September 18, 2010

My New Bulb Rules- 10 Ways to Justify A Frivolous Fritilaria

Colchicum 'Disaraeli' in my garden this morning.
Colchicum 'Waterlily' at Tower Hill Botanic Garden

It's already Colchicum season, which always arrives faster than I expect. If you are seeing these lovely fall-blooming bulbs in your local gardens, make a note to order some next August, for the window of opportunity for which you can plant these summer dormant bulbs in is rather short. By the time September arrives, the few retailers who carry them won't ship bulbs if they are already showing flower buds. Bulbs work on an internal clock, and since most can only be planted while dormant, being efficient in both ordering bulbs and timing the orders is as critical as exercising ones skills of vision, for one must imagine both color palettes and time of bloom, as well as companion plants.

As the weather starts to cool, and the Dutch bulbs start to show up in cardboard displays at the big box stores, many people are just starting  to think about buying bulbs, but for those of us who are more informed, tis the season for major bulb purchases. If I was rich, I would just order them all, but I am not, and thus, I cannot. So I must exercise restraint. Buying ones bulb in big box stores might be convenient. but you are limited to the commercial varieties which are mass marketed, and well, I just require more interesting bulbs than a mesh bag of Dutch Master Daffodils.

 Experienced gardeners know better, and plan a little more, but mostly, they know where to order more interesting bulbs that are premium. If you are wondering where we go, or what we buy and why, let me share with you my 10 strategies of bulb buying, since it might provide a some helpful hints that you can use. Actually, these are more like my 10 rules of justification - as in, "I HAVE to buy three more Fritilaria to complete my collection of high alpine Frits in the raised bed'. It works.

The practicalities of bulb ordering in a digital world are different than those in a paper world, since it is far too easy to make 'faux' orders, and become overwhelmed with a $3500. order. Here is my strategy for tiering how I order my bulbs.

CLICK 'READ MORE' for my ten rules, and sources.....

Bookmark your fav bulb sources in a folder in your browser bookmarks. I have listed my favorite sources for bulbs as links throughout this post.
If you want to plant Fall Crocus or Colchicums, order them in August, for after that, they will never be found. The reason we rarely see these amazing fall bulbs in many gardens is simply that few nurseries want to carry them, for who visits a nursery in August, and that is the ONLY time one can buy and plant them.  Fall blooming Colchicum and autumn crocus must be ordered in August, if you want the finest species ( like the white, double water-lily flowered Colchicum). They sell out fast, and they cannot ship after the sprout in the box.
I make silly but effective, rules to guide my ordering. Otherwise, I end up with $4000 orders. One approach is ordering withing one plant family, so I chose a genus that I will "specialize in' for a year. This strategy helps control me more than anything else. For it is far too easy to end up with a 'sausage' order with a little of this, and a little of that. This year I am focusing on Camassia, and I will order as many as I can afford.

I like to think of my garden as a museum, so I add to the 'permenant collection" as well as add a 'temporary show'. This year, my permanent collection of Snowdrops or Galanthus is growing by two species, as is my collection in the greenhouse with more Massonia and related dual-leaved South African bulbs for displays.
5. BUY LIKE MARTHA- This works for me, since I have this blog and the magazine, so I make purchases and justify them as Props. ( Actually, many of my purchases are props). For the home gardener, the prop method should work to help you focus, too. Prop the Garage entrance, the mail box, the new border you planted. I buy 'prop' material, which I can both photograph and write-off. I always need plant material to experiment with. One season I may plant Lachenalia in a stone pot from China and photograph it for a future book idea, or I may want the perfect Tecophilea-filled Guy Wolf pot for a cover shot for my magazine, so I always allow a few of these 'excuses' to drive such purchases. We all need to justify extravagant purchases.


6. BE A CURATOR - the Gallery APPROACH
If you have issues with investing in tulips since they won't bloom for a second year, try justifying a significant purchase as a gallery curator. A one time traveling show that is very impressive. Just as I may add to my 'permanent collection', I also need to design a 'gallery exhibit' that will be popular with visitors. This rule allows me to curate a temporary display, a 'wow' planting, that is extravagant and what Imagineers at Disney call the 'Big Weenie Factor'. The Fritillaria mass planting would fall into this category. This year, I have a border in front of the greenhouse that I may fill with striking burgundy parrot tulips, maybe 500 of them. Be artistic, confident, fearless with your choices. This should make people stop and say, 'Wow!".

7. FEED THE SOUL  - My vitamin plants enrich my life. Indoor bulbs like Amaryllis, a nostalgic bulb pan filled with Lily of the valley pips, just about anything to cheer you up on a snowy day with fragrance. This may even be a massive clump of early crocus that will bloom in February on a snowy day.
8. CROSS OFF THE CHECK LIST - If you are like me, you will stay up nights if you don't cross off certain ritual contributions each year. So I MUST plant a few new bulbs of crocus, or narcissus, even if I have to buy something on sale at the end of the year. It just makes me feel as if I covered everything, and have no regrets. Insurance.
9. DON'T FORGET FORCING BULBS - It might be paperwhites

OK, the big box stores may be a dangerous place to buy bulbs, but every November first, I still check out the last minute sales, for  a $2.00 bag of 100 crocus is still a bargain. The markdowns are usually so impressive, that bulbs can end up costing pennies each. Sure, the varieties are awful, but no matter how bad a plain yellow daffodil may be, when they dirt cheap, it's a bargain worth risking.


 My favorite outdoor sources for bulbs are McClure & Zimmerman , I love these guys, I met some of the owners once at a International Bulb Society conference and I liked that they even participated in such a geeky event, so I know that they are passionate about plants. I also like John Scheepers and their wholesale site Van Engelen, Inc. which is a must for large volume purchases ( so when you want to plant Crocus lawn...), (or when you buy a 1000 Frit's.....).

A number one choice for quality is still White Flower Farm, which may surprise some of you ( I can hear the groans about the cost), but I have tested this over and over again, and 98% of the time, the White Flower Farm bulbs are the largest and most premium that I receive, especially with Amaryllis, tulips and Narcissus. This year, I compared prices between WWF and the other retail online sources, and they are actually cheaper on many items if you buy volume, so like anything, compare on what is important to you, quality, price and variety. WWF is the only online source besides the micro specialist nurseries that offers some premium daffodil varieties which are new to culture, the rest all carry the same varieties. SO if you want a fancy split-corona pink Daffodil, check them out ( and I think I am over them buying the Daffodil Mart).

Brent and Becky's, still awesome and a go-to source for many bulbs, a season doesn't go by without a big order going to them. Dutch bulbs all come from the same place, Holland. So it almost doesn't matter where you buy them, but be caution of those you find at the big box stores or in supermarkets, for storing and shipping are concerns, a tulip kept in a hot store until  Halloween will surely have an aborted flower bud.

My specialist sources for collector bulbs, are few and choice. For outdoor ( and some greenhouse bulbs), order early from Odyssey Bulbs. THE choice for collector species of Colchicum and autumn crocus, and countless unusual bulbs. Telos Rare Bulbs, the premium choice for any collector in the US, for rare tender or greenhouse bulbs like species from South Africa and for your California garden., and Jim Duggan for bulbs found no where else like Ixia and Romulea species. There are some sources that sell collector bulbs found no where else in the world, I like Paul Christian Rare Plants in the UK and Nancy Wilson in California for rare, collectible narcissus species.

The serious bulb collectors order 'by breeder' those nurseries who grow only one type of bulb, and who are actually breeding new varieties for culture. Try Ringhaddy Daffodils in Scotland or Grant Mitsch in Oregon. My local breeder here in New England is David Burdick Daffodils.These are always more costly, but you will get a premium variety that is not only new to culture, but you will get one that has not been commercially propagated by a large Dutch grower yet. Those buyers examine these, and eventually will select what they think consumers will want based on various criteria which may not be important to you ( like, does the forced daffodil have a stem which is shorter than 12 inches so that it can fit on a 12 inch tray gap in a shipping truck for Home Depot. ( really, I have a friend who is a plant breeder, and some of the best perennials never get commercially produces because they don't fit on the wholesale grower truck shelves, it's all about volume, and essentially, shelf space and packaging, even with plants.).


  1. Excellent suggestions, and thanks for some new sources for bulbs I haven't tried before. I can't imagine Fall without planting bulbs, and there is nothing better than those first days of Spring when the new bulbs come up. Now I think I want to go order a few more....

  2. Alright I'm back. I just went on holiday over at the White Flower. Mercy! I can just hear that line from the Fiddler of the Roof...if I were a rich man...
    Ok I'm good. Wow that was just too refreshing!


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