God Help The Bulbaholics



Like Elizabeth and a lot of our commentators, I have a problem.  A bulb problem.  I know it’s a problem because I wind up with huge gaps in my front border as soon as the spring bulbs are done.  And even the most promiscuous dahlia purchases cannot hide the tracks of my tulips.

But I’m not a sloppy bulbaholic.  Like a wino who won’t go near a bottle of Absolut, I’m disciplined about the terms of my addiction.  I’m a tulip and lily person.  Everything else is just …drinking.

Since I can hardly stuff another lily in my yard, fall is all about tulips.  I ordered an admirably controlled 350 this year.  I have the 250 that aren’t waiting for the dahlias to be lifted–we just had our first frost this week–already planted.

Again, I’m disciplined (though I’m sure AA has a field day with this kind of ratiocination): I only experiment with the non-tulip bulbs once I’m confident that all the tulips will get in the ground. 

Then, I tend to make a Panic in Needle Park-style last-minute order to Brent & Becky’s–right before my Thanksgiving frozen ground deadline–just to be able to say to myself that I’m not completely hooked, if I continue to experiment with other highs.

On Today, for example, I ordered a 100 of something called ornithogalum nutans, because in pictures, it is the most amazing color–a minty grey-green.  Plus, silly cheap.  I also ordered 50 white Spanish hyacinths for a tough shady spot.

Previous years’ flings include allium ‘Purple Sensation’–wildly successful.  Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant,’ the biggest thrill possible from a tiny flower, an absolutely mind-blowing purple color in the dead post-winter ground.  Orange fritillaria imperialus–overblown, absurd, and kind of great for it.

Other experiments leave me cold.  All daffodils, even ‘Thalia’, which I love in pictures, make me yawn in my city yard.  Daffodils, in my opinion, belong in a natural landscape.  Dutch hyacinths–too top-heavy and ridiculous for words.   Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’–very, very pretty, for a much subtler sensibility than mine.

But the tulips…orange and purple and tomato red and yellow in fringes and doubles and lily shapes and big bowls…oh my God, so unspeakably exciting.  It’s going to take a truckload of housebound amaryllis just to keep me functioning until spring.


  1. I handed a filled out bulb order, mostly tulips, to my first client this past week for him to order, (The way he wanted to work the deal.) and now I wonder how do I plant these things when they arrive between and among the existing perennials. I do have access to a bulb drill bit on a cordless drill, so the actual burial isn’t a problem.

    You mention lifting the Dahlias before planting tulips and well that is just too much work. I inquired about what bulbs may already exist in the garden and I got a yes there are bulbs out there and that was about it. Already in planting a winter annual bedding scheme for my first client I have run over existing bulbs. There is a lot and I mean a lot of short thin bulb like foliage in the garden now. What bulbs would have foliage up in October?

    I can look at a catolog, plan a design, order bulbs and come spring the whole plan could go to hell because of the hidden bulbs from previous drunks. The wreckage from the past bulb orders is lying there in wait to rear it’s ugly head come spring.

  2. “There is a lot and I mean a lot of short thin bulb like foliage in the garden now. What bulbs would have foliage up in October?”

    Grape hyacinths

  3. So have you ever suffered from Bulb elbow? Nongardners refer to this as tennis elbow. Try snowdrops. Very first flower, nice spreader, leaves die sooner than others and it has the loveliest honey scent. Have to get down on your kness to smell them.

  4. Christopher, it’s hard for me to advise when you are there in a balmy zone 7. Where I live, I have to lift my dahlias, or they turn to mush in the ground.

    I agree that previously-planted bulbs are hell on a planting plan. They’re easy to move, however, after they’ve bloomed and the foliage is dying down. And hopefully, your client is exaggerating what he’s got there, as non-gardeners tend to do. I planted tulips last fall at my daughter’s pre-school, and the woman in charge of the garden said, “Well, we’ve already got tulips. I planted eight last year.” Eight!

    Tibs, never had bulb elbow–maybe because I plant recklessly, with a shovel, and to hell with those perennial roots. I agree with you about snowdrops. A friend of mine had a place on the beautiful Battenkill River and the woods there were full of naturalized snowdrops. So gorgeous! But you need about a thousand to really make a scene with them.

  5. P.S. Christopher–I think tulips look fantastic in small clumps of five or seven, so that doesn’t require a really big hole in the middle of a perennial bed. You can plant them MUCH closer than the books say–if they’ve got an inch between ’em, in my opinion, they are fine. Since I prefer the varieties of tulips that tend not to perennialize–you’ll notice that the really showy varieties tend not to–I only dig a spade’s depth for them. If I fertilize, I fertilize at the top of the hole, on the theory that this will keep creatures from digging them up, just to get at the bone meal. But that may be mere superstition.

  6. Don’t forget to add a few bits of red pepper flakes on top of each tulip before filling with dirt. This has kept all my tulips from being eaten by squirrels for years now. Every one of them.

  7. Chris, that grass-like foliage could be some kinda crocus deal, where you just get the flower in the spring? Dunno. Or maybe those naked lady things–amaryliis belladonna–quite pretty and I think common in your zone.

    I never bother with fertilizer for the tulips–they have all they need for the one season I’m giving them and my species tulips are native to rocky, barren ground.

    But here’s my horrible problem–all the lilies I have gouged trying to plant more on top of or right next to them–the stems do NOT come out straight up, the @#*%-ers. No, they bend–so the actual bulb could be in a totally different place than where you see the brown stick!

    I am trying a lily called Amazing this year. It is remarkably similar to the L. auratum Gold Band, which I can’t find anywhere. No speckles, and a great fragrance.

  8. Elizabeth, Snow Creek Gardens advertises Lilium auratum. I too am obsessed with this lily. Though I ordered ten a year ago, I believe from McClure & Zimmerman, planted the bulbs and never saw hide nor hair of them, though other lilies do spectacularly well for me.

  9. McClure Zimmerman: one of those companies that LOOKS like they’re great (all the tasteful drawings) but they’re REALLY not that great at all. I have had several disappointments and no longer order.

  10. Ipheion uniflora (sp?) bulbs have foliage up in my garden right now. Tiny, little foliage for a tiny, little bulb.

    So Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’ is subtle…good to know. Old House Gardens sent that to me as a component of the fall sampler.

  11. Thanks everyone for all the bulb advice (co-dependency). I’ll look up Grape Hyacinth and Crocus to see what the foliage looks like. I have noticed some of the foliage has a thin pale white stripe of sorts in the leaf center.

    There is certainly enough of it that I could dig up some bulbs to have a look at them.

    The resident gardener at my place also uses red pepper on new bulb plantings.

  12. The thin white stripe rules out grape hyacinth. Crocus is still a possibility, though fall crocus should put out both leaves and flowers this time of the year. It also could be some kind of ornithogalum.

  13. “some kind of ornithogalum” If it is, you will never get rid of it. Not that it is a bad thing, it is a cute little white star flower but it will be everywhere whether you want it our not.

  14. Elizabeth, I’m with you on McClure & Zimmerman. The lily bulbs they sent were moldy and puny and expensive. And the only other thing I ordered from them, Eremurus, disappeared without a trace. Two strikes is not an out–but it’s a reason to think twice next time.

  15. It’s 11:00 at night, I have a mountain of bulbs sitting on my kitchen table that I’d planned to get in the ground and containers today (I was too ill), about half of a 1-gal. pot of mixed soil and tulip bulblets to jam in the ground out front where they will eventually grow up to be big, lovely tulips again (Sparks, Nevada has a very similar to the -istans, or so my “spent” tulips tell me), and another order of 300 mostly minor bulbs to arrive next week (the prices were so good, how could I NOT order?) and WHAT am I doing at this hour?

    I’m looking for more bulb sales, that’s what I’m doing! We won’t even mention all the bulbs I’ve already planted, except to say that it’s probably about 300. And we won’t mention the 3000-plus bulbs already in the ground from previous years’ efforts.

    It would probably be easier to ditch a heroin or meth addiction.

  16. Wow, Lisa, you have a problem! I’ve never heard of anybody rehabilitating their tulip bulblets–outside of Dutch professionals, of course.

    Any tricks you’d like to mention?

  17. Michele, the “trick” is living in the right climate. I’m in high-desert Northern Nevada, which does a good approximation of Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Younameitistan, where tulips originated. So I save my bulblets and jam them in the ground in my sunny, rocky front garden and let them do their thing. Other than watering (enough to keep the other mostly xeric plants from dying), and some very casual fertilizer-strewing twice a year, I don’t do anything.

    Most of the tulip bulblets reach blooming size in about 3 years, bloom for 2 years, then take 2-3 years to recover in place and the cycle repeats. The exception for me are species tulips, which just go on happily for years and years.

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