Starting with a Simple Plan
First, decide where and how big you want your bulb garden to be. When you’ve determined where you want your bulb garden located, make a good estimate of the total area (the square footage) of the area to be planted. You may even want to make a rough sketch of the area to be planted. This will help you plan how many bulbs you should buy to create a dramatic bulb garden. Virtually all bulb catalogs and bulb packages in garden centers include information regarding the recommended spacing for specific bulbs.
Shop for the Right Bulbs
Many bulb catalogs have great deals on larger quantities, and some bulb catalogs even offer planned bulb gardens with recommended combinations and diagrams for planting. Generally speaking, within any specific variety, the larger the bulb, the higher the quality. Larger daffodil bulbs are almost always better than smaller daffodil bulbs, and they’re more expensive. The higher the quality, the more likely you are to have a great display the first year, and the more likely you are to have a bulb garden that will last several years.
Note however, that not all spring-flowering bulbs will last for many years. Daffodils tend to last a lot longer than most tulips, for example. Some Dutch gardeners actually regard most tulips as annuals. And, some bulbs are more likely to succumb to deer or rodents. Deer usually won’t eat daffodils, but they love tulips and lilies.
Check the bulb catalogs and web sites for complete information regarding deer tolerance.
Remove Sod from the Planting Area
If your new bulb garden is going to be in a location that is currently lawn, it’s much easier to remove sod than to attempt to till it into the soil. You don’t want grass plants to compete with bulbs for food and water.
Prepare the Soil for Planting
Bulbs need soil with good drainage. The objective is to prepare a bed that has both good tilth and good fertility. If your soil has a high clay content, you should till in compost or other organic material, ideally to a depth of at least 12″ and as much as 18″ deep if possible. Regardless of the size of your bulb garden, it’s much easier to plant in loose, tilled soil.
Remove the Soil or Make Wide Furrows for Planting
Depending on the size and shape of your bulb garden, you may want to temporarily remove the soil to a depth equal to the planting depth of the bulbs you’ll be planting (usually 8″ or so for tulips and daffodils, and 3 to 4″ for smaller bulbs). For narrower bulb gardens, you can use a tiller with a Plow attachment to create large planting furrows.
All bulbs need phosphorous for good root development. While all garden soil contains some amount of phosphorous, a new bulb garden will benefit from the addition of some phosphorous at the bottom of the planting bed. When you’ve removed the soil, or created your planting furrows, add some bulb fertilizer, bone meal, or superphosphate to the soil bed.
Position the Bulbs Properly
Most bulbs are somewhat flat on the bottom and “pointy” at the top. Place the bulbs with the pointy side up, and position the bulbs so that daffodil bulbs are 4 to 6 inches apart and tulips are 3 to 6 inches apart. Smaller bulbs, like crocus bulbs, can be planted 2 inches apart.
If you’re planting multiple varieties with different heights, position the taller flowers in the back of the garden, with the shorter flowers in front. It’s almost always more appealing to position the bulbs in “clumps” rather than rows to create a more dazzling display.
Carefully Cover the Bulbs
Replace half of the soil for mass plantings, or fill your planting furrow about halfway. Now is a good time to add a balanced slow-release organic fertilizer, especially if you’re planning on maintaining the bulb garden for many years.
Water gently to settle the soil around the bulbs and to give the bulb roots a good head start. Be careful not to over-water, as some bulbs will rot if they’re forced to sit in waterlogged conditions too long. If you’ve tilled the bulb bed as described above, you shouldn’t have any problems with bulbs rotting.
Replace the remainder of the soil, and water again – gently – just enough to settle the remaining soil.
Add a layer of mulch, to prevent late season weeds and to hold moisture.
Enjoy the Show Next Spring!
Daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths are great as cut flowers and also make wonderful bouquets for friends.
When the Show is Over
Don’t remove the foliage immediately after the flowers have bloomed. Even if the daffodil foliage begins to turn yellow or brown, the longer you leave it alone, the more energy will be sent back to the bulbs for the following year’s display. You may choose to “dead head” your flowers; this will usually divert energy that would otherwise be used for seed development back to the bulb for next year’s flowers.
Carefully Remove Foliage and Stems
You can carefully remove the foliage and stems, well after they’ve turned brown. Use a clean, sharp knife to cut foliage at the base of the soil, being careful not to “uproot” the bulbs. Or, you can simply mow the foliage with your lawn mower, if the bulb garden is large and the foliage is easily accessible.
Plant Flowering Annuals for Continuous Color
You can continue the show for the remainder of the season by planting annuals on top of your bulbs. Generally, bedding plants will result in a quicker display of color, but annuals can also be directly seeded. In either case, be careful not to dig too deep so that you don’t disturb the bulbs.