Gardens Illustrated
Tulipa Burgundy
© Jason Ingram

Spring bulbs to plant in autumn: designers pick the best

Published: October 14, 2020 at 2:15 pm

Five leading garden designers recommend the best spring bulbs to plant in autumn to add colour into the garden after the dull winter months

It may sound like a cliché, but spring bulbs really do add a touch of sparkle and much-needed colour when little else wants to show itself above the cold soil. Autumn is the best time to plant spring bulbs, because the soil is still warm. You can leave planting tulips until November and alliums until early December but the smaller, early bulbs need to be in by the end of September if you want them to flower in March. Plan ahead to makes sure you have the bulbs you want, in time for planting. Here you'll find recommendations from leading garden designers of the best bulbs to plant in autumn, for spring flowering. Head to our piece on bulb suppliers for where to buy your bulbs and don't miss our guide on when to plant bulbs.


Designer's favourite spring bulbs

Annie Guilfoyle, garden designer

Plant bulbs in larger quantities than you think you’ll want; that way you will not be disappointed.
Annie Guilfoyle

Annie's favourite bulbs

  1. Crocus ‘Prins Claus’

    A stunning little crocus, with soft-white petals featuring a broad purple flash. Flowers in February. Height 8cm. Hardiness rating RHS H5, USDA 4a-11.

  2. Nectaroscordum tripedale

Nectaroscordum tripedale
© Jason Ingram

Dusky pink flowers gather in a loose allium form. Flowering in June, it reaches a magnificent height. Height 1m. Hardiness rating USDA 5a-10a.

  • Camassia ‘Blue Heaven’

  • Camassia Blue Heaven
    Nectaroscordum tripedale

    Finding bulbs suitable for heavy, wet soil is a hard task but these are the answer. Grow the pale-blue flowers in large drifts for maximum effect. Flowers early May. Height 80cm.

  • Tulipa ‘Red Shine’

    The sultry-red flowers dotted through a border looks simply sublime. Flowers in late May. Height 55cm. Hardiness rating RHS H6.

  • Crocus angustifolius

    This little Ukrainian crocus has rich, golden petals and a dark-burgundy stripe. Height 5cm. Hardiness rating RHS H5, USDA 4a-7b.

  • Iris reticulata

  • Iris 'Evening Twilight' (Reticulata)
    © Richard Bloom

    Flowering from January, these tough little beauties are the best plants to bring a bit of winter cheer. Height 15cm. Hardiness rating RHS H7, USDA 5a-8b.

  • Hyacinthoides non-scripta

  • Hyacinthoides non-scripta
    © Photo by FlowerPhotos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

    For me, English bluebells are the bulbs that really herald in the spring in April. Perfect for naturalising in those tricky, shady corners under deciduous trees. Height 30cm. Hardiness rating RHS H6, USDA 6a-7b.

    Jinny Blom, Landscape and garden designer

    If you do nothing else, buy bulbs. Don’t try to be clever, just pile them in and let them sort themselves out.
    Jinny Blom

    Jinny's favourite bulbs

    1. Allium cernuum

    Allium Cernuum
    © Claire Takacs

    One of the prettiest alliums with upwards of 40 dangling, rosy flowers on each head in June. Height 50cm. Hardiness RHS H5, USDA 3a-10a.

  • Camassia leichtlinii subsp. suksdorfii Caerulea Group

    Originating in moist, marginal ground in the USA, This tall quamash with scintillating blue, starry flowers in May, creates an arresting sight when planted en masse. Height 90cm. Hardiness rating RHS H4, USDA 5a-9b.

  • Galanthus nivalis

  • Snowdrops: Galanthus nivalis 'Anglesey Abbey'
    Snowdrops: Galanthus nivalis 'Anglesey Abbey' © Jason Ingram

    Spring wouldn’t be spring without snowdrops. If you want to be posh, then choose a hybrid, such as the larger Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’, but frankly there’s no need – a snowdrop is a snowdrop. Height 10cm. Hardiness rating RHS H5, USDA 3a-8b.

  • Tulipa sylvestris

  • Tulipa sylvestris
    Tulipa sylvestris © Jason Ingram

    Beautiful flowers with an elfin grace about them, with two buds per stem each flushed reddish on the outside. Flowers in April. Height 45cm. Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 5a-9b.

  • Scilla hyacinthoides

    Scillas are very pretty and it’s always worth having a few drifts. This one likes poor soil in sun as it’s a Middle Eastern flower. Very beautiful and sure to impress. Height 80cm.

  • Narcissus ‘Thalia’

  • Narcissus ‘Thalia’
    Narcissus ‘Thalia’ © Jason Ingram

    I’ve lost count of how many of these sweet, pure-white narcissi I’ve planted. It is simply the best and most beautiful in my book – and very reliable too. Flowers in April. Height 30cm. Hardiness USDA 5a-11.

  • Crocus tommasinianus

  • Crocus tommasinianus 'Ruby Giant'
    Crocus tommasinianus 'Ruby Giant' © Jason Ingram

    I’m always charmed by the starry flowers of this sweet little crocus, which flowers so eagerly in January. Plant great drifts of them, if you can keep the squirrels off. Height 10cm. Hardiness rating RHS H5, USDA 3a-8b.

    Alison Jenkins, Garden designer

    It’s easy to overlook bulbs, but they add another dimension that can bring some magic at a dreary time of year.
    Alison Jenkins

    Alison's favourite bulbs

    1. Tulipa ‘Bruine Wimpel’

      Sometimes sold as Tulipa Malaika, this is a subtle, single, late tulip, which fades from smoky-pink to rust. Looks good with the dark-red tones of Tulipa 'Ronaldo' and Anthriscus sylvestris 'Ravenswing'. Flowers in April. Height 60cm. Hardiness USDA 3a-8b.

    2. Narcissus ‘Jenny’

      The graceful form and soft tones of this daffodil work well when naturalised in grass. It has creamy-white, swept-back petals with a pale-yellow trumpet. Height 30cm. Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 3a-8b.

    3. Allium nigrum

      Flowering in early June, these give height and impact before many of the perennials get going. The off-white domed heads have a distinctive green centre in each of the many flowers. Height 75cm. Hardiness rating RHS H5, USDA 5a-9b.

    4. Muscari latifolium

      The two-tone flowers are strikingly unusual and look as though they have been dipped in violet sherbert. Flowering in March, they look good popping up through the black grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’. Height 20cm. Hardiness rating RHS H5, USDA 6a-9b.

    5. Fritillaria assyriaca

      Best planted in old terracotta pots so you can bring them indoors where the subtlety of the mahogany flowers, tipped with yellow ochre, and the elegant form of their linear leaves can be appreciated up close. Flowers in April. Height 30cm. Hardiness rating USDA 7a-9b.

    6. Narcissus ‘Segovia’

      This scented, miniature daffodil has pure-white petals with an unusual flat, lemon cup in March. Plant some in a pot near your door and they will provide and air of zingy spring freshness every time you pass by. Height 25cm. Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 3a-9b.

    7. Tulipa ‘Havran’

      An elegant tulip with two to three inky, dark-purple flowers per stem. It flowers earlier than Tulipa 'Queen of Night' (mid April) and works well in pots with Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Purpurea' and the vibrant orange Tulipa 'Ballerina'. 45cm.

    Nigel Dunnett, Professor of Planting Design at the University of Sheffield

    The glow of the early layer of bulbs is one of the year’s highlights.
    Nigel Dunnett

    Nigel's favourite bulbs

    1. Narcissus ‘Petrel’

      I have fallen in love with pure-white narcissi in general, and now use them widely to illuminate shady places. N. 'Petrel', however is one of the best. It is relatively short, scented and extremely graceful. Flowers in April. Height 20cm. Hardiness ratings USDA 5a-11.

    2. Erythronium revolutum Johnsonii Group

      Beautiful, dramatic and uplifting wild plant communities from around the world inspire my plantings, and that is exactly the way I use bulbs – taking my guide from how they might grow in natural situations. In the wild, erythroniums form the most beautiful sheets of colour in woodlands – it's the sort of pictorial effect that really gets me going. Many, such as this one, have superb mottled foliage too - great value. Height 15-25cm. Hardiness rating USDA 3a-9b.

    3. Tulipa turkestanica

    Tulipa turkestanica
    Tulipa turkestanica © Jason Ingram

    I use this extensively in dry-meadow plantings – I love the dainty, white, star-shaped flowers that are held by the tall main stem. It also has great seedheads and lovely glaucous foliage. Flowers from March. Height 25cm. Hardiness rating RHS H5, USDA 4a-8b.

  • Allium stipitatum ‘Mount Everest’

    It’s not just the white globes, which appear in June, that do it for me – especially when they are planted en masse – but the rich-green seedheads that come after the flowers are also extremely ornamental. Height 1.2m. Hardiness USDA 3a-8b.

  • Tulipa praestans ‘Fusilier’

    Another of my essential plants for steppe plantings: the multiple, bright-scarlet flowers make for a long-flowering display from March. I like the bold red and green combination of this among the new foliage of ornamental grasses. Height 15-30cm. Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 3a-8b.

  • Fritillaria persica

  • Fritillaria persica
    Fritillaria persica © Richard Bloom

    A sexy bulb. The upright form and dusky purple flowers that appear in April have it all. I like to use it in drifts of widely scattered individuals in dry-steppe or dry-meadow plantings. Height 1m. Hardiness rating RHS H4, USDA 5a-9b.

    Declan Buckley Garden designer

    Bulbs are invaluable for injecting early season colour. The key is to think big and plant in generous quantities.
    Declan Buckley

    Declan's favourite bulbs

    1. Nectaroscordum siculum

      Pendulous umbrellas of up to 30 drooping, bell-shaped, creamy-green flowers, each with purple and pink markings, are carried on stiff stems. As these fade, they turn upright to form spires of erect, shuttlecock-like seedheads. Flowers May to June. Height 80cm-1m. Hardiness rating RHS H5, USDA 6a-10b.

    2. Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’

    Leucojum aestivum 'Gravetye Giant'
    Leucojum aestivum 'Gravetye Giant' © Jason Ingram

    Fragrant, snow-white, bell-shaped flowers tipped with green. I have planted it among ferns on the edge of a woodland garden and in borders with Narcissus 'Thalia' and Tulipa 'Spring Green' for a more sophisticated combination. Flowers April. Height 45-55cm. Hardiness RHS H7, USDA 6a-9b.

  • Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus

  • Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus
    Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus © Jason Ingram

    Despite its delicate appearance, this deliciously fragrant, late-flowering, wild species with simple, pure-white petals surrounding small, red-rimmed, yellow cups, is tough and sturdy. Will increase gradually over time and lends itself to many planting styles. Flowers April to May. Height 40cm. Hardiness rating RHS H6, USDA 3a-9b.

  • Tulipa ‘Ballerina’

    The beautiful pointed petals of this scented, lily-flowered tulip add warmth to late spring plantings. Set it off against the acid-yellow of Euphorbia and plant with Tulipa 'Burgundy' for a sumptuous combination. Flowers early to mid May. Height 55cm. Hardiness rating RHS H6, USDA 4a-8b.

  • Tulipa ‘Burgundy’

  • Tulipa Burgundy
    Tulipa Burgundy © Jason Ingram

    Rich, dark-purple, arched petals are carried on strong stems. The tight nature of the lily-flower varieties seems to help them withstand heavy rain more than other tulip cultivars. Perfect for cut-flower displays. Flowers early to mid May. Height 50cm.

  • Narcissus ‘Rapture’

    The golden-yellow, long-lasting flowers of this little narcissus can’t fail to bring a smile to your face. I plant them en mass to naturalise in a lawn, or at the front of a border or in a window box. Flowers March. Height 25-30cm. Hardiness rating RHS H6, USDA 3a-8b.

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