Your Bulb Questions, Answered

Surefire bulbs backfiring? Solve common bulb challenges with our faithful advice. This advice on how to grow bulbs will guarantee you the best garden on the block.

Bulbs electrify your garden with some of the most spectacular colors of the entire year, whether they are annuals that are here for a season or perennials that will bless your garden in the future. Although beautiful, they can seem intimidating for a beginner bulb-planter, and present issues with pesky animals and overwintering challenges. We answer some of your most common bulb questions so you can have a successful growing season.

Q: Animals are eating my bulbs before they can flower. How do I stop this?

Organic animal repellants generally work, as long as you apply them regularly to keep new growth protected. Another option is to use unpalatable bulbs. While tulips and crocus are like candy to deer and rabbits, alliums and daffodils are almost always left alone.

Q: Squirrels dig up my bulbs after I plant them. How do I stop them?

The tried-and-true solution to keeping squirrels away is chicken wire. Enclose bulbs in a small wire cage or plant the bulbs, then tack the wire flat over the surface of the ground. A layer of mulch will conceal the chicken wire.

See our top 10 tips for protecting bulbs here.

Q: When is the latest time to plant bulbs?

Sitting at room temperature, as they often do when people forget to plant them, most bulbs will lose viability by December, if not sooner. Bulbs slowly but steadily decline until they're planted, so it's best to plant as soon as you get them. September and October are ideal times to plant bulbs. Regardless of timing, make sure you discard any bulbs that are shriveled, rotten, or soft. Plant only firm, healthy bulbs.

Q: How do I keep potted bulbs from freezing over the winter?

In warmer climates, say Zone 8 or higher, potted bulbs can be left out all winter. In colder zones, place the pots in an unheated garage or shed. Or place them next to your home's foundation, then pile mulch deeply around and on top of them. Uncover or bring them outside in early spring.

Q: Do I need special bulbs to force, or can I force any kind?

The reason paperwhites are popular for forcing is that they can be planted at any time without a period of chilling. But most bulbs can be forced if you refrigerate them for 10-12 weeks in a paper bag. (Be sure there is no ripening fruit nearby, which can harm bulbs.) Then plant them in pots or in a vase with gravel, below, where the roots can grow down into water.

Get your guide to forcing bulbs here.

Q: How do I grow bulbs that aren't cold-hardy in my climate zone?

Garden retailers generally sell tender bulbs such as gladiolus, below, freesia, tuberose, dahlia, canna, caladium, and calla lilies in spring, when they can be planted without danger of an impending freeze. In fall, dig them up and store them in dry peat moss, and keep them cool—never frozen—until spring. Or simply discard them.

Q: How do I get all the bulbs in a combination to bloom at the same time?

The surest bet is to buy prepackaged combos—bulb growers devise these mixes for exactly that purpose. To make your own combinations, note the descriptions on bulb packages and in catalogs, which categorize bloom time as early, mid, or late. For simultaneous (or nearly so) flowering, combine bulbs in the same category. Also, jot down bulbs you notice blooming on the same date in your area, then use that list as a guide.

See our favorite beautiful bulb combinations here.

Q: Can I transplant bulbs?

Yes. Wait until the foliage has died down in summer. Then dig up the bulb and immediately replant it in its new location. Some naturalizing bulbs, especially daffodils, benefit from transplanting when old, overcrowded clumps cease blooming. Dig up these clumps, separate the individual bulbs, and replant them several inches apart. They should start to bloom again in a couple of years.

Q: Tulip leaves grow in the spring, but I never see any blooms. What can I do?

There are a few reasons why this might be happening. Growing tulip bulbs is easy, but you need to know the intricacies of tulip care to make the bulbs grow year after year. One reason why you may not see tulip flowers is that the bulbs did not have enough chilling time. Another thing to look into when practicing tulip bulb care is the fertilitiy of the soil. Keep in mind: some varieties are just not meant to serve as perennials. Research which type you planted to see how many times they are supposed to bloom.

Learn how to grow tulips here.

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