7 tips on how to shop for flower bulbs

I CAN FEEL FALL COMING, with recent nights in the 50s, so I’m reminded: order flower bulbs. My top 7 tips to help you shop smarter for these important members of the garden cast:

1. use animal-resistant bulbs

Tired of waking up in spring to beheaded tulips and disappearing crocus? Shop for animal-resistant flower bulbs such as alliums (that’s Allium caeruleum up top) and Eranthis hyemalis (below) and others instead. Animal-resistant bulbs.

2. try bulbs for the shade garden

Is your garden (like mine) a place of increasing shade as trees and shrubs mature? Some bulbs, including bluebells and certain species lilies and more, can manage in light shade. Bulbs for a bit of shade.

3. add extra-early blooming bulbs

Minor (mostly small) bulbs like winter aconite and snowdrops and crocus, among others, can add to the early season display, extending your garden’s bloom time many weeks earlier than the official start of spring. Heirloom bulb expert and Old House Gardens founder Scott Kunst recommends these little guys to extend the season backward.

4. remember: early, middle and late

One of my gardening mantras: early, middle, late. (Repeat after me!) To achieve a long show of many kinds of flowering plants (including lilacs, daffodils or tulips, daylilies, peonies and more) you need to choose carefully from among the many species and varieties in the genus, not selecting just for color or size, but for bloom time. Nowhere is this more important than with bulbs. Nearly two months of daffodils are possible if you plan right, and almost that long or even longer with the rest. Good bulb catalogs note which portion of the bloom season that plant covers (extra-early versus early or midseason or late Narcissus, for instance) right there on the page, grouping choices in a helpful manner.

5. mix it up; be daring

Try something new. Go ahead—order a flowering bulb you’ve never grown before. I dare you. (I’m eyeing the Eremurus, or foxtail lilies, at the moment. Uh-oh.) And don’t be stingy with the numbers of each thing; order more than you usually do for greater impact, like 5 not 1 or 10 not 5, not so many lonely onesies. If we don’t widen our palettes as gardeners and plant a little more lavishly, how will we ever grow? Two experts from the daring, artistic garden called Chanticleer in Pennsylvania encouraged me to use bulbs with an adventurous hand (find those stories here).

6. compare prices, but read the fine print

Prices may vary widely from catalog to catalog, but don’t be fooled. Some deals in mass-market catalogs are too good to be true. Be sure to read the fine print about what size bulb you’ll be receiving. My list of preferred bulb vendors (and note that a lot of those catalogs that just show up in your mailbox that you never ordered are not on it!). Another budget tip: Naturalizing mixtures (a blend of bulb varieties, such as many different Narcissus) can be good value if you want a less-formal but massed look.

7. plan your spring bulb purchases now, too

Remember: Some bulbs are only sold in spring, such as pineapple lilies (Eucomis; that’s E. bicolor, above). Make yourself a note now to order them then.

more, more, more:

  1. Jennie says:

    I’m always amazed by your wonderful spring flower pictures. Someday I’ll own my own house and have tons and tons of bulbs – until then I’ll settle for adding a few here and there at every place we live. Thanks for this timely list – right now #1 is especially important for me to remember since we live on the outskirts of a national forest and critters are always coming into town.

  2. Deborah B says:

    Thanks for the great list, Margaret. I’d love to know if you grow Colchicum, and if it’s true that it’s ‘varmint’ resistant. Also, I’d like to say that I did have one bed of crocus and tulips that were untouched this spring, because I planted them last fall with some Repellex pellets that a garden buddy gave me. It works for up to one year. I guess this fall I’m supposed to dig all those areas up and add more pellets? Not going to happen. Still it was a nice moment in time, to be able to enjoy the bulbs this year. One caution if anyone decides to try this: If you are downwind of the planting hole, you’ll get a bitter taste in your mouth you won’t soon forget.

  3. Cathy says:

    I have foxtail lilies growing in my garden. This is their 3rd season. Nothing is more spectacular when they bloom. They are not attractive when they go dormant after bloom. But worth the yearly wait. Mine are abt 4 ft. Robustica is much taller, Full sun & heat. Cathy in Utah

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Rachel. I have never gardened in TX; do you know any of the bloggers down your way at all? Email me at awaytogarden at gmail and I can suggest some names.

  4. Jason says:

    Very helpful post, I especially liked the part about bulbs for shade. If I might add my two cents, I would recommend that people look into species tulips, which have become my favorite. They often naturalize and the bulbs are much smaller than hybrid tulips so they are easier to work into a mixed border. Many bloom quite early, and the shapes and colors can be very different and very wonderful.

  5. Joan weed says:

    Eucomis has become a standard for containers for me. My first came in a bag from a box store. I still have them after about 8 years I simply lift them after frost and put in a cardboard box for the winter. Store in basement. No special treatment. This year I planted ‘Sparkling Burgundy’. Oh my!

  6. Joan Lindquist says:

    Please add Colorblends of Bridgeport, CT to your list of bulb vendors. They are knowledgeable, reliable, friendly. Their bulbs are top quality. Check them out!

  7. Mariam Burge says:

    Soon I will be taking all my tender plants (50 – 75 pots) back into my sunroom for my wonderful winter garden. I love this part of my gardening.

    My problem is over the years I have accidently brought in little creatures (which I don’t want in the house such as small snakes, tiny lizards, etc, I don’t want to kill them, just get them out of the pots before I bring them in. Please, any ideas?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Miriam. I do a plant check before everyone comes inside, inspecting/trimming/hosing down things with the sprayer (like a shower) etc., but even that doesn’t guarantee no hitchhikers. It certainly reduces them, though.

  8. Leesa says:

    Hi Margaret, last year I bought a bunch of Nectaroscordum bulbs. I read your description of them and they sounded perfect and I was very excited about them. For some reason absolutely none of them came up! I’ve grown other allium varieties and have had no problems. I live in the Seattle area…I wonder what I’m doing wrong? Are these trickier than other bulbs? I’m considering trying them again but would just like to understand more about them.

  9. Kathy says:

    How can I be sure I’m getting bulbs that are not poison for bees and butterflies – treated with stuff that’s scary to them and the earth?

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