simple to see which way round a bulb grows. 

Daffodils, tulips, crocus, alliums all have a pointed end just like an onion, which is where the plant shoots from. The bottom has the basal plate which is sometimes stubbly is where the roots grow from. This basal plate needs to be pointing down into the soil.

Other types of bulb such as corms or rhizomes are not as clear but still have points of growth which indicate this is where the plant will shoot from and need to point upwards.

Anemone bulbs look more like peas or seeds and can be planted any way up.

Planting Bulbs In Grass

crocus bulbs in grass

Planting bulbs in grass is a great way to make the most out of the space in your garden. 

Called naturalising, many early bulbs are suitable for planting in a lawn or a wooded area. Making use of this space where you don’t normally have any flowers adds an extra dimension to your garden.

  • Daffodils
  • Muscari
  • Fritillaria
  • Snowdrops
  • Crocus

All do well in lawns but you must choose their placement with a little care as you will need to leave the foliage in place after flowering so energy can be reserved for flowering the following year. This means that you can’t mow the area of grass until the foliage has died back.

Good places to plant are around the bases of trees, woody shrubs and in corners which can be left unclipped for a month or more after flowering without causing a problem.

Planting In Containers

bulbs in pots

Planting up containers and pots is a great idea and can easily be moved around the garden so you have a great display right up close to the house where you may not have any borders or beds.

Small and miniature varieties of bulbs like crocus and tete a tete do well in pots and containers whereas taller plants like tulips need larger containers or they tend to flop over when caught in a breeze. 

If you have large enough containers, however, almost any bulb will grow well and keeping them in a sheltered warmer spot will make them less susceptible to damage from wind and frosts. 

Can You Leave Bulbs In The Ground All Year Round?


Spring flowering bulbs need to be planted by early winter and have a period of cold weather to flower at all so these types of bulbs need to be left in the ground over the winter

To ensure they return the next year spring flowering bulbs need to have their foliage left intact after flowering until it dies back. This is to ensure the bulbs can store the energy reserves it needs to grow again the following year.

Lifting Summer Flowering Bulbs

Tender bulbs or summer flowering bulbs are more finicky and often do not like cold and wet conditions. 

If you want to free up some space, reorder a border or free up a pot or container then you will need to lift and store the bulbs.

If you live in an area where you get lots of frost or where the drainage is not good then you should be lifting at least some of these summer flowering bulbs and storing in wrapped in layers of newspaper in dark frost free place.

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