When it’s cold outside, one way to retain your sanity is to plan for spring. That can mean starting seeds indoors, or, if you live in a drier climate, planting bulbs for spring flowers.

Here in Albuquerque, it’s fine to plant spring bulbs in January. Bulbs are amazingly adaptable. I planted most of mine in November, which is what the bulbs themselves prefer, but what I didn’t get to in November, I’m planting now. (Albuquerque is at 5,000 feet; our days have been clear and sunny, 45-49°, nights in the teens; today’s high is 52°.)

Recently I read a blog that offered advice on how to layer bulbs in a flower bed. Most of his advice was very good, but I believe he was wrong about one key point. I don’t want to call him out by name, because all gardeners are experimenters. What works for one person may not work for someone else. All of his bulbs will grow, so it doesn’t necessarily matter to me how he got them to, but at the same time, it is incorrect information floating around out there. And since I think I know the correct info, I thought I should clarify why I believe what I believe.

So I’m going to take the opportunity to show you how I layer bulbs, and why. Then you can see for yourself the decisions involved in each step.

If you have any questions or have your own tips, please leave them in the comments section.

How To Layer Spring Bulbs in a Flower Bed or Container Garden

First, why do you want to layer spring bulbs?

In flower beds or container gardens, if you layer your bulbs, you can have continuous blooming from March through June/July. It’s the same thing gardeners do in the ground, but in containers there’s not room to spread out so you have to plant vertically.

Most people understand the natural lifecycles of spring flowers. Crocuses are among the first to pop their cheerful little heads through the snow, signalling the approach of spring. Galanthus ‘Snowdrop’ is also an early bloomer. Later, the Daffodils appear, then Tulips, Alliums. You follow me, right?

Layering bulbs in a container is a way of recreating those cycles in a small space.

By adding spring bulbs to your container, you’re adding an extra season of color to your garden. When the bulbs are finishing their work, your summer garden – all the perennials you previously planted – should be coming into its own.

And we all want an extra season, of course!

I’ll use photos from some of my own recent bulb planting as examples to walk you through the process. Last fall, I bought bulbs from Van Engelen, Inc. That was the first time I’ve ordered from them, and I’m happy with the purchase so far (it’s too early for any of them to have bloomed). They included detailed planting guides, which were fantastic. They also grouped their bulbs for me – I bought an early spring bloomers collection, and a late spring bloomers collection, and one for my home garden called the Magical Lavender/Blue collection.

Full disclosure: The folks at Van Engelen may cringe if they find out I planted their bulbs in containers. They recommend planting in the ground. They also recommend planting in the fall, before winter. I understand their concerns. But I’m not planting in the ground here in the desert – our soil quality is terrible. And I firmly believe you can plant bulbs in containers with great success. I guess we shall see come March and April.

In case you’re not lucky enough to have the bulbs separated for you, I’ll break it down. Since I don’t have my own photos to share of the flowers, I’m going to borrow liberally from the Van Engelen website and hope they’re cool with that.

Let’s get started:

Step One: Separate your bulbs into early and late blooming piles. You can also separate your bulbs by color. You may want to make a chart to help you keep track of each bulb’s height, color and projected bloom time.

Step Two: Organize your bulbs by planting depth. Here’s how bulb planting works in general: The bulbs that bloom the latest also grow the tallest and should be planted the deepest. These are your Alliums (certain varieties), Tulips and Narcissus bulbs. The bulbs that bloom the earliest also produce the shortest flowers and should be planted the most shallow. Like Crocus, Scilia, Galanthus. There are some exceptions, like varieties of Allium that get super tall but are planted a little more shallow than their cousins.

The blogger’s error that I mentioned earlier was that he said the biggest bulbs should be planted the deepest. That’s not necessarily true. Lots of Allium bulbs bloom later than the rest, so they should be planted the deepest. But Allium bulbs can be small compared to other bulbs.

Here are some Allium bulbs (on the right) next to Nacissus bulbs (on the left):

Good To Grow, Liza's photos, How To Plant Spring Bulbs

The Narcissus bulbs pictured above should bloom in late April/early May, while the Allium bulbs should bloom in July.

It may seem a little nitpicky, but I hope not. I think it’s important to understand that planting bulbs isn’t about the size of the bulbs (although the blogger was right that usually the big ones are planted the deepest) but rather, when they bloom. The late blooming bulbs need extra time to grow as tall as they do, and extra room. That’s why you plant them the deepest.

Let’s look at photos (all from Van Engelen’s website unless otherwise noted) of flowers from the bulbs I’m talking about, starting with early bloomers:

Crocus (photo not from Van Engelen):

Crocus

Eranthis hyemalis:

best_eranthis_hyemalis_extra

Galanthus:

galanthus_elwesii_main

Chionodoxa:

chionodoxa_forbesii_extra

Iris reticulata, Rock Garden:

iris_rock_garden_harmony_main

Fritillaria meleagris:

frit_meleagris_extra_2_

Muscari:

musc_armeniacum_main

And now mid- to late-bloomers:

Narcissus (photo not from Van Engelen):

narc_nat_mix_grand_mix_main

Hyacinthoides hispanica:

hyac_hispanica_excelsior_main

Tulips:

tul_single_early_christmas_orange_main

Allium sphaerocephalon:

1280.IMAGE

Allium azureum:

A1134B

(The two Alliums pictured are part of the exception to the rule, as they should be planted about 4″ deep, several inches more shallow than their cousins.)

Step Three: Prepare the bed or container for planting.

In my case, I needed to dig under the plants that had been growing previously in the containers, and also remove the mulch. Here’s my awesome friend Judie preparing one of the container gardens:

Good To Grow, Liza's photos, How To Plant Spring Bulbs

If you’re creating a container for the first time, your job is much easier. You would fill the bottom with your good quality soil, add your latest blooming bulbs, add an inch or two more soil, add the next to latest blooming bulbs, and so on until the earliest blooming bulbs are about 4″ below the surface.

Since my containers were already full of soil, we dug down about 6″. The latest blooming bulbs need to be planted 6-8″ deep.

Step Four: Place the bulbs on top of the soil to make sure you have the design you want. This is where you want to think about color and height.

Now, before I show you the next photo, and before you scream, “Nooooooooo, that’s too many!” I’ll preemptively (defensively?) say that A) After looking at the photo back when I planted these, I did go back and take out eight of the early blooming bulbs – even I have my limits; and B) I love me a crowded container! and C) No really, cramming tons of flowers into small spaces is a favorite gardening technique of mine, seriously!

Here are the bulbs laid out pre-planting:

Good To Grow, Liza's photos, How To Plant Spring Bulbs

Remember, they got planted at different depths, so the bulbs look more crowded in that photo than they actually are.

There is a straight line of Allium at the back of the container. They got planted the deepest, about 8″.

Then comes a semicircle of tulips, we planted those at about 7″ deep.

Next is a ring of Hyacinths, planted 6″ deep.

Then the early bloomers are scattered on top, Eranthis, Crocus, Scilia, Galanthus, and Fritillaria. Each about 4″ deep.

Step Five: Once you’re satisfied on your bulb design, plant your bulbs. You may have to dig down a little ways in the soil to reach your 8″ depths. Gradually add soil to make up for soil lost from your container in the previous year. Once the bulbs are in the soil, replace the mulch, replant any plants you may have removed, and water the container thoroughly.

Whether you plant your bulbs in the fall or winter, you still need to water them from time to time throughout the cold season. Here in the desert, once February hits, you’ll want to amp up your watering schedule so you can get a proliferation of blooms in March, April, May and beyond.

The bulbs will multiply as the years go by, so it’s important to dig them out and split them from time to time. The plus side of that is that you’ll never have to buy bulbs again.

If you’ve never tried to plant spring flowering bulbs, hopefully this guide is helpful. I’m sure I’ll be posting 50 million photos of the back door container gardens in the coming months, so you’ll be able to see for yourself if it works or not.

Judie’s confident they will bloom just fine:

Good To Grow, Liza's photos, how to plant spring bulbs

Me, too!

If you’re stuck inside with icy conditions outside, I hope thinking about spring flowers helps you through the cold. Stay warm out there!

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