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Plant bulbs in fall for spring beauty

  • Spring-blooming bulbs give so much beauty for so little effort. Once they are planted, they are basically carefree. Leaves and stems are waiting patiently inside their little brown packages until a bit of rain and winter chill signals their inner calendar that it’s show time. With a bit of planning, you can enjoy successive waves of color in your garden from February through June. Bulbs make few demands, but there are some keys to success:

    • Buy top-size bulbs. Budget-priced bulbs generally yield smaller flowers. Order in summer from reliable bulb catalogs or online sources for the best variety. If buying from a nursery, select firm bulbs with no soft spots.
    • Location: Choose a sunny or partially shaded spot depending on the species' light requirements.
    • Soil: If the planting area doesn't have fast-draining soil, amend it with organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure, to a depth of 8 to 12 inches. Bulbs sitting in sodden heavy clay soil will rot.
    • Planting: Check the planting instructions for each type of bulb, but as a rule of thumb, plant at a depth three times the height of the bulb. 
    • Arrangement: Arrange the bulbs in informal clusters, rather than singly or in rows, for a showier display. For mass plantings, some gardeners recommend tossing the bulbs on the prepared soil and digging them in where they fall.
    • Deer and rodents: Most bulbs are deer and rodent resistant, except for tulips, which gophers and deer savor.
    • Pollinators: Plants that are extra attractive to pollinators include allium, anemone, camassia, chionodoxa, and muscari.
    • Chilling: Tulips and hyacinths should be prechilled for at least 4-6 weeks before planting. You can prechill them in a refrigerator but keep them away from apples and other fruits, which emit ethylene gas that can harm the bulbs. Plant the bulbs immediately after removing them from the refrigerator.
    • Care: After the flowers have died in spring, allow the leaves to stay in place until they turn brown. Do not tie or braid the leaves; they need sunlight to produce food to replenish the bulb. Choose planting sites where the dying foliage will be camouflaged by other plants.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons
    While most of the large-flowered tulips do not come back reliably after our mild winters, the smaller species tulips often provide a repeat performance. Try Tulipa bakeri, Tulipa clusiana or Tulipa saxatilis. Warning: gophers devour tulip bulbs. 

    Good naturalizers

    Gardeners immediately think of daffodils when imagining drifts of eye-popping spring color, but there are many other bulb species that naturalize readily. In addition to multiplying year after year, these species have the added bonus of being deer and rodent resistant:

    Allium sphaerocephalon

    Allium sphaerocephalon (drumstick allium). Egg-shaped clusters of crimson-purple flowers, 24 inches tall. July.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    Anemone blanda

    Anemone blanda 'Blue Shades' (Grecian windflower). Hyacinth-blue flowers, 4 inches tall. April/May.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons


    Brodiaea (blue dick). Shades of blue, 18-24 inches tall. Native to West Coast. May/June.

    Photo: Mike L. Baird


    Calochortus (Mariposa tulip). Choose from white, yellow, pink or lilac varieties, 12-24 inches tall. Native to California. May/June.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    Camassia leichtlinii caerulea

    Camassia leichtlinii caerulea (wild hyacinth). Racemes of light to dark lavender-blue flowers, 24-30 inches tall. Native to northwest U.S. May/June.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    Chionodoxa luciliac

    Chionodoxa luciliac (glory of the snow). Lavender-blue with small white centers, 5-6 inches tall. April.

    Photo: pixabay
    Galanthus elwesii

    Galanthus elwesii (giant snowdrop). Creamy-white flowers tipped green, 5-8 inches tall. March/April.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    Hyacinthoides hispanica

    Hyacinthoides hispanica 'Excelsior' (Spanish bluebell). Racemes of bell-shaped blue-violet flowers, 12-15 inches tall. May.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    Hyacinthoides non-scripta

    Hyacinthoides non-scripta (English bluebell). Racemes of bell-shaped dark violet-blue flowers, 18 inches tall. May.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons


    Ipheion (spring starflower). Petite star-shaped flowers range from white to periwinkle blue, 3-6 inches tall. April/May.

    Photo: pixabay

    Iris douglasiana

    Iris douglasiana (Pacific Coast iris). Although these grow from rhizomes rather than bulbs, they are beautiful naturalizers. Available in white, yellow, purple, blue, pink, maroon, copper, and many other shades, 8-24 inches tall. Native to California. May/June.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    Leucojum aestivum

    Leucojum aestivum (summer snowflake). Racemes of bell-shaped milk-white flowers, 12-15 inches tall. May/June.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    Muscari armeniacum

    Muscari armeniacum (blue grape hyacinth). Miniature grape-like clusters of cobalt-blue flowers, 6 inches tall. April/May.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons


    Narcissus (daffodil). Hard to go wrong with this springtime beauty.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

    Scilla peruviana

    Scilla peruviana (Peruvian scilla). Dome-shaped clusters of blue-purple starlike flowers, 12 inches tall. April/May.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons 

    Scilla siberica

    Scilla siberica 'Spring Beauty' (Siberian squill). Vivid sky-blue flowers, 5 inches tall. April.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons


    Triteleia are small bulbs that send up strong, 1-foot stems with white or blue star-shaped blooms. Full sun or part shade. Late spring or early summer. Triteleia laxa is a California native commonly found on Marin open space preserves.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons