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Bulbs vs. Seeds Cultivating the Perfect Seasonal Garden

By Ashleigh Smith, True Leaf Market
Photographs courtesy of True Leaf Market

When planning the garden, most people think of traditional vegetables, such as tomatoes, corn, beans, broccoli, etc. These popular seeds, complemented by a selection of flowers, are proud staples of many home gardens. But have you ever considered incorporating edible and flowering bulbs into your seasonal plans? It’s not too late to diversify and add a unique touch to your garden by also including a wide assortment of bulbs in your seasonal gardening projects.

Just as seeds are tailored to warm or cool season planting, bulbs are similarly selected for their seasonal compatibility. Seasonally planted bulbs include both flowers and edible vegetables like garlic or onions. For a complete garden, consider planting a mix of spring and fall flowers and edible bulbs along with your traditionally planted seeds.

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Ideally, the timeline of your gardening year would begin with planting cool-season vegetables and flower seeds indoors or under protective cold frames within the first few months. Once the soil becomes workable, these seedlings can be transplanted alongside bare-root varieties like asparagus. As the spring-blooming bulbs that are planted in the fall come to life, it is time to plan for what summer and fall-blooming flower bulbs you want to grow. These should be planted in the late spring to early summer. Remember, flowering bulbs generally bloom in the season opposite to their planting time.

What distinguishes bulbs from traditional seeds? Both are planted in soil to yield flowers or edible plants. However, bulbs are essentially dormant roots preserved from the previous year. Some plants reproduce via rhizomes (roots) or seeds, while others rely on only one method. For instance, irises propagate by producing more bulbs over time, gradually spreading from their original plantings. These bulbs can be divided and replanted elsewhere to sustain the desired coverage in the initial planting area.

Similar to seeds, there is a recommended planting depth for bulbs. A handy bulb planter can be used to measure and sow bulbs quickly. To maintain the quality of excess bulb spreading, many people prefer to divide their bulbs once a year and store them in a dry, cool place for planting the following year.

Determining which flowering and edible bulbs to plant in spring versus fall involves understanding their specific planting seasons. Unlike seeds, bulbs are usually only available for purchase or delivery during these windows to ensure they bloom or mature at the right time. Popular spring-planted bulbs include onions, shallots, ranunculus, dahlia, peony, freesia, lily, gladiolus and anemone. The best planting times for these bulbs may vary, so it is best to follow the recommendations provided for each flower type.

Popular fall-planted bulbs include garlic, allium, amaryllis, anemone, iris, crocus, daffodil, hyacinth, paperwhites, and tulips. While most bulbs are planted individually, garlic is an exception. Instead of planting a whole garlic bulb, the individual cloves should be separated and sown with the root side down. Each clove will develop into a full bulb by summer, ready for harvesting.

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Most fall-sown flowering bulbs will sprout and bloom early in the spring, which commonly marks the onset of the season. These fall bulbs are typically planted towards the end of the fall season while the soil is still workable, but temperatures are quickly falling. This is because spring-blooming bulbs require a cold season that lasts several weeks to trigger blooming once the warming spring temperatures arrive. This is comparable to the cold-stratification process that aids seed germination rates for plants such as wildflowers.

Most seeds that benefit from this cold period can be stored in a freezer, simulating winter conditions and prompting germination when exposed to spring moisture and warmth. Bulbs can also be triggered for blooming through a process called “forcing.” This is how many growers in warmer zones can grow bulbs for seasonal color installations during their cooler months.

Consider growing flowers and vegetables from seed and bulbs for a perfect balance of color and function all season long. Start with cool-season vegetables and flower seeds early in the year. Move to spring-planted roots and vegetable bulbs, followed by spring-planted flower bulbs at the appropriate soil temperatures and the direct sowing of flower and vegetable seeds. Then, consider planting fall-sown vegetable bulbs like garlic and spring-blooming flowers as the temperatures start to cool. At this time, you can divide or replace the spent fall-blooming bulbs that were planted in the spring season for more growing space.

Whether you opt for a complete garden that utilizes the growth habits and seasonality of both seeds and bulbs, or you choose to stick with one method, the most important goal is to produce a garden that makes you happy and fulfilled. I believe this is best accomplished by growing a balance of vegetables and flowering companion plants for a high-yielding harvest and a visually appealing space to spend your time in. Learn more:

Ashleigh Smith is the Managing Editor at True Leaf Market with a bachelor's degree in Horticulture from Brigham Young University - Idaho. True Leaf Market is a nationally certified organic, non-GMO seed and horticultural company based in Salt Lake City, Utah. The True Leaf Market staff specializes in supplying a large selection of conventional, heirloom, and organic seeds to home gardeners everywhere. Learn more about our sprouts, microgreens, supplies, and other seeds and growing ideas:

All articles are copyrighted and remain the property of the author.

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