How to: Design, lay out and plant formal bulb displays

Spring bulb shows make a huge impact. You may have trouble convincing your client to spend the money on spring bulbs, but they are such a welcome sight that the image carries on well past the show.

Tulips and hyacinths provide the best formal color displays. And while, daffodil (here, the term includes anything referred to as daffodil, jonquil or narcissus) color choices are limited, they can add lots of fall color as well. When planning your displays, the following tips may help.


  1. Consider your climate when selecting bulbs. Warmer areas require earlier blooming varieties, such as the single early or double early, as well as some species tulips. Try also Darwin hybrids and Triumph varieties. Late varieties will probably bloom when temperatures are hot and the show will be short-lived. There are more color options in the late tulip varieties. If there is a color you have to have and you are working in a warm climate, plant a bed in the shade or on the north side of the building to reduce the amount of heat and, hopefully, prolong their show.

  2. In high-traffic areas, go with proven winners. Check with your distributor and ask your fellow landscapers which varieties have worked well for them. Experiment with new varieties in smaller beds with less visibility.

  3. Consider from where the bulbs will be viewed. If it's from a distance, you will want to select bright colors that can be easily seen: yellows, reds, oranges and hot pinks. Dark purple colors may get lost in a dark backdrop and whites or pastels may get lost with no backdrop. Bicolors, as well as doubles, ruffles or other unique features, can be better utilized when viewed up-close, such as along a walking trail or sidewalk.

  4. If you're designing a long, skinny bed, the width should accommodate at least four to five rows of bulbs. Any less and the display will look puny.

  5. If you choose to plant a mix of two or three colors, don't alternate them when planting. You will end up with goofy diagonal rows. Instead, mix the bulbs prior to planting. Mix them well and you will end up with a nice display. Choose the varieties to mix carefully. Tulips in the same category don't necessarily bloom at the same time. Varieties such as Golden Appeldoorn and Red Appeldoorn will bloom at the same time. If choosing “unrelated” varieties, try the combination on a small scale this year and, if it works, use it on a larger scale next year. Having a slight delay of one variety over another actually helps prolong the display, but if the bloom time is too far apart, the entire display will look puny longer.

  6. Don't skimp on numbers. Decide upon spacing 4, 5 or 6 inches apart. Four-inch spacing for smaller bulbs, 6 inches for larger bulbs. It is not unreasonable to plant 500 to 600 bulbs in a 10-foot × 10-foot area.


  1. Tulips need full sun, cold winters, cool springs and cool summers to perennialize. In other climates, treat them as annuals and plant them wherever you want spring color, sun or shade. They also need well-drained soil. Sitting in wet, soggy soil over the winter will rot them. In windy areas, select compact varieties.

  2. Plant bulbs after the soil temperature drops below 60°F, typically September through November, depending upon where you are planting. Try to plant them as soon as you receive them. Open each crate or box and inspect them. They need to be firm, not squishy. The bulb skins can be a variety of colors depending on what you are planting, but blue and fuzzy is not desirable. The blue fuzz is an indication of Botrytis, a bulb rot fungus. Store in a dry, dark, cool place until planted.

  3. Till the soil 10 to 12 inches deep, adding plenty of organic matter. Also till in superphosphate or simply a 13-13-13 fertilizer. Plant bulbs 4 to 6 inches apart and three times deeper than the height of the bulb. Sturdy, thin trowels with inch markings help the job go smoother. The thin trowel is easier on the arms and wrist than wider trowels because you have less soil to move with each planting motion. Also, instruct your employees to hold the trowel with the blade facing them and pull the soil towards them, drop the bulb in the hole and smooth back. Holding the trowel with blade away from you is harder on the wrist and can lead to repetitive motion injuries. If more than one employee is planting beds in an area, supervise their planting technique to be sure they are planting all bulbs at the same depth.

  4. To prevent voles, moles, mice, deer, hedgehogs, etc. from eating the bulbs over the winter, cover large areas with some type of mesh or fencing. We have used orange snow fence, green snow fence and woven wire across bulb plantings. The best results have come from the green snow fence with 1-inch holes because the green is not as noticeable poking through the mulch as orange. Once the foliage emerges, you must apply deer repellent regularly and throughout the bloom period.

  5. Be sure to keep bulbs watered during dry spells. A nice root system and plenty of available moisture are what pushes the flowers up and out of the bulb and soil.

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