Bulb FAQ: the post you've all been waiting for

Or not. Here are a few of the common questions I get on bulbs, and a whole bunch of questions I made up so I can spread my own bulb propaganda. I have linked to earlier bulb posts whenever appropriate. And keep in mind that I have tried to focus on what the common bulb wisdom does NOT tell you.

Also keep in mind that this is the GWI bulb FAQ and you may disagree with it. All I can say is that the following advice works for me.

The turkistanica species tulip will naturalize readily.

Q. I love tulips, but I don’t plant them anymore because they don’t come back. How do I get them to last? Should I fertilize?
A. Hybrid tulips are not reliable perennials. They don’t come back that well unless given full sun, perfect drainage, and foliage that is allowed to die back completely. And even then, they only last about 2-3 years. On the other hand, they give so much beauty for such a relatively small amount of money, why not just accept them as annuals, and replenish as needed? This is why I often use pots for hybrids. I never fertilize them; why bother? I do compost them when they are done. Or friends take them, horrified at my “waste.” Then they plant them and they don’t come up.
For true perennial tulips, you should look to the dainty wildflower look of the species tulips. These need to be planted generously to make an impact, but the bulbs are small, and easy to drop in anywhere.

Here's an unusual species tulip: t. acuminata.

Q. What's the best way to plant tulips?
A. I'm no designer and I don't even play one on TV, but I think tulips need to be planted en masse, in big groups, and never in a row or any such regimented arrangement. What I like to do is dig a big hole and throw as many as 50 in there. They shouldn't be on top of each other but can be closely packed. That will give you a tulip display worth looking at. Or you can plant them in a long river or swathe. Again, don't worry about spacing. And those bulb-planting tools? They suck. A good shovel is all you need.

Here are two Single Late varieties: Queen of the Night and Blushing Lady, planted in a big, tightly packed group.

Q. How do I keep the squirrels from eating my tulip bulbs, or the rabbits/deer from eating the shoots as they come up?
A. Squirrels are easy. Just put some wire screening or other similar barrier over the top of the hole you’ve dug and cover all with dirt. I have never had to do this, though we have tons of squirrels. Sometimes I sprinkle crushed red pepper over the planting, but I’m uncertain that there’s even a need. Deer and rabbits are far more persistent and will require fencing or some really nasty-smelling repellent like Liquid Fence. I have heard that this works.
Don’t give up. I know many suburbanites with tons of deer who have lovely bulb gardens.

Martagon lilies are the first to bloom in mid-June.

Q. How late can I plant bulbs?
A. I have heard that if you can get them into the ground—even if that requires a drill—you can plant them. But I also hear it’s better to get them in by the end of November (in Northern/Midwestern/MidAtlantic zones), so they can settle in and be able to withstand the cold. What you shouldn’t do is try to save them for the next year. Get them in the ground; it’s worth a shot.

I do a lot of hybrid tulips in pots: a moveable feast.

Q. I don’t have room for bulbs—how to fit them in?
A. Oh yes you do have room. Have you considered keeping them in pots? This works very well and they bloom at the same time as they would in the ground. Or you can force them, in which case they will bloom in early March. Hyacinths are better than tulips for forcing. I have instructions for all this here.

Q. All this obsession with bulbs, but you rarely talk about daffodils. Why?
A. I’m not a big fan of the large daffodil cultivars in my small urban space. Plus, even though daffodils perennialize better, they still need sun for their leaves to die back, which takes forever and is a most unattractive process. After my trees leaf out, I don’t have that sun. And I have had some fancy daffodils that ARE in full sun regress completely into bud blast. Fie on them. Since I am a fan of the fancy cultivar, this is discouraging. For me. You do what you want.

I've just started planting this white erythronium. It's native to the West Coast.

Q. OK, you’re not a daffodil fan. What are your favorite bulbs?
A. I love all the little species tulips and such wildflower bulbs like erythronium (though not strictly a bulb). I also love galanthus and scilla. But my very favorites are lilium. They have become my specialty. They are utterly exotic looking, with fragrance to make you swoon, yet they are hardier than almost any other bulb, clean through zone 3. It saddens me that so many gardeners think lilies begin and end with Stargazers; there are so many more interesting varieties. It kind of annoys me when people refer to daylilies (hemerocallis) as lilies, though I know I shouldn’t care.
Lilies can be planted in the ground in fall and in spring, which makes them unique in the bulb world. They also work very well in pots, as long as those pots are stored in a cool garage or facsimile thereof over the winter. (This information all pertains to zone 6 and lower.)

This lilium is called Amazing. I think it is a descendent of the auratum species lilium.

Q. What's the difference between buying my bulbs at Costco, Home Depot or wherever and from specialty bulb vendors like Brent & Becky’s?
A. Well, companies like Brent & Becky’s and Old House Gardens are small businesses that really care about their plants. They are obsessed with finding new and hardier cultivars and delight in bringing them to you. Their bulbs are opften bigger and healthier than big box bulbs. And if you carefully select from these companies, you know you won’t have the same tulips as everyone else.

These are truly wild lilies, the species henryi. They get really tall and multiply with ease.

Q. Are there general culture requirements for bulbs?
A. Of course, different type of bulbs have different requirements, but I think it’s safe to say that almost all of them like good drainage. I don’t have great drainage, which is why I love putting them in pots. Most of them need sun before and (especially) after bloom (to promote return). A few shade-friendly bulbs are scilla (squill), galanthus (snowdrops), and erythronium (trout lily). The same compost you would use for the rest of the bed would be fine for the bulbs. Their foliage must be left to die back after they’ve bloomed (unless treating and annuals), and most will take an acid soil.
I think the least obstrusive foliage can be found in the little species tulips, other small bulbs, and the lilies, which really are just a stalk.

Erythronium "Pagoda" has glossy, mottled foliage.

Q. All I’m hearing about is flowers. What about foliage?
A. Most bulbs don’t have terribly attractive foliage, with the stunning exception of erythronium and a couple of the Kaufmanniana tulips—Red Emperor is a good example . Erythronium have wonderful glossy, mottled, foliage. If only it would remain through the season—they would become the perfect plants.

Here's a close-up of the lovely martagon lily.

Q. I’m bored with all this blah-blahing about bulbs. Can you stop now?
A. Yes! But I may add to this FAQ later on, depending on comments and other stuff that happens to float into my bulb-obsessed head.

The images you see here are all from my garden: no idealized catalog porn!


Carol Michel said…
Excellent information! Because of your posts from before, I purchased several types of species tulips to plant in a few weeks. You won't find those in a big box store.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens
MA said…
You know I have been hanging on your every word and it just cost me over $100 bucks. It was the tulip acuminata that put me over the edge. I had 7, bought 10 more. Livin' LARGE here in Idaho!

And I have to say, I love planting them in big containers. I used big black plastic pots which had previously held new trees. That gives me the 12-14" of depth I needed.

Thanks for the great tips.
chuck b. said…
Bulbs are cool. I like daffodils because they flower early for me and they're especially pretty in the soft light of late winter. Tulip hybrids I feel have too much boring foliage. The species tulips are so different than hybrid tulips it's hard to even think of them as tulips.

I have a few lilies, some I even grew from seed. Still waiting for them to flower one day.

Serious bulb lovers on the west coast eventually buy from Telos up in Ferndale. It's a one-woman business and I read her blog. I particularly enjoyed this post about how she ships all Amaryllidaceae with the roots.

EAL said…
Thanks, guys! I think the bulb vendors owe me big time, not just for my bulb evangelism, but mainly for the way I blithely urge everyone to treat them as annuals.
Kathy said…
Yeah, my frugal soul resists treating them as annuals. Daffodils are great for big rural displays. No one pays attention to them going over when they're out in a field. But most of them were here when I moved in, and I just keep dividing them. Only ones that blast for me are the double poeticus, and they are heirlooms.
Naturegirl said…
Great post! In time for me because I'm planting my bulbs today!! Last year I planted bulbs in those big pots that are made of resin type material (so they would not crack over winter) and NOT one tulip or hyacinth blossomed? This year I plant only in the ground and shall take your advise with dropping many in a hole for mass appeal in Spring!
EAL said…

Even though the pots didn't crack, if it was really cold, the bulbs could have frozen and thawed, thus ruining them. I move my bulbs in pots into the garage for the winter. And I don't do hyacinths in those pots, only tulips. For some reason (too cold?) the hyacinths only work in the ground or forced in pots/vases.
Unknown said…
EAL, that's a wonderful FAQ. Thorough but not too long--lots of good info there.

I would add, however, that a lot of my greigii tulips have interesting foliage, too. They tend to be streaked with purple like this one... although there is one variety, which I can never seem to find and am too lazy to order, that has yellow variegation. (Its name escapes me right now.)
Anonymous said…
Great stuff~! You're definitely my bulb coach.
EAL said…
Yes, Kim, I had thought about the gregii as well, and wondered if they had variegated foliage. I should try them soon. Thanks for reminding me.
Susan, I got 170 in today!
Very interesting post! I am glad to see someone else who doesn't swoon over tulips and daffodils. I like to find new species of bulbs that my neighbors don't have as well. I was looking for information on thwarting moles. Last time I planted I put red bell pepper and garlic in the BOTTOM of the hole and the moles stayed away. My idea was too late for a rather fancy planting I had done - but later sprinkled the pepper on TOP just in case there were any bulbs the mole missed on his first pass.
Liisa said…
This has been really informative. I am going to try potting up some bulbs next weekend, and then storing in the garage. Also, I followed your advice from a previous post and shopped The Lily Garden - that place could prove addicting!! My question for you is whether allium come back reliably, or would it be best to treat those as an annual as well?
Anonymous said…
Great post! I realized I have been reading Garden Rant for over a year now because I remember finally learning how to plant bulbs from one of your posts last fall - throw a bunch in a big hole rather than trying to plant them individually with a stupid bulb-planting tool or hand trowel. Previously I planted them individually and always a little too far apart. They never looked good. Best tip I've ever had.
Gail said…
Great post, I love having the info all in one post! Species tulips have been on the list of favs for awhile now...I have liked Lilca Wonder for its great face! Your photos were the perfect accompaniment to the FAQ!

Anonymous said…
Beautiful. And a total fantasy for us in Central Texas, esp. those gorgeous lilies. Here's to fantasy!
EAL said…
Liisa, alliums are perennials for most--just be sure you have good sun.
Unknown said…
Here you go, Eliz:

It's one with golden-edged foliage... not sure what I think about it with the flower color, though. That's a little too "golden arches" for me. :)
EAL said…
Thanks Kim,

I never would have thought of that vendor for bulbs. Love the foliage, though red tulips are not my favorite.
Anonymous said…
This is a great post. All the info I could ever want, while demystifying bulbs at the same time. You should be a writer. You are the bulbous one!
Anonymous said…
Van Engelen bulbs are very affordable, but you have to buy them early, they go quick.They are very big and healthy bulbs.
jana braswell said…
Hey! What a great blog. I have a question about bulbs tho, that is very stupid but I have to ask... how do you plant OVER bulbs?? I put a bunch of bulbs around my mailbox (miserably, I might add) and now that the foliage is dying, and it looks like crap, I want to plant some annuals over it. Is that cool to do? Do you have any tips? Bulbs are so amazing to me, but an entirely different world... uhg.

Any insight would be great. I need help!


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