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This fall, prepare your spring garden

Autumn is the time to imagine a sea of color and plant bulbs.

Dormant furnaces rumble into life. Icy dew drenches lawns. Plump pumpkins grace doorways. The season to imagine the glories of spring – most particularly bulbs – is here.

For centuries spring-blooming bulbs have illuminated gardens. The Dutch went totally bonkers over tulips in the 16th century, sometimes paying the price of a house for a single bulb.

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Gardeners of the 21st century may be less crazed, but bulbs still stir pulses and prompt some growers to dig more holes than acorn-hoarding squirrels. Little wonder. Coming along when winter's gloom seems perpetual, they bring frothy excitement far out of proportion to their tiny size.

"By late winter, I'm so thrilled to see a flower," says R. William Thomas, executive director of Chanticleer Garden near Philadelphia. "Bulbs give a display ... when there's not much color."

Bulb enthusiasts urge gardeners to be as bold as the budget allows and plant dozens, hundreds, or even thousands. Using bulbs en masse and in combinations with existing flora make that long-awaited show all the more impressive. Downtown Chicago's Lurie Garden, for example, has 60,000 bulbs packed into its 2.5 acres. Planted last fall, "it really looked stunning in the spring," says Colleen Schuetz, the Lurie's head horticulturist.

While many public gardens fill formal beds with stately tulips, the Lurie Garden blends bulbs into the naturalistic look of the garden's perennials. Pairing bulbs with perennials works on a smaller scale in a home landscape as well. And the emerging foliage masks the fading bulb leaves. Home gardeners, Mr. Thomas says, can adapt some of the approaches used at Chanticleer, a garden known for its arresting use of color and plant combinations.

For example, plant hundreds of crocuses, aconite, and chionodoxa in drifts of color that appear to cascade down a hillside and across a path. Or plant rich purple and blue flowers with the chartreuse of emerging hosta and day lily foliage. Layering different types of bulbs with the same flower color in one spot will produce weeks of color. Burgundy lettuces, crinkly dark green kale, and other cool season vegetables can serve as bulb flower foils. A large area of all yellow or white daffodils will ripple like water in the breeze.

Even with limited quantities, gardeners can multiply the effects of spring by planting bulbs that bloom at the same time as favorite shrubs and trees. Purple crocus, for instance, can carpet an area near yellow forsythia, while clumps of 20 or more lily-flowered tulips will accent lilacs and crab apples. Ms. Schuetz says pairing shades of a single color, a bright white and ivory shades of tulips, for example, makes for a rich show.

If only a few bulbs – or a few minutes of work – are possible, plant bulbs near an often-used door or outside a favorite window for the most enjoyment.

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Regardless of the scale, the planting process needn't mar the garden's last hurrah before winter. Before preparing soil and planting bulbs, tie back bushy perennials, annuals, and grasses, suggests Schuetz. To make the digging easier in dry soil, Thomas says to wait until after a rain or thoroughly water the planting site about three days before planting. (It's OK to delay, bulbs can be planted until the ground freezes.)

Mark bulb sites by taking photos, making notes, or adding a few grape hyacinths or autumn flowering crocuses. Grape hyacinth sends up evergreen leaves in fall while the autumn crocus has grasslike leaves in spring and flowers in fall.

Once the planting ordeal is over, bulbs need little care. If happily sited, they repay with blossoms for many springs to come.

No wonder bulbs have been the must-have plants of spring for centuries.