Bulbs—either you get them or you don’t


If $5, $10, even $25 bulbs have a future, we must be OK.

The people who came up with the Dig.Drop.Done. promotional campaign (I posted on this a  couple weeks back) are explaining on the Woodbine agency blog that they avoided showing a lot of flowers. Of course not. How obvious. Why would you want to talk about flowers in an effort to get more people to buy bulbs? See, this is why they make the big bucks, and I don’t.

Bah. It was therefore with great pleasure and relief that I recently spoke to somebody who loves bulbs even more than I do. I asked him what he thought the problem was.

Here’s what Scott Kunst, owner of Old House Gardens, my favorite heirloom bulb company, had to say about the faltering market for bulbs: “One of the things I like about gardening is that it teaches you patience and reminds you of the joys of anticipation. When I was a beginning gardener I didn’t want to wait, but now the waiting is really a pleasure. For me, in my life, there is enormous pleasure and sustenance in thinking about bulbs all winter long and anticipating them. The industry is worried that the culture is evolving to be more and more impatient. The big sellers say everybody wants something you bring home and plop in the ground and it’s already big and blooming.”

OHG is the only place that carries Erlicheer, my favorite forcing daff. Unlike ordinary paperwhites, it needs a real chilling period, though brief. OK, I am reminded via comment and tweet that Brent & Becky's also carries this. They list it under doubles,which is why I hadn't noticed; I always look at their tazetta and forcing categories. For me, this is a forcer.

It’s funny, because the fact that they came as little brown balls was what I really loved about bulbs when I first started planting them. It seemed crazy. Maybe they would come up and maybe they wouldn’t; that seemed cool, somehow.

Kunst agrees with all the stuff we’ve been hearing in surveys for years now: “Most gardeners are not like you and me. They don’t read about it, and they don’t know the names. This promotion is saying bulbs aren’t a lot of work and that this is easy.”

Well. I hope the campaign helps bulbs. It is not speaking to the market reached by Old House Gardens—more-or-less dedicated gardeners who want the bulbs you’ll never see in a Lowes or Home Depot display. This year, Kunst is excited about the “broken” tulip Insulinde (at top), which he was able to get in enough quantity that the average gardener can buy them for $4.50 apiece. Still pricey, but OHG had already sold more than half of them when we spoke and they fully expect to sell out. Authentic broken tulips are caused by a virus—Insulinde belongs to the Bijbloemens color group. It changes from ivory feathered with rose to what you see here (according to the OHG website).

“I really do think gardening is a very inexpensive luxury,” Kunst remarked toward the end of our talk. It is. A $700 pair of designer shoes would set me back financially for some time, and I might wear them twice. That much spent on bulbs will keep me busy planning, digging, potting—i.e., involved—for months, with a big pay-off at the end.  That’s why marketing bulbs like fashion makes no sense to me. It leaves out the process—the best part.

Whatever happens with the DDD project, I am comforted by the fact that companies like OHG can still flourish. It means there will always be great bulbs available for my demo, the one the marketers take for granted.

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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 yahoo.com


  1. Tulips are the one great extravagance in my life. I wouldn’t spend $300 on anything else so ephemeral. But they are worth every penny.

  2. I hadn’t really thought about it, but anticipation is very likely my main gardening driver. Seems I’m always waiting, waiting for the next garden event whether it’s bloom time, harvest, clean-up, or planting. In that anticipation my garden is always fabulous – the fruit trees are laden & disease-free, the tomatoes are abundant & my family & friends are the only creatures munching on them, the tiny perennial I planted is full-size & gorgeous. Even the leaves only fall on dry Friday nights so I can rake them on perfect crisp Saturday mornings. Oddly, the lack of that perfection coming to fruition doesn’t make me grumpy – it just makes me anticipate even more.

  3. I don’t do more bulbs because you plant them in the fall, and by fall both my garden budget and my garden energy are very low. I’m in wrapping up, end of the season mode. Now, if I could plant bulbs in January I’d be all over them!

  4. I buy bulbs and even more bulbs because I know that by January I will be dying to see vegetation – any kind of vegetation! Bulb-planting routine lets me mentally skip the dull months. Bulbs are my “anchors” in the future. I know that come April the flowers will be there for me.

  5. Because I wasn’t the one who planted the 200+ bulbs I bought last fall, except for the daffs in the front, everything else was a surprise, and a glorious one at that. This year, no more daffs (at least not pure yellow ones), but tulips and crocuses, yes, please.

    Insulinde might has well have leapt from an 18th Dutch painting–I’d love some of those in my garden, and my MiL would love to see them, as well. We both go nuts over bulbs. We both love parrot and Rembrandt varieties for the sheer exuberance they show.

  6. I really like McClure and Zimmerman, who carry your favorite forcer. I’ll check out Old House Gardens, as there aren’t many bulbs which can make it here in New Orleans, unless I’m willing to refrigerate the ground. It appears species will make it, so I’m gearing up to experiment this year.

  7. Old House Gardens is a wonderful company with such high quality and beautiful bulbs that our springs here at the End of the Road get more beautiful every year. I added lots of snowdrops last year. I haven’t decided what to add this year. Better hurry up.

  8. I am a passionate gardener (and bulb planter w a goal of 1,000 bulbs each year), so I get it– that anticipation is all. This makes for an interesting contrast with Twitter, which forces me to live in the moment. @gardengeri

  9. Old House Gardens is outstanding. They have a great selection of heirloom bulbs and more. They also have fantastic customer service.

  10. Hmmm. How much chill required? I get skim ice on my stock pond once or twice each Phoenix winter. I wonder if that would be enough?

    I like to buy the grocery store forced daffs and then pot them up in more permanent homes to see if they will rebloom here. I’m getting about a 30% success rate with what I think are the Tete a Tetes(?) (I do dump some ice cubes in the pots a couple of times each winter, since I can’t predict if the chill will come naturally)

    It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy to get a rebloom out of something most folks treat like a cut flower.

  11. I agree that bulbs are all about anticipation. All winter I read garden books and catalogs and dream about how the bulbs will look in the Spring.
    But sometimes I’m like a squirrel who forgets where the nuts were buried. Then when the forgotten bulbs appear and bloom it’s like receiving an unexpected gift – from myself.

  12. Glad you are featuring one of my favorite places, Old House Bulbs. Been ordering from them for years. I like the term,”inexpensive luxury.” I mean, where else can you get a piece of living history, like a tulip from 1595 for 8 bucks? Antiques Roadshow has nothing on Old House Bulbs.

  13. I’d add another fabulous resource for bulbs is Terra Ceia Farms. They have a great selection and first-rate customer service.

    You can buy by the bulb or by the bushel for some varieties. (I did that when I put in 1500 bulbs a few years back.) Reminds me, I have a few hundred tulips to put in the ground this weekend…

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