Over the past ten years of gardening with spring-blooming bulbs, I now realize that I buy completely differently and plant completely differently than when I started.
Once I used “bulb-planting tools.” After a couple seasons of struggling with big plugs of dirt stuck in metal tubes, I realized that a small spade for groups of small bulbs and a big spade for groups of large bulbs would do the job faster and better.
Once I bought Darwin hybrid tulips and hoped they would come back for a few years. Now I buy a different gorgeous combination of two single lates each year, treating them as annuals, and planting them in tightly packed clumps of 50.
Once I skipped over the species tulips in the catalogs, thinking them too insignificant to make much of an impact. Now I plant different species every year; they provide charming groups of small blooms and as for their foliage, insignificance turns out to be a good thing. I’ve also learned to value other dainty cultivars, like erythronium and galanthus.
Once I planted big groups of showy daffodil hybrids; after a season or so of dealing with never-ending foliage that looked awful well into summer (with spotty return), I got rid of most, left a few here and there, and went back to admiring roadside daffodils planted by county volunteers.
Finally, I’ve learned that one of the best ways for a zone 5 gardener to get through the winter is to force lots and lots of hyacinths (which don’t work that well in the garden anyway).
I love bulbs because, unlike most other plants, their promise is almost always fulfilled by the results—at least once. But there is much more to bulbs than the instructions on the bags or the generic advice in the garden columns. In ten years I’ve figured out some of it, but I’m hoping to unlearn much more. Unlearning is more fun.