Plant For Spring Colour

Mark Cullen in his garden. For a brilliant spring flower garden, fall bulb planting is a necessity. Submitted photo.

Plant in the spring, rake leaves in the fall.  Right? 

In the oversimplified world of amateur gardening that about sums it up.  You have a life to live after all, maybe a job and responsibilities that are more important than crabgrass.

We get that.  But we have a responsibility to inform and enlighten you so that you squeeze the most out of your gardening experience and monetary investment.  After all, if a gorgeous tulip garden is in your dreams, how would you know that now is the time to plant them if we did not tell you?

Ours is a job of blank filling.  Let us fill in some blanks for you here so that you are richly rewarded next spring, horticulturally speaking.

Brilliant spring flower garden = fall bulb planting.  Here is our primer for a fabulous looking spring bulb garden.

For fragrance nothing beats hyacinths.  Each floweret is packed with a sweet scent that attracts admirers like early emerging bees.  We recommend that you plant some in planters at your front door or in the bed leading up to it.  Nothing says “home” like hyacinths in April.

For early spring colour, plant crocus and snow drops.  For best effect, plant 10 or more in a broad, shallow hole and cover with light, well drained soil.  Snow drops, as you might expect, emerge first come spring.  Notice how they illuminate a south facing wall when the yard is snow covered.  Thank you solar heat, free!

For cutting to bring indoors, resistance to vermin like rabbits, deer and squirrels, early flowering (mid-April in Toronto) and for long lasting blooms, plant narcissus and daffodils.  If you choose varieties that are sold for naturalizing, you can bank on clumps of them getting bigger and better each year almost forever.  They cost more than tulips, but their value is infinitely greater.

For reliable winter hardiness, cutting, and to brighten up the May garden before you get annual flowers planted you can’t beat tulips. 

All flower bulbs need to be planted three times as deep as the bulb is thick, measured from tip to bottom.  The pointy end goes up.  If you plant bulbs upside down or sideways, they will still grow and bloom, but the stem may be crooked.  No need for fertilizer when planting.  The miracle of Dutch bulbs is that everything that is needed to grow and bloom is contained in the bulb.  It is a powerhouse of sugars, nutrients and best of all the embryo of next spring’s flower.   And not all bulbs are Dutch, fyi.  Most daffodil bulbs sold in Canada are grown in B.C.  where all cut daffodils sold in April, Cancer month, are also grown.

Garlic is planted in fall.  Sure, you can plant it in spring and there are garlic bulbs sold by retailers then, but not because that is the best time of year to plant them, but customers demand it.  It is a little early to plant garlic bubs now.  Mid October to mid November is ideal.  Cover with straw mulch for winter protection for best performance.  Remove and compost come spring.  We recommend the locally grown, organic stock that you find at farmer’s markets vs. the retail garlic that comes from The Netherlands.  It is tastier and a more reliable garden performer. 

Trees are best planted in fall.  Counter intuitive, after all spring is when garden retailers fill up with inventory, the widest variety of trees and shrubs is available and let’s face it, once the Maple Leafs have lost another round of play off hockey, all we want to do is escape the TV and get outside.  Planting trees in spring makes us feel better.

But all woody plants like trees and shrubs feel better being given a new home in the fall.  They do not care about hockey.  Best to plant right now, in September, when the soil is still warm (it is a good insulator) and moisture is more reliable in the months ahead than in spring.  While the top portion of trees begin to go dormant about now, the roots are seeking new sources of nutrients and moisture.  Small, fibrous roots are produced that anchor the plant in its new home and miracles begin to happen.  Like aggressive growth come spring and a much lower chance of fatality through transplant shock. 

Spring is for planting, fall for raking leaves. Right.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.