What you need for bulb container planting

Pots - Large pots at least 12 inches in diameter. There needs to be room for root growth, and the size helps keep them from drying out. They must be frost proof such as concrete, plastic or fiberglass. Basic craft store terra cotta will crack when moisture freezes in it over winter.

Bulbs - Hardy spring flowering bulbs like tulips, daffodils, hyacinths of all kinds. You may plant all of one kind, or mix colors or varieties. If you mix, the bloom time may vary. It could be tricky choosing bulbs of different types to bloom just at the same time. For a prolonged bloom, you may choose some small ones that bloom early and some larger ones to flower a little later. Use purchased bulbs. Fresh bulbs from a commercial source are almost guaranteed to bloom. Bulbs you dig from your yard may vary in maturity and may not be ready to bloom. When mixing bulb types, you may be able to grow more flowers per pot. Larger bulbs (daffodils, tulip, dutch hyacinth) always get planted more deeply than small ones (crocus, anemone, grape hyacinth, wood hyacinth)

Potting soil - Use quality, well draining potting soil. Garden soil is too dense for use in a pot.

Cold weather - We are using bulbs which need exposure to cold to stimulate sprouting. We are not "forcing" these bulbs; we are simply putting them in pots to do what they normally do in the ground. Therefore, this works in areas where the bulbs used would normally be planted in fall. Gardeners in milder zones may have to chill the bagged bulbs for some weeks before planting.

Fertilizer - (optional) Mix granular slow release fertilizer, or organic bulb food, into the potting soil. (Check the potting soil bag first though. Some do say they contain fertilizer.) Know that purchased bulbs are almost certain to bloom. The flower bud is already a tiny dormant structure inside the bulb. That's why this fertilizer is optional. This fertilizer would serve to assure nice green foliage and help the bulbs build a new bud AFTER flowering, for the following year's bloom. After all, you know how hard it is to let those bulbs bloom just once, and then throw them away!

Protection from squirrels - (optional) If squirrels visit your garden, they are very good at finding newly planted tulips. And they also love pots of fresh soft potting soil. Be ready to protect these pots. Here are some options:

  • Cover the soil with wire mesh or heavy mulch.
  • Keep the pots in an unheated garage or shed until early spring.
  • Add mothballs or commercial rodent repellant to the pots.
  • Sprinkle top of soil with blood meal or hot pepper, both said to repel animals.
  • Use only daffodils (narcissus) which squirrels won't eat.

I chose a combination planting of Anemone blanda and tulips 'Gavotta'. The anemones will have foliage and an early bloom. The tulips are labeled mid bloom and will likely open later. With this staggered bloom, I hope to see early anemones blooming, with only young tulip leaves perhaps poking up a little from between them. I'll plant the anemones mostly around the edge and hope that the tulip foliage has not grown too large before they bloom.

Planting stepsImage of planting tulip bulbs in a pot

Fill pot with soil to the planting depth of your largest bulbs. Mix optional fertilizer into the soil. Tulips, Dutch hyacinths, and daffodils are all planted at about five to six inches deep.

I used seven tulips in this fifteen inch heavy pottery pot.

If using large and small bulbs, now add soil to the depth needed for the small bulbs. Mix optional fertilizer into this soil too. Smaller bulbs like crocus are planted with just a few inches of soil on them.

I used twenty anemone tubers in this pot.

Add soil to within an inch of the pot edge. Water. Cover with squirrel protection, if needed.

Care until bloom

Keep the pot moist. Watering needs will depend on sun and wind exposure, whether the pot is mulched, and the composition of the pot itself. If placed in a shed or garage for the winter, watch for green sprouts in early spring. Move the pots to a sunny or partly sunny location as soon as leaves appear.

Aftercare - what to do once the bulbs have finished blooming

Once the blooms fade, bulb foliage is usually not much to look at. Here are your options:

  • Carefully dig them and gently replant in ground, continue care.
  • Move the container aside, continue to care for it like a regular potted plant until the leaves also yellow. Let bulbs dry, and store them until fall.
  • Pull bulbs and discard. These bulbs may need a year to recover, depending on how well they grew in the pot, and whether they were fertilized.

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Resources ~ Click links within the article to read more about those topics. Or use the resources below:

Leeds, Rod. Bulbs in Containers. Portland, Timber Press Inc, 2005.

Mathew, Brian, Growing Bulbs: the complete practical guide Portland, Timber Press, Inc., 1997.

"How To Grow Bulbs", Pacific Bulb Society http://www.pacificbulbsociety.org/pbswiki/index.php/HowToGrowBulbs accessed 11-11-2011

"Flower Bulb Basics and FAQs" international Bulb Society http://www.bulbsociety.org/About_Bulbs/index.html accessed 11-11-2011