A striking container of spring color: Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, Tulipa ‘Orange Emperor’, and Muscari armeniacum ‘Christmas Pearl’.

When I plant containers of bulbs in the fall, I’m thinking of the color and drama they will add to the following spring’s landscape. Not only will these planted pots create focal points through­out the garden, but they will also welcome visitors at entryways and add a touch of bright color to the spring garden.

Any bulb can be planted in a container, but tulips are by far my favorite because of their simple form and the infinite choice of colors. You can combine different types of bulbs in a single container, but be sure they bloom at the same time or the earlier bulb’s dying foliage will mar the display of the later-flowering bulb. I prefer to plant only one type of bulb per container to get the maximum impact. By choosing bulbs with staggered bloom times we have a succession of flowers from early March through mid-May. 

 

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Plant bulbs in containers in fall

Plan for a succession of color. When this container of Tulipa ‘Spring Green’ finishes blooming, it will be replaced with another container of tulips just starting to open.

I plant our bulbs in late October in containers with good drainage. In a 24-inch container I plant either 50 tulips, 30 large-flowered daffodils, 50 small-flowered daffodils, or 100 minor bulbs, like Crocus, Muscari, Scilla, or Iris species or cultivars. I fill the pot with a soil mix that drains very well so the bulbs will sit in moist but not soggy soil. I plant the bulbs just as I would in the ground, at a soil depth of twice the diameter of the bulb.

If I am planting more than one type of bulb in the same container and they require different planting depths, I layer the bulbs (illustration at right). I fill the container to the right level and plant the larger bulbs, then cover them with soil until it’s at the proper depth to plant the smaller bulbs. Finally, I fill the container with soil, being sure to leave at least 1/2 inch of space between the surface of the soil and the top of the container for easy watering.

I water the planted container thoroughly, then water periodically through­out the winter. The bulbs should not sit in soil that is too wet, but you also don’t want them to dry out entirely.

Layering bulbs in containers

To plant a container with different species of bulbs, plant the larger bulbs first, then cover them with soil and plant the smaller bulbs. Fill the container with soil to just below the rim.
 

Overwintering methods depend on where you live

One hundred Muscari armeniacum ‘Valerie Finnis’ bulbs fill this 24-inch pot.
An extra-large container of the delicate Narcissus ‘Hawera’ lights up a dark area of the garden.

Gardening in Seattle makes overwintering bulbs in containers rather easy. I use mostly stoneware pots because they can be left outside through the winter. Our mild winters allow us to group the pots together tightly in our nursery and leave them outside for the season.

More durable containers made of stone, cast concrete, fiberglass, cast iron, or plastic are suitable for colder winter climates. In cold parts of the country, you could surround the pots in tightly packed straw or bury them in sawdust and put a good 18 inches of mulch on top. Or you could store them in a garage or outbuilding that won’t get too far below freezing but will also not heat up during the day.

Once these Iris bucharica have finished blooming, they will be planted in the garden.

If your winter is just too severe to risk leaving the bulbs out or you want to use bulbs in a container that can’t be stored in the cold, you have another option. Plant your bulbs in small 6-inch or 8-inch plastic pots and overwinter them under protection outdoors (in a cold frame, for instance) or in a cold garage. In the spring, as they start to bloom, you can then sink the pots into larger display containers. Bring your containers outside in the spring when the danger of hard frost has passed or when the bulbs in the ground are starting to emerge.

After the flowers have faded and the spring gala is over, I plant all the bulbs except for the tulips in the garden. Tulips tend not to do well in subsequent years, so I compost them. Then I start thinking ahead to the varieties I’ll be planting up in the fall for next year’s display.

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