The Bulb Queen’s Top Five for Fall

Gardening, Horticulture

Here in Maine, we know winter. We’re old companions and have learned to tolerate each other, but come spring? There aren’t many of us who aren’t ready for the welcome sight of early spring flowers. But in order to get to that bold display of early color, we need to plant them. And we need to plant them relatively soon.

Enter our bulb queen (also known as Horticulturist Courtney Locke) who kindly shared with us five of her favorites. (And if you have any doubt that she is the bulb queen, just watch her face as she talks about them; you’ll be a believer.)

The Top 5:


“They’re so incredibly beautiful and showy and transient,” enthuses Courtney. “I love the way sunlight just goes right through the petals, and if you see them in the right light, they glow. They’re big and in-your-face,” she says. “They just won’t be denied.”

Tulips are easy to care for and make great cult flowers, but the drawback (at least in our climate) is that they’re not long-lived. “They really only last two-to-three years,” Courtney explains. “Year one is the best: they all flower and they’re at their fullest and most beautiful. But every time they bloom, they diminish in size until eventually that blooming is sporadic,” she says. “So if you want to keep up a strong display, you have to replace them. But as far as beauty and perfection? They’re worth the effort.”

Her favorite (right now, anyway) is ‘El Niño’. “It really is spectacular—it’s a later-blooming tulip, really tall with a huge bloom, hot orange with red streaks and spots.”

Photo by Retired electrician, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


These are a favorite because they multiply every year. Beyond making great cut flowers, they’re one of the first large flowers in the spring. “I also really like the way they smell, the way they look—that really cool form, the big trumpet; nothing else is like that. Plus, they’re true perennials in Maine.” Not only that, but they’ll increase in number. “In ten years, you’ll have a huge clump. Divide that and replant at will,” she advises.



While these are common and easy to find, their real selling point? “It’s the scent—unbelievable. I love forcing these and having them around the house for that scent alone.” Short and cheerful hyacinths look like one big, puffy bloom, but in reality that “bloom” is made up of dozens of tiny fragrant flowers. “They also come in all kinds of colors,” adds Courtney, “so they’re an easy way to add interest to your display.”


The tiny ones, also called Siberian squill, “are relatively unknown, really cute, and one of the first things to bloom in spring, even before daffodils,” Courtney says. Her other favorites, sort-of cousins of the scilla, are chionodoxa (also called glory-of-the-snow). “These cheery flowers come in white, blue, and pink, but that blue is the most amazing sky blue. After a muddy March and April, it’s such a refreshing sight to see.”


“I really like fritillaries, so I have a few favorites: Fritillaria imperialis (‘The Premier’) and a late-bloomer with smoky plum blooms, Fritillaria persica. You can’t go wrong with Fritillaria meleagris, ‘The Checkered Lily’, either,” she says. “They’re so beautiful and so diminutive, one of those plants that’s not super showy, but has this beautiful, nodding, bell-shaped flower with an almost checkered pattern on the petals.” Like tulips, she warns, most fritillaria aren’t great as perennials here in Maine; after a number of years, they do disappear, but while they last, “they’re just so amazing and so unusual in the spring garden.”

H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Wait until it’s cold, otherwise the bulbs sprout and grow too early. “You want them to set out roots before ground freezes, but no growth—that’s what allows them to survive winter. The best time is mid-October to early November, but before the ground freezes. You can plant in frozen ground, but it’s really hard on the hands and not ideal for the bulbs.”
  2. Plant at the right depth. Bigger bulbs get planted 6-8” deep, little bulbs 2-4” deep. The general rule of thumb for planting spring bulbs is to plant two to three times as deep as the bulbs is tall. “It’s also a good idea to clean out your gardens in fall so when spring bulbs grow, they have a clear stage on which to shine,” Courtney advises.
  3. Protect against critters. Squirrels, chipmunks, and deer are definitely an issue. “Tulips, unfortunately, are not only my favorites but also favorites of all the critters.” Generally, daffodils, hyacinths, scillas, and chionodoxa are pretty safe. To keep deer from devouring your bulbs, you can erect deer fence around your garden. Courtney has had good luck with a plastic mesh called pea fencing that she’s hung around her gardens. “The other thing you can try is laying chicken wire or metal fencing over your bulbs so critters can’t dig them up.” As a bonus, deer don’t really like stepping on such material, and the plants can sprout right up through it. “You can also try Liquid Fence, a scent-deterrent. Blood meal works, too, and is easy to find,” she adds. “Deer hate the smell of it.” You will have to reapply such deterrents after a hard rain, but they work.
  4. Force bulbs for indoor blooming. “You can force any bulb. Put them in pots, getting them right down by the bottom for correct depth. Fill with soil and store in the fridge or cold cellar/unheated garage, somewhere cold that doesn’t freeze. Big bulbs take 10-12 weeks in the fridge to bloom. Smaller bulbs like crocus and hyacinths, 6-8 weeks. Just take them out at the end of their incubation period. “It’s really fun to have indoor blooms in the gloomy months.” Forcing is easy to do, just keep soil moist while in cold storage—don’t water unless the soil absolutely dries out.


Want more inspiration? The Gardens is here for you—check out our bulb displays next spring, or head on over to our Facebook page and scroll through photos of past springs.