Planting bulbs this fall is not just a way to have hope for the future. It’s an investment in your spring garden.

Planting bulbs this fall is not just a way to have hope for the future.

It’s an investment in your spring garden.

If you plan things just right, a burst of color can brighten dark days, even in snow-covered spaces. 

Hardy bulbs not only can handle the cold temperatures of Pennsylvania winters, they need that chilly resting time to bloom. This week’s freeze warning marks the first part of a guide all about bulbs.

What is a bulb?

Many perennial plants are commonly called bulbs but botanically, true bulbs are a smaller group of plants.

In general, a “bulb” is a plant that stores its complete life cycle in an underground fleshy storage system, says Lori Voll-Wallace, master gardener coordinator in northeast Pennsylvania. That includes corms, tubers, rhizomes and true bulbs, which we’ll focus on here. 

A true bulb has a stem and a miniature flower bud surrounded by fleshy leaves or scales. Think of the layers of an onion. Cut an onion or tulip in half and you’ll see a miniature version of the plant. The outside layers protect the plant and store the energy needed to bloom. Here’s more about four true bulbs.

Bulbs for flowers


Snowdrops (galanthus) are one of the first flowers of the year, with common snowdrops often blooming as early as mid-winter. They’re also one of the smallest true bulbs.

While many bulbs appreciate full sun, snowdrops like growing in the shade, especially under trees that shed their leaves.

Common snowdrops usually start blooming in mid-February in Lancaster County and last for about a month. One early bloomer, Potter’s Prelude, blooms months before, in mid-November. These bulbs are tiny but galanthophiles will pay hundreds of dollars for a special plant. Carolyn’s Shade Garden, Bryn Mawr, sells dozens of cultivars in different colors, shapes and sizes. Some plants sell out in days and it usually takes only a month for her entire catalog to sell out.

Because the bulbs are so small, they can dry out easily. The best time to plant snowdrops is when foliage is still green, according to New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.


Many daffodils (narcissus) brighten spring days with vibrant yellow trumpet-shaped flowers. There are more than 25,000 registered hybrids, in different sizes, shapes, colors and bloom times.

How tough are they to grow?

“Dig a hole and drop them in,” is the advice from the American Daffodil Society. “But keep the pointy end up.”

The society awards outstanding exhibition daffodils, including:

  • Southern Hospitality, described as a stunning double daffodil with whorled golden yellow segments and a frilled orange-red center. 
  • Pogo, a daffodil with smooth white segments and a green center that fades to yellow with a frilled bright orange rim.
  • Mesa Verde, a sensational emerald green daffodil, maturing to greeny yellow that stays in peak form for weeks.

Plant daffodils by early November to give them the time to develop a strong root system before the ground freezes.


Bulbs to eat

In tough times, people have eaten tulip bulbs. While tulips may taste like onions (according to the Amsterdam Tulip Museum), garlic might be a better edible bulb.

In Pennsylvania, hardneck garlic grows better than softneck types. 

Mid-October is the perfect time to plant garlic but you still have some time before the ground gets too cold. Garlic also can be planted in spring (the cloves may be smaller at harvest time). To keep away allium leafminer, an invasive pest discovered in Lancaster County, add row covers during planting.

Garlic cloves can be harvested in July and then dried. For an earlier taste of garlic, harvest scapes topped with flower buds. Removing the scapes will send energy back to growing bigger bulbs. And you can turn the scapes into a garlicky pesto, hummus or substitute for garlic in the kitchen.


Bulbs for indoors

Some true bulbs are tender and won’t like Pennsylvania winters. They’ll still thrive indoors.

Plant an amaryllis soon to add to your holiday decor or brighten your home in the dead of winter.

Bloom times vary but in general, amaryllis take about six to eight weeks to bloom.

Amaryllis’ name comes from the Greek word amarysso, which means “to sparkle.” It’s also the name of a shepherdess who shed blood to prove her love. As the tale goes, the blood drops created red flowers along the path to her love’s home. 

While many amaryllis flowers are red, others are white or pink. Some have stripes and others are feathered.

Amaryllis don’t need a lot of space. They actually prefer to be crowded in the planter. You can wrap the bulb in soil and moss to make a kokedama (also known as a Japanese moss ball). 

Some bulbs are even more constricted and dipped in wax. That’s a no-mess way to grow amaryllis. The wax may keep roots from growing enough to bloom again next year.

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