Common bulb wisdom: true or false?


Just for fun, I took a quick Google to see
what all the tipsters are saying about bulbs. I’m not going to link because
this stuff is literally everywhere, and everyone—from Colorado to Philadelphia
to Ipswich—says the same stuff, pretty much.

The bigger the bulb the bigger the bloom.
I have found this to be true. Firm and big generally means
good bulbs, especially hybrids. Heirloom bulbs tend to be smaller, as Scott at
Old House Gardens would be quick to point out.

If the ground is compacted, work the planting area
thoroughly, not just the bulb cavity.

Interesting. Cindy/My Corner of Katy says that the “big
hole” method worked better for her last year for that reason. There was lots of
loose soil around all the bulbs. I would add that the “big hole” can also be a
“long trench,” if a drift is required.

This is 50 and it's still not enough.

Don’t just plant them in a line or plant 30 or 40. You may
have to plant 100 to make an impact.


Mix generous amounts of compost with native soil, and use
9-9-9 Bulb Booster.

Kinda false. Why bother? They grow just as well without. Compost
is great but I would not use extra or add other fertilizer just for bulbs. I've used it; I've not used it—no difference. I think hybrid tulips will do what they do—fail after a year or so—no matter what.


Bulbs look good in containers.
True. Not only that, but a pot will give you the drainage
you need. The only thing is that pots need to be protected in a garage or in
some other way in areas with bad winters, and then brought out in the spring. This year I am putting round grids from peony supports on top of my pots to foil squirrels, who have been extra annoying of late.

Of course, as with any gardening advice, your milage may vary; I base my opinions on my
own experience and that of gardening colleagues. 

Do you have a bulb tip the newspaper experts haven’t thought of? In
case you haven’t guessed, it’s bulb day here at the Rant!

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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. Flat side outside
    Round side inside

    Best tulip container planting tip ever — learned it while potting tulips in hort school.

    Seems to hold true for garlic planted in containers as well!

  2. My garden looks so very different in the spring and fall that I have problems figuring out the best place to put bulbs. I plant them in big nursery buckets. When they bloom, I spot them around the garden. When they finish, I plant them where the pot is for the next year. Right now I’m waiting for some lilies to die down so I can plant them.
    If you want to plants hundreds of bulbs, Colorblends has really good prices.

  3. Don’t try to plant tulips in Florida. I planted 48 bulbs my first year down here and one lonely leaf sprouted–no flowers at all. I’d purchased the bulbs from a local store and followed the planting directions on the packaging for Florida, but what a big disappointment, because I loved tulips.

    On the other hand there are a host of cool bulbs that we can grow that y’all cannot and we don’t have to “lift” bulbs like callas or cannas.

    My advice is to look for regional advice that’s backed up with real experience, not just generalizations that are passed along as true.

    I credit my tulip failure as the motivation to become a “Real Florida” gardener and to write about it.

  4. Ginny, I think that’s the best advice I’ve heard in a long time. Not only will your success rate be much higher if you get local advice (go Master Gardeners programs!), but you’ll also be more likely to plant native.

  5. all good… but I beg to differ with the last observation. Personally I like good old fashioned bone meal in the the soil just under the bulb. True the plants in Holland are grown to give you magnificent first year bloom almost no matter what you do or don’t do, but some tulips are perennial in habit and they benefit from the coddling and feeding.

  6. A dear friend and I ordered 100 Colorblends “Gentle Giants” this year — it was hard for us to agree on which blend to choose! Since we ordered them, she has been diagnosed with an aggressive and terminal cancer, and although she may be here when they arrive, she will most likely not be here when they bloom.

    She wants me to take them all; I will do that, and plant them somehow in memory of her sweet and loving self. Any suggestions as to how to make this a special planting?

  7. On the fertilizer issue. Bulbs the first year in the ground may not need “bulb” food since all the energy is stored up already. Second and following years require feeding in my opinion. Also does not matter what side is up.

    The TROLL

  8. I have never fed bulbs, but I do plant with compost and leaf mulch so that seems to bring them back every year and with plenty of blooms.

    My big tip is to clean up any bulb “litter” – those brown peels – from the surface area of the beds so squirrels and other critters don’t find and dig up what you just planted.

  9. I buy a 50# bag of play sand. Below the bulb, where the roots sit, I use my usual potting mix. In the layer where the bulb sits, I mix a lot of sand and perilite with the potting soil for extra good drainage, to prevent any rot. Then I top off with regular soil. I notice when I dig out bulbs using this methods in my pots, they seem much firmer and less susceptible to rot or soft parts.

    Also, to prevent the squirrels from digging up my crocus and tulips, I take bamboo skewers and toothpicks to poke them up out of the soil. The deer that come along later and the squirrels are more likely to get a poke in the paw/face before eating my beauties (works for veggie seedlings too!), but I mostly plant daffodils now, so its not a problem anymore.

  10. I agree with your fertilizer thoughts. Although compost is generally a great addition in any garden prep situation, it has not really provided any direct correlation to bulb performance. And, yes, the hybrid tulips are not very satisfying after the first year. I became very disappointed several years ago when I experienced this.

    Thanks for the information. This blog is a great resource for no nonsense advice.

  11. Rosella,
    You could perhaps plan a memorial gathering of family and friends when the tulips bloom, where ever they are planted. If this is something your friend can talk about, then it might give her some peace to know this will happen.

  12. Susanna,

    The hybrids are pretty much all the big tulips sold in big box stores.

    The only tulips that reliably come back as far as I know are the Darwin hybrids (so labeled) and species tulips which have longer, more latin-sounding names. They are smaller and look more like wildflowers. I recommend a good bulb book. I would have said a good tulip website but I can’t find one!

  13. For Rosella: A beloved friend of mine died unexpectedly in May of 2008. She’d once told me that she’d love to be known for planting masses of white tulips. Last fall I continued her tradition of buying 100 Ivory Floradale tulips at our Bulb Mart. I planted them en masse in a front bed and they were spectacular when they bloomed. They brought a great deal of comfort and joy to her family. I’ve already bought the tulips to do it again this year. Perhaps you could plant some at your friend’s home for her family to enjoy?

  14. thanks for throwing some light on the common myths about the bulbs. the tulips always bring some sort of comfort to your heart when they bloom i cannot explain it but only could be felt. have anyone experienced?

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