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Spring Bulb Shopping–in Summer


I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this. But now’s the time to order your spring bulbs.

I know, I know. It all seems so far off. It seems that there’s plenty of time for that. But if you want to get exactly the varieties you want, and if you want them to be in the best shape when you plant them, you need to order now.

Actually, you needed to order a month or two ago, if you’re a true fanatic, but you can still do fine by ordering now. (Myself, I’m straddling the fence: some of my bulb orders are in already, especially to places that have rarities that run out fast. But I’m still making up other orders, drastically reducing them from several hundred dollars to something my budget and my garden size can manage. There’s always next year.)

Why order tulips and narcissus now, when all you want to think about is the beach or getting that major house renovation project done, or maybe just surviving the heat while you carry on with the quotidian tasks?

That’s a question with a few answers.

One of them is this: bulb storage. And the other one is this: bulb supply. And a related one is this: bulb selection. And for my purposes, there’s another factor involved: I get to use more of my spring bulb photos in late summer. The greatest persuasion of all.


Mostly, I recommend that people check local sources for plants first. I do this for a lot of reasons. Local nurseries have people who are knowledgeable about your area, and can give you good advice as to how to grow them. (I mean real nurseries, not a plant section in some box store.) Not only do you want to support people who can give you good advice, you also want to take advantage of their knowledge of plants that grow in your area. And the fact that they will be offering them at prime time for planting. If the plants offered are actually grown in your area, they will be far more suited to your garden than anything you can get anywhere else.


With spring bulbs, all this is turned on its head. Bulbs may not look fragile, but they are. If they are stored without proper chilling and moisture, they deteriorate, which means they may not bloom come spring. Or they may bloom, but look a little punky.

Your local nursery just isn’t equipped to store bulbs that way-it would be way too expensive. And while I have bought bulbs in nurseries and they have done fine, I get the best results from people who specialize in bulbs.

Those people have all the special chilling/moisturizing equipment. They will give bulbs the optimum care from the moment of harvest, through shipping to their U. S. base (the vast majority of bulbs are grown in the Netherlands. Roozengarde is the exception; they grow bulbs in Washington state and ship directly from their fields). Then they will hold your bulbs in the right environment until it’s planting time where you live–so when you get them, they will be in top shape. If you leave them in the back room for a month or two before you get them planted, it’s on your plate. Or mine, I might as well admit, because I have done this. But I don’t recommend it.

Timing on planting is important. Tulips like it to be cold when they’re planted, so they’ll develop properly. That means you have to hit it between hot weather and hard freeze, if you have them in your area. Even if you don’t have a hard freeze, I can assure it’s a lot more comfortable to dig holes and add amendments if it’s not snowing or sleeting while you do it. (I can assure you because I’ve had personal experience of this.)

Narcissus tend to be more adaptable, but they do need to be planted in full dormancy. Lilies need to be planted the minute you get them, because they never really go dormant, and they suffer from loss of moisture and not getting their roots in the ground. Fritillaries, cyclamen, and other bulbs usually do best when they’re planted immediately, too.

So you can see it really helps to have your bulbs shipped by experts who know how and when to ship them. Any reputable dealer will ask what your planting zone is on the order sheet; if you want to be doubly sure, good bulb dealers will answer your questions about bulbs and planting times. If they can’t–shop somewhere else.

OK. On to bulb supply. (I bet you thought I’d forgotten those answers, didn’t you? ) Since the vast majority of bulbs are imported from the Netherlands or ordered by the supplier from smaller growers, getting your order in early means that your bulb dealer can get their own order in early. Obviously, they want to avoid being over- or under-stocked, so the more orders they have locked in, the better it works out for them. If you order early enough (usually by the end of June), you can often get a discount. If you’re ordering now, you’re much more likely to be able to get anything that strikes your fancy than if you order in October and November.

Which is where we segue into bulb selection.

There may be those of you who don’t pore over bulb catalogues until the pages are flabby, marking and re-marking, pondering the pros and cons, trying to find a way to make a bulb order that costs less than a new car. I pity you.

But even less devoted (or obsessed) bulb devotees often want to try one particular bulb, or have a color scheme, or plan a succession of bulbs (I’ve written a post about succession planting, and I may add more details later).

Here’s the thing: if you wait till fall, the bulbs you want may be gone. Then you have to make the decisions all over again. And in a hurry. So if you want to wait until fall, have a B list ready.

The other aspect of bulb selection is that bulb specialists have more kinds of bulbs. That’s their deal. So instead of five or ten Triumph tulips to choose from, you have twenty or thirty. And then you move on to all the other classes of tulips. And, while favorite standards are favorite standards for a reason–and I get some of those–I really like being able to choose something a little different. An heirloom, a new offering, or just something that isn’t in the Top Ten that every hardware store gets.

Here’s the bonus point I didn’t mention: when you get bulbs from a specialist, not only do they arrive in better shape, and not only do you get a better selection, but: they’re generally cheaper.

Are you convinced yet?

I hope so, because my next few posts are going to be about good places to order from. Let me say up front that I do not get paid to make these recommendations: I’m steering you to these places because they have high quality bulbs or a great selection or good prices or really unusual things you can’t find anywhere else. If you have a really hot bulb place you order from, please speak up. I’m always looking-although I don’t know why, exactly, because I could blow my budget ordering bulbs from just one of the places I favor. I comfort myself that at least I’m not trading in my business, transportation, and housing to buy bulbs, the way people did during Tulipomania.

But I can see how it happened.

Next four posts: Four good places to buy bulbs. (Or five, if you’re a stickler.) These are U.S.-centric, because that’s where I live. I would welcome recommendations for bulb suppliers in other countries. Unlike our government, those of us who live here aren’t all quite as convinced we’re the center of the world.

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Northern Shade August 1, 2008, 12:25 pm

    I smiled as I read your post title. Planning and anticipating the future is such a fun part of gardening. My spring bulbs only finished flowering 2 months ago, so some ideas for next year are fresh in my mind. I look forward to the next bulb posts in the series.

  • Pomona Belvedere August 2, 2008, 5:19 am

    You and I are kindred spirits. Planning and anticipating the future is truly a great part of gardening–maybe because that’s the time when gardeners can have the perfect, infinitely accomodating garden, if only in our dreams.

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