How I’ve forgotten everything I learned about bulbs


These images from last spring provide motivation for spending vast sums.

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.

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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. Great post about the real deal with bulbs, and I notice that your single-late-tulips-as-annuals plan is exactly my own. Except that my clumps aren’t as grand as yours – only 10-15 in one hole. And before you taught me how to use tulips, I was planting them ONE at a time using those gawdawful metal tubes packed with soil that that requires vigorous shoving. Let’s hear it for shovels and spades!

  2. You are so right and gardeners new to bulbs ought to pay attention to your treatment of large tulips and especially narcissus. The foliage is! aaarrrghh!!! But if you site them with the yellowing leaves in mind its still possible to enjoy narcissus. (the foliage of “naked-ladies” is even more annoying!)

  3. I also switched from special “bulb planters” to a shovel…

    With my “wildflower obsession”, I started growing species tulips years ago. I have about 10 types, and am adding some new ones soon. I must have 1,000 Tarda alone… they do well! I highly recommend species tulips as “plant and forget” flowers.

    I’ve also added English Bluebells, wild Hyacinths, Fumewort… and a number of species of Fritillaria, too. All this is among native woodland wildflowers, with asters and goldenrods at the fringes.

  4. I hear you about large tulips, but being a deep south gardener, it’s now early spring without lots and lots of daffodils. Yes the foliage persists, but here heat and spring comes so quickly its pretty easy to camoflage with annuals.

  5. I’m so glad that someone else thinks bulb planters are useless. I thought it was my own failing. Hyacinths don’t work well in my garden either. I hadn’t thought about forcing them. thanks.

  6. Great advice. I hide my daffodils behind daylilies which sorta works. I haven’t tried the late tulips, but that sounds like a great idea. Here’s to NEXT year!

  7. Trick I use with bulbs after flowering is first I deadhead them – then they look like a respectable drift of green instead of something that looks past its prime. Then I deadleaf as necessary (yellowed/brown leaves only) until all the foliage is gone.

  8. I used to force hyacinths also but the scent is over-powering in the house. Too much of even a good smell turns out bad.

  9. I also do the daffodil/daylily combo with clumps of each interspersed on a slope that leads down to the street. The combo keeps the daffs from looking too bad as they fade.

    The daffs are Narcissus poeticus ‘Pheasant’s Eye’ and were planted in 2001. They are still going strong in my Z5 garden and they’re fragrant to boot.

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