After placing my, um, eighth bulb order, a final fit of madness provoked by emails about irresistible discounts at Van Engelen’s and Old House Gardens, I started to wonder. What happens to all the bulbs that don’t get sold? I’m sure there can’t be enough obsessive bulb freaks like me to buy all these tulips and daffodils every year. What do they do with them all in December?
Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens came to mind as a good person to ask, mainly because he might remember me as the person who calls for instructions on how to force rare tazettas and complains because they don’t carry the species lilies I want. My one question about leftover bulbs morphed into many questions, and it turns out that Old House Gardens is a relatively young company with an interesting story. Unlike many founders of mail order nurseries, Scott Kunst does not come from horticulture or botany, but rather from study of the past. As he tells it:
“I was doing landscape history in the 80s, and I got a Masters in Historic Preservation, focusing on plants and gardens rather than on the built environment. I helped recreate historic gardens—not just high-end landscapes, but also small parks, cemeteries, and rural landscapes. As I was buying plants and bulbs for my own garden, I would notice that one year a certain bulb would be in nine catalogs, and the next year it would be in one. So in 1993 I sent out my own tiny catalog just to save bulbs that might go out of offer.”
Kunst hunts for plants that have interesting pedigrees, consults the exhaustive lists of the national societies and international registries, and admits to being obsessed—within reason. “I’m not really interested in saving all 20-some thousand nineteenth century dahlias, but when there’s only nine left …” He works with other growers to amass enough non-mainstream (and some popularly available) bulbs to offer each year. Some, like dahlias, are easier to propagate than others (like tulips).
For years, Kunst worked with lily expert Edward McRae, who found such rarities as the red variety of lilium canadense for the catalog, but—sadly—McRae died recently. A canadense varietal has not appeared in the catalog for a while; these days Kunst is excited about the Excelsior hybrids. As Kunst explains, he is not looking to offer interesting species as much as unusual hybrids that reflect man’s history with plants. “Gardening isn’t about the wilderness,” he says. “I am really excited about where nature and us come together.”
But even with hybrids there is the question of authenticity, which is why you will occasionally see warnings about similarly-named bulbs that may or may not actually be the bulb you think you’re buying. On example is the Early Louisiana jonquil, which, like many of the Old House hybrids, does really well in Southern gardens. Modern versions of it found elsewhere might not. Southern gardeners will find that OHG is one of the few bulb companies that offers bulbs that will work in warmer zones without pre-chilling.
Oh right! My original question! What do they do with the leftover bulbs? As I write this, the OHG fall bulb season is closed, and Scott told me that he had such a good year—in spite of having stocked more bulbs than last year and in spite of the economy—that his cupboards are just about bare. Normally, the leftovers would go to community gardens, public parks and gardens, and faithful customers with standing end-of-season bulk orders.
And was I able to restrain myself from asking if he had just one or two packs of white henri lilies left? Just barely.