Put in now, tulips and other bulbs can create a grand color show next spring ― in the ground or in pots

forcing bulbs
Photo by Ellen von Bodegom / Getty Images

To plant spring-flowering bulbs is to witness a miraculous transformation. Think about it: You go to the nursery in fall, pluck homely lumps from the bins, drop them into brown paper bags. The glossy color photos above the bins promise beautiful spring blooms in a rainbow of hues ― elegant, cup-shaped tulips in hot pink and orange, soft pink and lavender; cheerful yellow daffodils; voluptuous blue hyacinths. Still, it’s difficult to imagine these hard, brown things with bristly bottoms pushing out such incredible blooms. Planting bulbs is a leap of faith.

But plant them well, either by type en masse or with other bulbs, and they’ll surprise you. Plant them in large beds, as shown at left, or in smaller containers. Either way, the results are sure to be spectacular come spring.

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Planting in a pot

In fall, after everything is planted, poke grape hyacinth bulbs into the spaces between heather and pansies. In April, ‘Princess Irene’ tulips bloom for three to four weeks. The chartreuse flowers behind are Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’.

Tina Dixon, of Plants à la Cart in Bothell, Washington, and Marsha Davis-Thomsen of Seattle are not easily discouraged by short days, rain, and persistently chilly weather. Each fall, just when everyone else in the Northwest is giving up on gardening for the season, the two designers whip up winter-into-spring plantings in containers. 

Take the sumptuous mix of perennials, grasses, heathers, and spring-blooming bulbs they planted last fall in the sandstone urn pictured at left. It looked good almost instantly after planting ― and heather foliage and pansy blooms provided color on a front porch through winter. Then, in spring, successive bursts of daffodil, grape hyacinth, and tulip flowers heightened the show.

Winter weather near Lake Washington did not faze this collection of plants; New Zealand flax, the most tender of the plants in the arrangement, is hardy to about 20°. Throughout the cool season, the plants needed no supplemental feeding, and weekly watering was only necessary during dry spells between rains.

Costs for this project (including soil, bulbs, perennials, and fertilizer) came to about $110. The sandstone urn costs more, but you can use any large container that catches your fancy, including terra-cotta.

Plant list

5-gallon size (1 plant): New Zealand flax ( Phormium ‘Amazing Red’)

4-inch nursery pots (1 each, unless noted): Creeping Jenny ( Lysimachia nummularia) English ivy ( Hedera helix ‘Gold Dust’) Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’, 2 plants Pansy ( Viola x wittrockiana Delta Tapestry mix), 4 plants Pansy ( V. x w. Clear Sky Orange pansy), 3 plants Scotch heather ( Calluna vulgaris ‘Firefly’) Scotch heather ( C.v. ‘Wickwar Flame’) Tassel fern ( Polystichum polyblepharum) Variegated Japanese sweet flag ( Acorus gramineus ‘Variegatus’)

2-inch nursery pot (1 plant): Variegated Japanese sedge ( Carex morrowii expallida)

Bulbs (12 each; in mild climates, chill tulips in the refrigerator for six weeks before planting) Daffodil ( Narcissus ‘Fortissimo’) Grape hyacinth ( Muscari latifolium) Tulip ( Tulipa ‘Princess Irene’)

1. Fill the bottom of the 21-inch urn or pot with commercial potting soil. 2. Knock the largest plant out of its nursery pot, rough up its rootball, then plant it in the center or back of the large container.

3. Set the smaller plants ― still in their nursery pots ― atop the soil around the first plant. Move them around to fine-tune the design, then remove them.

4. Mix 9-9-6 bulb fertilizer into the soil (follow label directions), then plant the tulip and daffodil bulbs around the periphery of the container.

5. Remove the rest of the plants from their nursery pots, rough up the rootballs, and plant them over the bulbs according to your plan. Fill the spaces between plants with potting soil; tuck in tiny grape hyacinth bulbs.

6. Water thoroughly.