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Plant Bulbs for Early Spring Color

by Sarah Browning, UNL Extension Educator

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Planting flowering bulbs is a fall tradition for many gardeners, and there is still plenty of time to get your bulbs in the ground this fall. In eastern Nebraska, bulbs can be planted from late September through the end of October, ideally when soil temperatures are below 60 degrees. This allows the root system to develop before the ground freezes. If you buy bulbs ahead of planting time, store them in a cool, dry area. A temperature of 60-65 degrees is cool enough to preserve the energy of the bulbs until they can be planted; long periods of temperatures higher than 65 degrees can damage the flower within the bulb.

Most bulbs need full sunlight, so choose a planting site that gets at least five or six hours of direct sunlight per day. Very early blooming plants like grape hyacinth or crocus can be planted under trees since they bloom before the tree puts on new leaves. However, bulbs do need sun even after they bloom, since this is the time they store up energy for next year's floral display. So if you want the bulbs to bloom in successive years, the area should receive at least 10 hours of direct sun per day.

Most Nebraska soils have good levels of phosphorus so no fertilizer is needed at planting time, except for a little bone meal in each planting hole. Compost spaded into the entire planting area before the bulbs are planted is also beneficial.

This year a special consideration for success of your bulb planting, is soil moisture. Top soil, and sub soil, moisture levels are very, very low, so your planting will need irrigation to ensure good root development before the soil freezes. Without irrigation, your bulbs will not root in well, which in turn could result in frost heaving of the bulbs, or dessication (drying out) to the point of bulb death. Water the planting well after installation, and again every two weeks until the soil freezes. Also apply a three inch layer of wood chip mulch after planting to conserve soil moisture.

Among the most popular spring flowering bulbs are tulip, narcissus (daffodil), grape hyacinth, hyacinth and crocus. There are hundreds of spring flowering bulbs to choose from that produce plants varying in flower color, flower form and height.

When choosing bulbs or corms choose the largest available. Undersized bulbs may require one or two years of growth before they bloom.

Some design tips for using flowering bulbs in the landscape include:

  • Choose a variety of bulbs that bloom in early, mid and late spring to have to longest display of flowers possible. Plant bulbs in masses or circular groupings and not in straight lines. Try digging a larger hole than usual and putting three bulbs in each hole. Stagger the planting holes around each other, but keep the holes only 6 to 8 inches apart. This procedure will result in large splashes of color in the landscape.
  • Double-deck your bulb beds by planting large bulbs like tulips 6 to 8 inches deep, then add a few inches of soil and plant a layer of smaller bulbs like grape hyacinth above them at 3 to 5 inches.

This resource was added October 2012 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement


University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office

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