Buried Treasure: The reward of bulbs

Bulbs and bulbous plants add an extra dimension to a garden by providing a burst of seasonal interest. Such interest adds a degree of excitement and expectation to your garden, as you eagerly await the performance of each plant in your garden.

One of the great things about living in South Australia is that our climate has distinct seasons and with each season there are certain things that we look forward to. For me winter signifies roaring log fires, staying cosy indoors, mists and fog that wrap around you like a blanket, the bare skeletons of deciduous trees and shrubs, and the delicate nodding blooms of the true English Snowdrop. As the garden bursts slowly into spring, the swelling buds of trees are encouraged by the brightness and exuberance of the myriad of more traditional bulbs, such as daffodils and jonquils. In late spring when deciduous plants are now fully clothed, and the weather is giving us hints of the hot summer ahead, many of the South African bulbs such as ixias and sparaxis give their performance. The hot days of summer, although stifling and often disheartening, give rise to an opulence of both colour and scent with a succession of liliums. And then, the first autumn rains starts a succession of another group of achievers – those that have been having a summer siesta and perform, often naked with just flowers alone, such as belladonnas and autumn crocus.

Although their flowering period is generally only brief, by choosing bulbs that are appropriate to your growing conditions, and with a bit of knowledge as to flowering times, it is possible to have a different bulb flowering in every season of the year. Bulbs that flower in late winter and spring are now available for sale via mail order or through nurseries and garden centres. Even though traditionally we do not plant bulbs until the first autumn rains, it is a great time to think about the varieties you want and start to buy them. They can readily be stored in a cool, dry place until you are ready to plant.

The conditions that bulbs require to grow in are as diverse as the countries where the bulbs originate so when choosing bulbs, think about their origin and its compatibility to your climate and to the conditions in your garden. Some bulbs that come from summer dry climates such as the Mediterranean or South Africa, survive and multiply best where they do not get lots of summer rain, and this also means that even if you live in a comparable climate but provide too much supplementary watering to your garden, they don’t like it. Conversely if we are choosing bulbs that come from climates where they receive summer rains, make sure that you live in a similar climate or provide the required watering.

daffodils at royal adelaide show

The Spring Procession:

If you want a succession of winter and spring flowering bulbs, why not try some of the following varieties to give you a showy display from mid-winter through into spring. Exact flowering times may vary according to where you live and whether the bulbs are watered over summer, however the progressive succession of blooms should still be the same:

June: Daffodils (very early season varieties); Jonquil ‘Paper White’, ‘Soliel D’Or’ and ‘Straws’; Snowflakes

July: Daffodils (early season varieties); Ipheion (Spring Star Flowers); Jonquil ‘Polly’s Pearl’

August: Anemone; Daffodils (mid-season varieties); Jonquil ‘Erlicheer’; Muscari (Grape Hyacinth)

September: Bluebells; Daffodils (late flowering variety); Freesias; Ranunculus

October: Babiana (Baboon Flower); Daffodils (very late flowering varieties); Dutch Iris; Gladiolus (miniature); Ixia; Jonquil ‘Silver Chimes’; Scilla peruviana (Star of Bethlehem); Sparaxis (Harlequin Flower); Tulips


Planting and Design Ideas:

There are many ways that bulbs can be used in the garden and whatever way you choose think about colour combinations and flowering periods. Bulbs can be used to provide colour when nothing else is flowering or they can be used to complement other plants in flower at the time.

Plant in clumps

It is much more effective to plant bulbs in clumps than as single specimens or in rows. Clumps can be added to existing garden beds and the bulbs chosen so that their flowering time and colour complements your existing plantings. A clump of early white flowering bulbs, such as Snowflakes or Paperwhite jonquils, makes a stunning display against the white trunk of a birch tree. Bulbs can also be used as a way of providing colour and interest when other plants are not looking good, such as late winter flowering bulbs providing colour and interest under deciduous trees and shrubs.

Mass plant

My favourite visions of bulbs are always where they are mass planted on have naturalized. Whether it is a mass of bluebells planted under trees or a drift of freesias planted on the side of a driveway, or a paddock where the daffodils just do their thing, the effect is simply stunning. The key to creating this beautiful effect is to be prepared to mass plant, or be very, very patient and wait for several years for the bulbs to build up in sufficient numbers. When starting out, I prefer the former idea and would rather buy more of more common varieties that I know will perform rather than have only a few of a more spectacular variety that is a bit trickier. If you want to create a meadow like effect with bulbs that naturalise, why not but 100 or 1000 of just one variety this year, and then buy another variety next year. After a few years you will have created a breathtaking display that takes care of itself.

In rockeries

This is a great way to display little treasures that may otherwise be hidden.

Bulbs in Pots

If space is limited or you just want to have some more fun in the garden, growing bulbs in pots is very rewarding. Pots of flowering bulbs are a great way to dress up entrances and doorways or bring a touch of winter and spring cheer inside your house. There are so many attractive ornamental pots available in nurseries and garden centres that you can create some stunning combinations of bulbs in pots. Just imagine some beautiful golden rockery daffodils in a glazed blue bowl, or even some soft pink double tulips in a green glazed pot, or any bulb in a classic terracotta pot or trough. The main key to success with bulbs in pots is to choose suitable bulb varieties, which are sturdy and not too tall, and combine them with an appropriately sized and shaped container.

When growing bulbs in pots, always use a well-drained potting mix or even a potting mix designed especially for bulbs. Bulbs in containers perform best if they are allowed to develop a strong root system before they attempt to grow leaves, or start to develop their flower stems. A method that I have found to be the best way to encourage this is to keep the pots somewhere cool and shady until the new shoots are about 10 cm tall. This can also be achieved by covering the pots with several layers of newspaper or with an upside down, empty pot. These covers can be lifted to water the bulbs, and removed altogether once the growth has reached 10 cm high. Growing bulbs in pots enables you to grow the plants on until they are looking at their best and then move them to a prominent position, either outside or indoors. If you do bring pots of bulbs inside and you wish to keep the bulbs growing for as long as possible, try to place them in cool situations away from any heating or drying conditions.

To have these bulb pots looking great year after year, it is necessary to replant your bulbs with new potting mix, and to feed your bulbs regularly to replace the nutrients that have been expended in the flowering process. Alternatively plant the bulbs into the garden after flowering, and replace them with fresh, new season bulbs.

Getting Started:

There are some general requirements that most bulbs require.

  • Good drainage. Few bulbs like to grow where they get wet feet and if planted in this position, they will probably rot and disappear.
  • Sun. Most bulbs like to grow in a sunny position, however they will grow well under deciduous trees which are often devoid of leaves for most of the growing and flowering period of the bulb.
  • Well prepared ground. Ideally, dig area over to a forks depth and mix through organic matter in the form of compost or well rotted animal manure.
  • Plant them the right way up (usually pointed end up) at approximately:
    • (i) their own depth in heavy soil
    • (ii) twice their depth in dry sandy or light soil.


Newly purchased bulbs have enough nutrients stored within them to produce flowers the first year after planting, but regular feeding during their first growing season (provided that all other conditions are satisfied) will ensure flowers for the following year.

mareema in orchard with jonquils

Lists of Recommended Bulbs

Hardy, trouble free, spring flowering bulbs that survive and thrive in a summer dry climate (with no or little extra watering)

The Mediterranean – spring flowering – Anemones, Iris, Grape Hyacinths (Muscari), Soldier Boys (Lachenalias), Ornithogalum, Ranunculus.
From South Africa – spring flowering – Baboon Flowers (Babiana), Freesias, Corn Lilies (Ixia), miniature Gladioli, Harlequin Flowers (Sparaxis), Tritonia.

Hardy, trouble free, autumn flowering bulbs that survive and thrive in a summer dry climate (with no or little extra watering)

The Mediterranean – autumn flowering crocus (Colcicum, Crocus, Sternbergia), Rockery Cyclamen, autumn Snowdrop (Galanthus corcyrensis syn G. reginae olgae), Autumn Snowflake (Leucojum autumnale)

From South Africa & South America – autumn flowering – Belladonna (Amaryllis), Josephine Lily (Brunsvigia), Ox Blood Lily (Haemanthus), Nerine, Rain Lily (Zephyranthes candida)

Unusual but worthwhile bulbs for a summer dry climate (with no or little extra watering)

Crocus tomasinianus, Tulipa saxatilis, Snowdrops (Galanthus), Scarlet Freesia (Anometheca laxa), Sea Squill (Urginea maritima), Ornamental Onions (Allium), Star of Bethlehem (Scilla peruviana)

Best bulbs to naturalise in a summer dry climate

Jonquils & hardy Daffodils (Narcissus), Snowflakes (Leucojum), Corn Lilies (Ixia), Harlequin Flowers (Sparaxis), Freesias, Blue bells (Scilla hispanica)

Bulbs that like hot summers with summer rain or irrigation

These often come from Mexico and Central America, Southern America, and Tropical Africa

Mexico and Central America – Dahlias, Tree Dahlias (Dahlia imperialis & D. excelsa), Tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa), Spider lily or Sacred Lily of the Incas (Hymenocallis)

South America – Peruvian Lilies (Alstroemeria), Hippeastrum

Bulbs from cooler climates

These can still be grown in other warmer climates with a bit of nurturing, providing supplementary watering, shelter from the heat, or in some cases to give them the require period of chilling
Hyacinths, tulips, liliums, lily of the valley, Galanthus, Dutch Crocus

Best bulbs for a shady garden under deciduous trees

Bluebells (Scilla), Snowflakes (Leucojum), Cyclamen, Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa), Unicorn Root (Velthemia capensis)

Best dwarf bulbs for pots (that can also be planted in the garden where lower bulbs are required)

Hyacinths, Rockery daffodils, Rockery tulips, Dwarf Liliums, Snowdrops (Galanthus), Crocus (Dutch & Autumn)

Potted Treasure. Bulbs to create pots of colour in every season.

Winter: Crocus tomasinianus, Galanthus, Leucojum, early Jonquils and Daffodils
Spring: Allium, Freesias, Hyacinths, Narcissus, Ranunculus, Tulips,
Summer: Cliveas, Eucomis, Hippeastrum, Lilium, Valotta, Callas (Zantedeschia)
Autumn: Colchicum, Crocus, Rockery Cyclamen, Nerine, Sternbergia, Zephyranthes

For the connoisseurs …. if you can find them!?

Trout Lilies or Dog’s Tooth Violet (Erythroniums), Snakes Head Lilies (Fritillarias), Golden Nerine (Lycoris), Arisaema (eg A. candidissima), Foxtail Lilies (Eremurus), Cardiocrinum giganteum, Lilium candidum

For the lovers of the unusual

Green flower – Narcissus viridiflora
Black flowers – Dracunculus vulgaris, Tulip ‘Queen of the Night’
Climbing bulb – Tropaelum tuberosum ‘Tricolour’ (for summer dry), Gloriosa rothschildiana (for summer watered)

For lovers of scent (For cheap drunks like myself who are readily intoxicated by the scent of flowers)

Hyacinths, Freesias, Spring Star Flowers (Ipheion), Campernelle Jonquil (Narcissus x odorus), Lilium – trumpet and oriental, Tuberose (Polianthes tuberose)

Best bulbs for borders

Soldier Boys (Lachenalias), Grape Hyacinths (Muscari), Spring Star Flowers (Ipheion), Rockery Daffodils, Cyclamen, Hyacinths

Best bulbs for summer colour

Liliums, Callas (Zantedeschias), Summer Hyacinth (Galtonia candicans), Scarborough Lily (Valotta), Cape Lily (Crinum powellii), Pineapple Lily (Eucomis)

royal adelaide show habitat garden detail

Reasons that bulbs don’t flower

Each year, many people spend a lot of money on bulbs but find they have virtually disappeared within several years, or that they never flower as well as they did the first year. There are many factors that contribute to this and probably the easiest way to overcome this is to understand where the bulbs come from (the climate of their country of origin) and where they grow (the conditions where they thrive and multiply). So, rather than trying to work against nature (she always wins!), why not choose to grow bulbs that are easy and appropriate for your situation. Some reasons for bulbs not flowering are:

Too much water during their dormant period

As explained previously, bulbs that come from a climate like out own will naturally be dormant and dry in summer. Giving them too much water will cause them to either rot, decrease in size, not flower at all or just flower poorly. As a rough guide, summer dormant bulbs such as daffodils, Dutch iris and freesias, will tolerate once a week watering but not much more. Circumstances that would change this include sandy soil or tree root competition, both factors which will cause the soil to dry out a lot quicker, allowing you to get away with watering more often.

If you want bulbs and do water more frequently, there are a few things you can do to overcome this. You can lift bulbs at the start of summer once they have completely died down and store them in a cool dry place until autumn. Otherwise choose hardier bulbs that do not need to stay as dry, such as bluebells, snowflakes and jonquils.

Incorrect growing conditions

This is a general category that would cover everything from trying to grow cool climate bulbs in a hot place, tropical bulbs in a cold place, sun loving bulbs in a shady place, shade loving bulbs in a sunny place, and bulbs that require some space in places with severe root competition. The solution is simply to understand what conditions you have in your garden, what conditions the bulbs like and need, and then aim for complete compatibility.

Bulbs planted too deep

Some bulbs, such as belladonnas and some nerines, naturally grow where they are exposed from the soil so that the bulb bakes. Burying these bulbs too deep will cause the not to flower, however, be assured that nature knows best and over time, many bulbs planted at the incorrect depth will naturally right themselves and either push themselves up out of the soil, or stretch down into the soil.

Immature Bulbs

If you have bought or been given bulbs that are not yet flowering size, only time will help you – so be patient. Some bulbs such as the Josephine lily need to be eight years old to flower!

Incorrect feeding

Many bulbs will survive, multiply and thrive with no extra nourishment, but some bulbs are used to growing in more fertile soils than we naturally have, so they do require additional feeding. In this case, try to use a balanced organic based fertiliser that encourages flowering, such as pelletised chicken manure or blood and bone. These fertilizers could be applied from six to 12 weeks from when they start to come out of their dormant period, throughout their growing season, and continuing until they have died down. Avoid using a fertiliser that is too high in nitrogen as it will encourage growth and not flowers.

Incorrect soil type

This is particularly relevant if you have heavy clay or compacted soils, as many bulbs such as freesias need very light well drained soil. If this is the case, look at improving your soil by digging it over, adding gypsum and organic matter.

Unsuitable bulb storage

If you do lift your bulbs each year, make sure that you store them appropriately – some need to be kept dry, while others must not be allowed to dry out.


Often if bulbs have been growing well in a position for several years and their flowering starts to decrease, it is because they are choking each other out and need to be lifted and separated. Always do this with a fork, not a spade, as nothing makes me cringe more than when I have inadvertently sliced a big healthy bulb in two. At least by using a fork you are giving the bulbs better odds of not being skewered.

So, if you do have some bulbs that are not performing well, try to discover the underlying reason and remedy it; and wherever possible try to choose bulbs varieties that are appropriate to the conditions of your garden.

Bulb FAQs

Tulips – I’ve tried to grow tulips in the past but the stems are short and flowers disappointing.

Tulips are cool climate bulbs that are easily stressed by heat, especially early in the season. Planting the bulbs into warm ground can cause them to have shorter stems, so plant in May when the weather has cooled down will avoid the problem. Also, if you have been storing your tulips bulbs in the crisper with fruit in it, this may be the cause of poor flowers as the fruit releases ethylene which may cause the flower buds within the bulb to dry up and die.

Messy look – Bulbs look lovely in flower but what do you do when they’ve finished and look messy?

Although it may be tempting to do some premature tidying up, do not pull off foliage and flowering stems after bulbs have flowered until it has dried off completely as this is going back into the bulb to create next seasons’ display. You may choose to bundle the foliage together and knot it so that it looks neater and is out of the way, however I think that this is a sign of someone with way too much time on their hands! If you grow bulbs in a mixed garden bed, most spring flowering bulbs flower before the summer flowering perennials and these grow up to disguise the bulb foliage as it is dying down. Growing bulbs in pots is a great option for people who do not like the look of the bulb foliage in the garden as it dies down. If the bulbs are growing in pots, you can simply put the pots down the back of our yard or behind the shed – safely out of sight.

Tatty flowers – My bulbs often open and they’ve been chewed – what’s the problem?

Snails and slugs can make short work of new tender bulb growth and flowers and they particularly like Daffodils, Jonquils, Liliums and Hippeastrums. Be prepared and sprinkle some snail pellets around as the bulbs start to shoot, or do a regular night patrol. Planting bulbs in pots can give you better control of these pests.

Which side up – I always get confused about planting ranunculus and anemone bulbs as I don’t know which way they go in?

Anemones and ranunculus are both hard dry bulbs when they are dormant. Anemone corms have a cone shape, and the point needs to be planted downwards. The small tuft visible on the wide flat end is not last year’s roots, but the remains of last year’s flower stem. Ranunculus tubers consist of a number of claws connected to a central crown at the top. The claws should be planted downwards.

Chilling info – Which bulbs need to go in the fridge, why, and for how long?

Tulips are the bulbs that are often chilled to get them to perform at their best. If you do not live in a cold area and you want to grow them store them in the crisper of your fridge (not the freezer) for six to eight weeks, as this simulates the cold winter the bulbs require to flower well. Also, the longer time spent in the fridge, the earlier the bulbs will flower. Plant them in May when the ground is cool. Also, make sure there are no apples in the crisper as these, and other fruit, release ethylene which can cause the flower buds to dry up and die, and affect growth performance. If you are storing your Tulips in the fridge every year but are frustrated that they do not flower and appear poorly, this could be the reason. The bulbs will need to be dug and chilled each year.

Warm climate bulbs – I live in Brisbane can I grow traditional spring bulbs?

Traditional spring bulbs may flower the first year, but they will usually be disappointing in following years. If you are determined to try, lift your bulbs each year and chill them in the crisper of your fridge for 6 to 8 weeks (see answer above). It would be a better idea however to choose bulbs that come from areas with a similar climate and summer rain and humidity such as those from southern and central Africa and central and southern America. These bulbs are generally summer and autumn flowering and include varieties such as Hippeastrums, Zephranthus, Hymenocallis and Crinum. (See list above)

Leftovers – I bought some bulbs last year but never got around to planting them.

Will they still be ok if I put them in this year?

Although doubtful, it depends on whether the bulbs are still moist on the inside or whether they have dried out completely. In general, the dormant flowers within the bulb are prone to desiccation after long periods of storage, however you have nothing to lose so why not try them!
I bought some daffodils a three years ago and they flowered OK for the first year but not the next year. Last year they turned into jonquils what can I do to turn them back into daffodils? It is impossible for one bulb to become another bulb, even when they are related. What has happened is that for some reason (see suggestions above) the daffodils have decreased and a jonquil which was either already there has taken over as they are hardier and better able to cope with less favorable conditions.

Footnote to be aware of weed potential

When planting bulbs that come from a similar climate as yours, they may have the potential to naturalize, and although this is something we often aim for, we also need to be aware of the weed potential they pose. If you live near natural bushland where a bulb could become a garden escapee, check with your bulb supplier, or your local nursery or garden centre as to the suitability of the bulbs that you choose.

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