No bulb left behind


From 2009: 50 Menton and Queen of the Night in a hole.

Some of us have spent our adult lives studying and perfecting the skills of master gardening, or have even practiced horticulture at an academic level. Some of us, on the other hand, only started gardening a decade or so ago and have to fit gardening in around a busy work/social/volunteering schedule. I belong to the latter group.

As part of that group, as much as I’d like to do things the right way, the way that ensures the best results in the long run, and will be of most benefit to plants and soil, I seldom do. If there was a slow gardening movement—like slow food—I wouldn’t belong to it. I have evolved cheap and sleazy shortcuts for almost everything I do in the garden, and it is at this time of year that my ingenuity is taxed to its limit.

So here they are: the fast and dirty (always dirty) bits of bulb wisdom that a person who plants 621 has to know.

The tools they sell for bulb planting suck. Don’t even bother with the silly long or short-handled bulb planters. A big or small shovel is fine, and even better in difficult situations is the Cobrahead tool. This is perfect for planting small species tulips bulbs in root-filled areas. It’s almost as precise as I imagine a drill would be.  I don’t use drills by the way, because I never plant just 1 bulb in a hole. Too slow. In fact, most bulb tools assume you are just planting 1 in each hole, which makes no sense to me. I don’t have the space or the time.

Why plant just a few bulbs when you can dig a big hole or a big trench and throw 50 in? Or a medium size hole that can take 5-10. Bulbs look better in groupings, always. Big hybrid or small ephemeral, a measly sprinkling of bulbs is just that—measly.

I don’t insist that all my bulbs be there for the ages. It’s fine with me if they last just a season or two, and I use many hybrid tulips as annuals in containers. Species tulips can perennialize, but when it comes to big hybrids, I would get bored looking at the same colors ever year, so it’s just as well that they often don’t come back.

Where I do not economize is in the area of bulb quality. You get more interesting varieties and bigger bulbs from places like Old House Gardens, Brent and Beckys, and The Lily Garden—and with bulbs, size really does matter.

To prevent creature damage, in areas where the fresh dirt is a giveaway, I place reusable plastic mesh over the soil, held down by U-shaped hooks. As for fertilizer, I never bother. It's truly a waste of time and money.

Finally, though it should be obvious by now, I don’t think design or color planning is really the important thing when it comes to bulbs. Plant a lot. It will look good.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I’ve often wondered about those silly tools. Too much trouble is right. There’s a guy in the area who plants thousands of daffodil bulbs in fields with a pine tree planter. It looks kind of like a very skinny shovel. He pushes it in, pulls it back toward him, drops a bulb in and moves on. Or so I’m told. He’s going to plant a bunch in my yard soon (I won it in a raffle).

    btw, I was inspired to try my hand at lilies and peonies after visiting Buffalo. Southern varieties of course!

  2. I have more than 100 to plant asap. I used to apply that method, out of pure lazyness, and I am really glad to read this. I shared it EVERYWHERE I can! 😉

  3. I have planted thousand of bulbs over the years, another 700 plus this year and I do use a drill for some areas. It is great for getting through groundcovers like myrtle and lirope, precise and will not damage other plantings in the area.

    I would love to dig a large diameter hole and plop them in but I have a small lot and lots of layering of perennials and already planted bulbs. I still prefer a sharp trowel but it doesn’t work in every situation.


  4. and if you live somewhere with really bad soil conditions you don’t need to waste any time if you’re planting daffodils – simply clear the planting area of any leaves or debris, scatter the bulbs on the ground, cover them with a deep layer of mulch. They will sprout and send their roots down into the soil and move their bulb to the proper level all on their own. If you don’t believe me just test it in a tall flower pot. Lay the bulb on the top of the soil and cover with mulch, let it grow and bloom and next fall pull back the mulch – your bulb will be on the bottom of the pot. Magic without muscles.

  5. Fabulous–I just ordered hundreds of Fritillaria, Narcissus, and Allium, which I will be planting beneath a lilac and into an adjacent bed.
    More tips please, such as–how do you mark where you’ve planted?
    Once I’ve planted the bulk of the bulbs, how much mulch can I put on top?
    I am worried the squirrels are going to wreak havoc, even though I bought varieties they supposedly won’t eat?
    I’ve got clay soil, but I’ve amended with loads of compost so I think the raised beds should be okay, but any other tips? Do you all bother with blood meal, etc.?
    Thanks in advance for any advice.

  6. I have a dibble for planting tiny bulbs among ground covers, but mostly I use a short handled grub hoe. Whack, pull, drop bulbs, whack, pull (covers previous hole), drop bulbs, etc.

    If squirrels are a problem, I check the lawn for dog poop, and sprinkle it over the planting area. I wear gloves while gardening obviously.

  7. John Scheepers, Inc., Beauty from Bulbs is another good source.
    I do about 120 tulips each year (the most I can fit into my refrigerator where they have to be cooled for 2 months before planting; this is in Austin, Texas). Usually 10 to a hole. Dig the first hole, put the soil in a bucket, put in the bulbs. Soil from the second hole covers the first bulbs and so on; the soil from the first hole goes on the last bulbs. They are definitely worth the trouble. And the chilling.
    (I also grow narcissus, Dutch iris, and other bulbs that don’t require chilling and do often last more than one year; the planting of those is less organized as I can do a few at a time over a longer period.)

  8. I like the way you think. I do not care so much about the size or shape of the area that I am planting mine either. I like to change things up every several years, too. This does not make me a bad gardener, just someone who likes change.

  9. Slow Gardening isn’t a MOVEMENT… it’s a STYLE! it encourages people to follow their bliss – where ever it leads – and to SAVOR what they do. while horticulture is all about getting stuff done, gardening is about enjoying what you do…

  10. I see something really sad with this third some of us, what is wrong with I??

    I see an intense sillyness in this bulb infatuation, i will not get into the amount and waste of energy.

    Gardening should be an activity in which being WISE with time to enjoy the garden instead of being a slave of it.

    That is the exercise. Design a garden with real aesthetic value for Flora and Fauna with low maintenance, the opposite is water and third among us?

  11. After watching the squirrels dig up almost every bulb I planted one fall, I bought a giant bottle of red pepper from Sam’s and sprinkled in over each bulb. Even south Louisiana squirrels don’t like red pepper!

  12. So very true–those tools stink. I dig trenches, line them with sharp pebbles (to keep the voles away), throw in at least 5-10 bulbs per grouping–and it’s lovely. This year, I have about 600 bulbs waiting for a home in our big kitchen garden–I’m going to plant them around the perimeter so I can have an endless supply of cut flowers this spring! Love your site and can’t wait to read more!

  13. wow, that’s exactly what I did too this year; down to the plastic mesh and U hooks. so glad to read this as I kept thinking, this will never work, why didn’t I space out my bulbs?

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