Don’t worry: plant bulbs – GardenRant

Don’t worry: plant bulbs – GardenRant

Tarda ‘Dasystemon’ species tulips: these have returned for me for years.

That’s the title of a talk I gave recently for a suburban/rural gardening club, though maybe it didn’t apply. They all seemed like longtime spade-wielding warriors. Very few of them ever looked online for gardening advice; they just did things the way they’d always done it and seemed Ok with that. It was refreshing. What a contrast to my online gardening group, most of whom seem to worry about everything. But there are a few bulb rules I follow, some of which go against bulb wisdom found both online and in newspaper columns and some of which were new to the club members. They work for me, so I’ll share them here.

  • Bulb tools are dumb, as you know if you’ve ever spent minutes pounding plugs of soil out of them. I use a sharp spade to get the small bulbs in (species tulips, tiny daffs, Galanthus, chionodoxa, eranthis, etc.). For big groups of hybrids, I use a large shovel, dig a big hole or trench and throw the bulbs in. If I think of it, I straighten out a bit before covering with soil.
  • Deer, chipmunk, squirrel, and vole problems should not rule out bulbs. Wire or plastic mesh can be pinned on the ground over the plantings immediately after planting. That keeps out the small guys. With deer, we know they don’t like quite a number of species; as for the rest, I am told that they are less likely to bother species tulips and that sprays work. I think pots close to the house (easy to keep sprayed) might be an option. I am also told that interplanting of daffodils among tulips can fool them. (Deer are not yet roaming the streets of downtown Buffalo.)
  • Bulbs in pots are a great option. Here’s a piece I wrote for Fine Gardening about that; it was a few years back, but I think the info is still valid. I love them in pots because you can plan combinations, move the pots around, and, in general, get a big visual bang for your buck. If you’d rather not click, it’s simple: plant them in big pots at the same depth they would be in the ground, water, store in an unheated garage or otherwise protect from freeze/thaw, take out in early spring. These can also take some mesh or spray if needed. This really only works well for tulips.
  • Don’t waste time or money on fertilizer, especially the usual recommendation to add bone meal in the planting hole when planting (the nutrients in bone meal are already present in most nonagricultural soils). Top dressing with compost or mulch is fine—i.e., treat them as other garden perennials. Or do a soil test; maybe you don’t need anything.
  • Don’t do this.

    Plant a lot or don’t bother. Accept that hybrid tulips are (close to) annuals and enjoy them for their beauty, even if it is relatively short-lived.

Do this.

There are many beautiful, enjoyable things in life that last way shorter than hybrid tulips.

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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 regular 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

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