We get questions



Last spring
Last spring

This was going to be a post about trees, but I just got an email asking me about another topic that is equally on my mind at this time of year. In fact, both in the spring and fall, I am focused on trees and bulbs more than on traditional garden perennials. Having just completed my third bulb order, bringing the grand total up to about 600 or so, I’m all ready to address the concerns of Gayle from Maryland, who wonders about planting bulbs in pots as follows:

Do I plant the bulbs in the containers and leave them outside—or put the pots in the garage.
The bulbs should be tightly planted at the normal depth (3x their height or thereabouts) in the pots and then placed in a protected area (unheated garage or shed). They can’t be left outside as they’d likely freeze and turn to mush and the pots, if pottery, would likely break.

 If in the garage do I need to water them through the winter?
They can be watered once when planted and again, soon before moving them outside (mid-March for me, maybe earlier for zone 7, where Gayle lives.)

 Can I plant the pots now?
In 7, I would wait a couple weeks.

Do I plant them in the pot like I would in the ground —about 6 –8 inches down?
See 1.

I wanted to do a pot of paperwhites and I know most folks use them for forcing indoors—but I have always had issues with them flopping over—so I wanted to do them in a pot for outside. Can paperwhites be used for an outdoor container?
I think they are too tender for this method (in either of our zones). What I do is plant them in tall glass vases, with stones at the bottom. The tall sides support their stems and they get plenty of light. I don’t think you can grow these outside unless you’re in Texas, CA, or similar, ie, hot. I would try some of the different varieties, like Erlicheer or Grand Primo; they have nicer scents. They also benefit from a couple weeks in a dark, chilly area after planting.

 To force hyacinths is it as easy as putting them in a tray with rocks and keeping the rocks filled with water?
No. They need at least 8 weeks of cooling. You can buy them pre-chilled or do it yourself. Old House Gardens has a great method, or you can do what I do, plant them tightly near the top of pots, chill them in a cold dark attic or root cellar for about eight weeks (35–45 degrees), or when you see a couple inches of growth. I don’t like them in trays; they really flop. They need some support, so I plant them in soil. Sometimes I use glass hyacinth vases, and lean them strategically.

Thanks for your questions, Gayle, as this is one of my  obsessions. I don’t have the space to plant a lot of bulbs outside and these methods avoid some of the problems they have there. I know we don’t do “how to” on Rant that often, but when it comes to bulbs, all bets are off! Here is my Fine Gardening article on this.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Gayle could wait until late October or early November to plant her bulbs. My garden is a little further west in the Shenandoah Valley and I won’t even take delivery of my bulbs (over 13,000) until after the 20th of October.

    If you do not have space in an unheated garage or shed (or if it happens to be heated), then you could sink the planted pots into the ground to the level of the soil, then cover the rims of the pots with mulch. The bulbs can survive the freezing temps in the ground (just like any regular bulb), the air temp around the pot causes the problems. I did this successfully for many years in Richmond, VA (zone 7) without any problems for the flowers. Some pots may not fare so well though, so keep that in mind when choosing your container.

    • Thanks for these suggestions, Perry, particularly as I don’t know much about bulb behavior in warmer zones.

      Of course, burying anything is pretty much impossible for those of us who live with as many tree roots as I do, but bravo for anyone who can make that work!

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I, too, am thinking about bulbs, and your previous posts inspired me to try planting pots of bulbs for earlier outside blooms in the spring. Very useful information!
    The autumn is beautiful here in NW Illinois, but I live for the blooms of spring.

  3. I make many layered pots with bulbs under pansies, sweet william, or cut evergreen boughs. I choose weather-safe pots. Cold hardy bulbs do fine outside overwinter here in the Washington DC area. The important consideration is to not let water stand in the pots during our freeze-thaw cycles.

  4. Regarding paperwhite floppage. I grow these in a shallow layer of soil at the bottom of tall pot (or in water in a tall glass vase). The pot (or vase) supports the weak stems and the results look gorgeous.

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