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!