The Dirt on Bulbs

I’m in denial about the fact that summer is over and the first day of fall is fast approaching. It would be easy to wallow in this denial until my mother called to ask me what I was bringing to Thanksgiving, except for one thing: bulbs. They’re in nurseries this month. If you don’t plant them now, you won’t get another chance until next fall. And even though buying bulbs and bringing them home and burying them in the ground is an act of surrender to the inevitable change in seasons, it’s also a very hopeful act, one that means that spring will get here eventually, and when it does, the garden’s going to look fabulous.

Right now, the bulbs to plant are daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, freesia, and maybe some spring-blooming crocuses. Bulbs aren’t complicated, but they do have a few special needs. Here’s what you need to know:
Choose big bulbs. The bigger the bulb, the bigger the flower. If the bulb has an offset (a smaller bulb) attached to it, great. It’ll probably bloom a year or two later. Don’t pull those offsets apart—leave them attached when you plant.

Inspect for disease. Don’t plant bulbs with soft spots or blotches. If it looks sick, it is.


Pick up some food. A little organic fertilizer that has been specially formulated for bulbs will give them the nutrition they need and help balance the pH right around the bulb, making it easier for them to access nutrients in the soil.

Prepare the ground. Bulbs really do need good drainage, and if you’ve got clay soil that tends to stay soggy all winter long, they could rot. Work in some organic soil conditioner, and consider planting on a sunny slope. Whatever you do, don’t plant in a low, shady area that turns into a bog when it rains.

Chill. Tulips in particular will bloom better if they get a nice long winter chill—one that your garden might not be able to provide them. Consider keeping them in the fridge for 6-8 weeks before planting. Daffodils can go in the ground right now—no chilling period needed.

Dig. It’s important to plant bulbs to the right depth. Most of them come with planting instructions, but the general rule is to dig a hole about twice as deep as the bulb is tall.
Start some indoors. Paperwhite narcissus and hyacinths will grow indoors in nothing but water. You can buy special vases designed to hold just one hyacinth bulbs, and most nurseries also sell kits with glass vases and pebbles for starting paperwhites. Just keep them in a dark place for a couple of weeks while they grow roots, then bring them out and enjoy them.

You can still get a good selection of bulbs at nurseries around town, but there are also some good mail-order sources of interesting and unusual bulbs. In particular, I like:
Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, a Virginia-based supplier of hard-to-find bulbs. In particular, they’re a good source for what are called ‘species tulips,’ meaning smaller, wild tulips that come back year after year, as opposed to the big, bright hybrids that bloom gloriously the first year but often don’t return the following spring. Contact them at 804-693-3966 or

The Southern Bulb Company understands that we don’t all live in climates with long, hard freezes and warm summers. They brag that they don’t buy their bulbs from Holland—they grow them in Texas! That’s right, Texas. And they quite thoughtfully organize their bulbs by USDA climate zone, so that those of us in Zone 9 can go right to the bulbs that will do best for us. I particularly like their spider lilies and fragrant daffodils. Call 866-406-BULB or visit

Old House Gardens will make a rare bulb addict out of any novice gardener. Owner Scott Kunst is entirely dedicated to saving near-extinct varieties and sharing them with the world. He’s been on a hyacinth kick lately, arguing that they are the most endangered bulb out there. In the late 1800’s, one garden catalog offered 135 different varieties, but now there are only a few for sale at most nurseries. He’s bringing those and other treasures back from obscurity. Be sure to check out the “Rarest” section for bulbs that are available in such small quantities that they never even make it into the catalog. Check them out at 734-995-1486 or


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