Jazz Up Your Garden with Spring-Planted Bulbs

Dahlias, gladiolus and other spring-planted bulbs add hot color and fragrance

mona lisa oriental lily stargazerThe Mona Lisa is a fragrant Oriental lily    Photo: Ted on Flickr

Spring-planted bulbs are powerhouses of stored flower energy that start blooming just a few months after planting. There's no waiting for these plants to get established. Once they're in the ground, the bulbs sprout roots and get right down to the business of creating flowers.

One of the best things about spring-planted bulbs is that they hit their stride in late summer when the rest of the flower garden is beginning to flag. They'll add a welcome jolt of color and fragrance to your beds and borders, and especially to your home, as all of them are excellent cut flowers.

The big three spring-planted bulbs are dahlias, gladiolus and lilies:


After considering them awkward and gaudy for the first half of my life, I'm now a dahlia fan and my appreciation for them is growing. Our autumn frosts are coming later each year and this gives my dahlias an extra couple of weeks to bloom. I'm amazed by the extravagance of flowers produced by a hand-sized clump of dahlia tubers.

Here in zone 4/5, I start my dahlia tubers in pots about a month before planting them out into the garden. This gives them a head start; I also find it's also easier to place a plant with foliage than to reserve an empty patch of ground while waiting for the first sprouts to appear.

Learn more: How to Grow Dahlias


Runner-up in the gaudy flower category would have to be the gladiolus. Though the flowers themselves are beautiful, I find their stiff form is almost impossible to integrate into my regular garden beds. So I grow them in the cutting garden, planted in rows near the zinnias. This also makes it easier to provide a little support should they begin to list.

Plant at least two or three different batches of gladiolus corms, a couple weeks apart. This way you'll have flowers coming into bloom over a six-week period, right up to frost.

A less-familiar type of gladiolus is also known as acidanthera or peacock orchids (Gladiolus callianthus). They're popular in England, where they're praised for their delicate form and intense fragrance.

Learn More: The Basics: Gladiolus


In late summer, there's no flower I love more than lilies. The bulbs are a bit pricey, but when you consider that each one produces a 4-foot stalk topped by six to ten giant and powerfully fragrant blooms, they're actually a bargain.

I grow three types of lilies in my garden: trumpets, Orientals and rubrums. Because they're all marginally hardy in my zone 4/5 garden, and because I'm plagued by lily-bulb-eating rodents, I plant a fresh batch of bulbs each spring.

Oriental liliesSierra Nevada is a fragrant Oriental variety.

Trumpet lilies are the first to bloom in my garden. I have two old-time favorites, which are Regale and Golden Splendor. This year I've also ordered an orange trumpet called African Queen. Trumpets are just as fragrant as Oriental lilies, but I find their fragrance more complex and mysterious.

There are dozens of Oriental lily varieties. One of best things about having so many different varieties, that is they each have a slightly different bloom time. Plant a couple bags of mixed Oriental lily bulbs, and you'll have lilies in bloom for six to eight weeks.

Rubrum lilies are the latest lilies to bloom in my garden — sometimes as late as October. The flowers are recurved, which means the petals curl back away from the center of the flower. They're also pendulous, so are downward facing. The rubrum is a species lily, meaning the plants we grow in our gardens are similar to those that are found in the wild. For me, these lilies are just as beautiful and fragrant as the hybridized trumpets and Orientals. I have rubrums planted in my shade garden and every year they seem to appear out of nowhere, well after the rest of the garden has given up. I like that about them.

Learn More: The Basics: Lilies

Last updated: 06/29/2023