Bulb-Planting Rules I Break


Who doesn’t love spring-blooming bulbs? I love all of them (well, except for hyacinths) and used to plant a large assortment every fall. Above are shots from my former garden, where I planted tulips, yanked them out after the blooms faded and had the fun of trying new ones in the same spot the next year.

But no more. Now I ONLY plant bulbs that come back year after year and aren’t eaten by squirrels or deer. (Hooray for daffodils!)

And I’ve entirely changed how I arrange them and plant them. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but when I was a gardening newbie I planted a couple hundred full-sized daffodils (my fave was Ice Follies), one bulb per hole and spaced evenly throughout the garden. It looked ridiculous. So over the years I gradually rearranged them into clumps, masses and sweeps – which we all know look better than one-offs.

Planting bulbs too close together

And I gradually switched to planting bunches of 5-10 bulbs in each hole because I like the look and it’s SO much easier than digging holes for each bulb. This old photo shows the right way to do it. Nowadays I dig smaller holes and plant the bulbs closer together – too close, far closer than the recommended 2-bulb-width apart. Yet, they bloom.

Planting bulbs too shallow

Planting bulbs 3 times the depth of their height is fine for tiny bulbs but when it comes to large daffodils, forget about it. I don’t think I’ve ever planted them as deep as 6″.  Too much work! And yet, those shallow-planted daffodils bloom.

Feeding bulbs

Never done it. Yet they bloom.

Deadheading bulbs


Tying up the daffodil leaves

Yes, I even do this, the tidying chore we’re told will reduce future flowering, though we’re never told by how much. Those Ice Follies I planted decades ago continued to bloom like crazy year after year, despite having their leaves tied up. Sure, they may have bloomed a bit more if I’d followed the rules, but I’d rather get them off the emerging perennials.

Rules I follow, more or less

Helpful advice for some situations is to keep records of what bulbs have been planted and where, which I did recently in the really badly drawing above. As long as I can read it, right? (Most of the bulbs in this garden were sent to me by John Scheepers for review.)

Or, in beds with bulbs with existing bulbs but where I want to plant more the next fall, it’s easier to just take photos of the current spring’s blooms in context. It’s not precise, but close enough.

And I more or less follow the recommendations about planting in late fall, at least by the end of December (here in Zone 7). I know some rule-breakers brag about planting bulbs as late as February to no ill effect, but that much rule-breaking is too much for even me.


  1. Last year I received free tulip bulbs and tried planting them in pots – EPIC FAIL. I won’t try that again. And no to flowers the rabbits decimate. “Naturalizing” daffodils can be planted in onesies because they multiply into huge clumps. Rabbits don’t seem to like hyacinth, grape and otherwise, so I have those. Went out on a limb and planted some snow crocus that I hope spread throughout the lawn – we’ll see.

    • I plant bulbs in pots every year successfully, and love having that option. I am sorry it didn’t work for you, but there might be a reason that can be addressed.

  2. I was taught years ago that Crocus corms, for one, will ‘find their own depth’ -ie even if you plant too deep or too shallow the new corm (the one that forms every year as the old one withers away) will be at its own perfect depth. I like that concept, and as I dig holes every fall I imagine every bulb I plant doing the same. ….

  3. Years ago, when Roger Swain ran “Victory Garden”, I learned that you can plant bulbs very, very close together – “cheek by jowl” is how I remember him putting it – as long as they weren’t actually touching each other. I’ve done that ever since. I’ve never worried about digging up tulips (same with dahlias; too much trouble). When they eventually peter out, then I get new ones. At the end of March, early April I broadcast a balanced granular fertilizer over all my beds. As for daffodils, I cut the foliage back by about 1/3 to 1/2 so that things are a bit tidier, and I’ve never noticed any lack of flowers the next season. I’m now having to battle with deer, rabbits and assorted rodentia that were never a problem when we moved here 25 years ago – but otherwise, it’s all good.

  4. I think it really depends on whether you care if they return well. I change out hybrid tulips yearly, so plant them in big holes in a bunch, all touching each other. I plant species tulips with more attention to spacing as these do perennialize.

    In colder zones, you do need to worry about depth more, I think. I would hate to limit myself to daffs though. Too much yellow!

  5. A large bulb distributor on an episode of P.Allen Smith mentioned that daffodils could self plant itself to the correct depth. Can’t find that reference.

    From Brent Heath (of Brent & Becky’s Bulbs; on https://awaytogarden.com/daffodils-with-brent-heath-and-new-york-botanical-garden/):

    Q. Everybody probably asks you this, but how deep do I plant relative to the size of the bulb?

    A. It’s a bit soil specific, however typically we recommend three times the height of the bulb to the bottom of the hole. So a bulb that’s 2 inches tall goes 6 inches to the bottom of the hole.

    So that’s typically in well-drained soil. The bulbs like to be in well-drained soil. They can still work fine in clay, but typically we don’t plant as deep in the clay, and we tend to mulch over them to give that additional depth. Becky’s garden here, her 8-acre teaching garden, is on heavy gray-mottled clay with a high water table. When we dig holes to plant the bulbs in that, bulbs are wet in the summertime when they want to be dry. When they’re dormant, they like sleeping in a dry bed. So we’ve amended with compost on top, and we plant on top of the compost, and cover with mulch or more compost. It actually makes planting a lot easier, and everything grows well with compost.

  6. Interesting research at Cornell University that is similar to the advise that Linus refers to. In this case, the concern is not so much drainage as saving labor. It’s simple: set tulip bulbs right side up on top of bare soil, add 2 to 4 inches of mulch and enjoy the results. The Cornell study was looking at perennializing tulips but I’ve done this for several years now both at work and at home with tulips used as annuals. Last year my wife and I planted a mix of 500 tulips in 1/2 hour. Unfortunately we can’t post photos here or I’d show the result.


    • Supposedly deeper plantings for tulips make them more “perennial.” Maybe up north ok for more shallow planting:

      Q. Which flower bulbs will perennialize and come back year after year?

      A. The response of bulbs (like any plant) will vary greatly from region to region, and even season to season, and is also influenced by how you plant them and care for them.

      Generally speaking, daffodils (Narcissus) will be longer-lived than, say, tulips…but even some Narcissus will falter in the wrong climate, certain ones preferring the cooler or warmer ends of their hardiness range.

      Lilies, Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica), Scilla, Camassia, snowdrops and snowflakes (Galanthus, Leucojum), glory of the snow (Chionodoxa), winter aconite (Eranthis) and trout lily (Erythronium) are others that are more inclined to stick around. Crocus would, but are usually gobbled up here by chipmunks or squirrels.

      If you want tulips that last, invest in the botanical, or species types (which are usually much smaller than the big Dutch hybrids, with a beauty of a more refined nature).

      With some bulbs (like tulips) deeper planting will yield a longer life, making them slightly more “perennial.”


      Q. But some of the big hybrids can be pushed a little, yes?

      A. We’ve been noticing that the Darwin hybrids, as I’d heard years ago, can be more reliably perennial. Then I learned a trick from our friend Brent Heath at Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, who told me he found that if you planted them extra-deep, it sort of insulated the bulbs from summer rain fluctuation, when it can be dry or it can be wet—it depends.

      If they’re planted really deep—not just 6 or 8 inches but 10 or 12 inches—that really insulated the bulbs from that moisture fluctuation. It also puts them just a little bit more out of reach of the moles and voles that go around at the top of the soil that would get them.

  7. I like to divide my daffodil bulbs in February when they first emerge (Zone 7). That way I know exactly where existing bulbs are. Much easier than harvesting in late spring and storing until fall, then guessing where to put them. So far, this works for me.

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