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Spring Bulb Shopping 2: Old House Gardens

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I’m reposting this series on my favorite bulb catalogues because – there’s still time to shop! By now, the selections at bulb companies are low – but the prices are excellent. This is the time to get great deals, and we’re lucky that even Old House Gardens – dealer of rare and hard-to-find heirloom bulbs – is having a sale. 

One of the first places I shop is Old House Gardens. That’s because it’s the only place I know of where you can get a true, broken tulip like ‘Insunlinde’, above.

Broken tulips were the ones that people spent fortunes for–and lost fortunes on. They were the junk bonds and unaccredited mortgages of their day; people hung out in bars and negotiated for futures of bulbs–for futures of shares in bulbs–all of which could be destroyed by bad weather, mice, or a tulip thief.

While they don’t quite cost a fortune today, broken tulips (which, as you can see, are quite a different animal from Rembrandt tulips, nice as they may be) are still not something most of us can afford to buy in bulk. Neither are many of the antique and heirloom bulbs offered at Old House Gardens. But, as Scott Kunst himself points out, where else can you buy an antique so cheaply?

On the other hand, the bulbs I’ve gotten from Old House Gardens are some of the most honking bulbs I’ve ever purchased anywhere, so you do get a lot for your money. (Except for some of the rarer bulbs, such as the really antique close-to-species varieties of tulips and freesias, which were just never meant to be big, Old House Garden bulbs are by far the biggest I’ve seen anywhere.) I never get cheap, inferior bulbs, but OHG bulbs are the top of the top of the bulb world, big, fat, healthy, and bursting with (often) multiple blooms.

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Colleen Bawn daffodil, 1885. One of the most beautiful I know.

Many of the bulbs Old House Gardens offers are from small growers, who specialize in growing the older types because they love them. Several of the growers are from the U.S., which is unusual, although some of them also come from overseas. Other bulbs come from bulb-preserving organizations in Britain and the Netherlands. Old House Gardens is, even now, in the process of negotiating for their own growing farm, so they will soon be growing on some of the bulbs themselves.

The catalogue lets you know exactly where your bulbs came from–something most catalogues don’t reveal. And this is good, because if your climate is close to the climate where the bulbs were grown, they’ll be a really good match for you. And anyway, it’s just interesting to know.

Another good thing about the Old House Gardens catalogue/website is that it’s fun. It is clearly written by people who are delirious about bulbs, and don’t care who knows it. There is information galore: what year the bulbs came out (when that information is available), which specific cultivar the bulb is (although there are hot arguments in the heirloom bulb world about who knows what and who can know what as far as bulb identification. Anyway, this catalogue will give you a good start). And lots of cultivation information–much of it gathered from devoted readers–on growing bulbs in different climates: warm winters, cold winters, humidity, dryness, and all those other factors that make gardening so interesting. (There are even more articles and links available on the website.)

Scott Kunst originally started his company because of a mad love for ‘Prince of Austria’. When he found out this scented deep-orange tulip (from 1860) was going off the commercial market, he decided it had to be preserved, and he was the one to do it. Things snowballed from there.

For people who have older houses and would like to design period gardens to match them, Old House Gardens is a find. Historical preservation sites order from Old House Gardens. You can check the dates in the catalogue against the date of your house, and find a large selection of bulbs that will fit your period. Or periods: it’s generally OK to use bulbs from a generation or two back, because often people kept to the old favorites, just as we do today.

Old House Gardens also has a summer bulb section in its catalogue, where you can find a smaller but interesting selection of summer or greenhouse bulbs.

For those who enjoy diversity, shopping at Old House Gardens is a way to support people who preserve it–and to do a little preserving ourselves. And there’s an added bonus: older bulb varieties were generally bred with the gardener in mind, so they tend to perennialize and naturalize easily. Newer types, bred with greenhouse florists in mind, tend not to.

Because OHG gets bulbs that are in limited supply from small growers, they can run out of bulbs rather quickly, especially their most popular types. This is a good reason to order early. Another good reason to order early is that it makes you order quickly, which in my case means I’m not going to have time to spend the kind of money that would buy a city house, garden, and a coach house, the way they did during Tulipomania.

But if I had to go bankrupt, this would be a deluxe, beautiful, heavenly way to do it.

References:

Old House Gardens catalogue

Mike Dash, Tulipomania, Victor Gollancz, 1999

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