No sight is more welcome after a long winter than the first blooms of crocus, tulips, daffodils, muscari, hyacinths, and other spring-flowering bulbs. Gardeners and non-gardeners alike can enjoy this up close by layering these bulbs in containers. It’s perfect for those with mobility problems or limited space in urban areas.
Bulbs for spring flowers can be planted in spring or fall. In fall, plant the bulbs and leave the container outdoors, being careful not to let the pots freeze during winter. If the bulbs freeze they’ll be damaged or destroyed and will not bloom. In spring, you’ll first have to hold the bulbs in a refrigerator without fruit for 12-16 weeks before or after planting in the container so they experience the chilling period required to bloom.
Almost any container will work, whether it’s a terra cotta pot (traditional) or a resin container (plastic-type). Large terra cotta pots can become pretty heavy when full of potting soil and plants, so if mobility or strength problems are issues, you’ll want to go with resin. If you use a container of another sort, make sure there’s a drainage hole in the bottom.
Any size flower pot will do – large pots are best for layered displays all spring, such as a combination of tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils; small pots can be used for just one variety like crocus or muscari. For a full season display, choose flower bulbs that bloom at different times (see the instructions that come with the bulbs or from the website where you bought them). Generally speaking, tulips and daffodils bloom in early spring, mid-spring or late spring depending on the variety; crocus, scilla, snowdrops and aconite bloom in early spring; hyacinths, muscari, and fritillaria bloom in mid-spring; and ranunculus, anemone, alliums, and spanish bluebells bloom in late spring.
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How to plant flower bulbs in containers
For an all-season display in large pots, place the largest bulbs lowest in the container (but at the proper depth as noted in the bulb package). Then move to the top layers with the smaller and smallest bulbs. Position the bulbs closely together – no more than an inch apart. Each layer of bulbs should be topped with at least 2″ of potting soil between layers for root growth.
After the bulbs are planted, gently press the potting soil down with the palm of your hand to squeeze out any air pockets and to make sure it’s making contact with the bulbs. Water the container just enough to settle the soil. If you’re chilling the bulbs in the pot, the soil should be damp, but never soaking wet. If the container will be stored outdoors you may need to protect it from freezing temperatures and excess moisture in a sheltered spot. If critters like squirrels and mice pose a threat (they love eating bulbs), cover the tops of the pots with wire mesh, a sheet of plywood with a brick on top, or some other kind of barrier.
Storing planted containers with flower bulbs over winter
Spring-blooming flower bulbs require a chilling period, but freezing is detrimental. The most important thing about storing bulbs in containers over winter is to not allow the containers to freeze. Early spring-blooming bulbs like daffodils and crocus can handle a light freeze, but hyacinths and tulips will not.
If you live in Zone 7 or above, you can chill flower bulbs in a refrigerator which doesn’t contain fruit – as fruit ripens, it gives off ethylene gas, which will damage the flowers. Fortunately, in Zone 7 or above, you can usually get away with leaving the containers outdoors over the winter – bulb-damaging hard freezes are growing increasingly rare and containers can be moved indoors temporarily if the weather becomes harsh. If you’re below Zone 7, store the containers in an attached garage over winter as long as no car is parked in it – exhaust fumes may destroy the bulbs. An old school option is to store the planted containers in a shallow trench in your vegetable garden under a thick layer of straw or leaves. See the USDA hardiness zone map if you’re not sure which zone you live in.
How to know when to move planted containers outdoors
It’s very easy to know when the bulbs are ready to move outdoors – they’ll tell you! Even in dark cellars and garages, flower bulbs will start to shoot in late winter or early spring. As soon as you see green shoots, the flower is growing, so move the pots outdoors to acclimate the plants to outdoor conditions. Start them off in a sheltered area where they don’t receive too much direct sun and after a week they should be ready for direct sunlight.
Save flower bulbs after blooming
Most container-grown flower bulbs are treated as annuals, but they can definitely be saved and planted for blooming year after year. The exception to this is some varieties of tulips that only bloom one season (check the info that came with the bulb to see if this is the case). After the flower is spent, remove the flower stem but keep the foliage of the plant growing so it collects energy for next year’s flower. Once the foliage yellows and begins to die back, remove it and plant the bulbs in your garden or store them in a cool, dry place for container planting again next year.
For more info on planting bulbs in containers, see this video from the Chicago Botanic Garden.