September 11, 2015


Fritillaria palidiflora in a Michigan garden, from last years' NARGS garden tours - I must order more right now!

I am certain that your mail box (both the digital one as well as the physical one) is full of Dutch Bulb catalogs. I've been growing bulbs now for about forty years, and over that time, I've noticed some things which have changed, and which have not changed. What has changed of course is how aggressive or desperate bulb companies seem to be - with catalogs appearing earlier and earlier - even in June just after the spring bulb season is over.

Winter will come, believe me - don't regret not ordering any bulbs this year! Be sure to place your orders early enough so that you can get what you want.

I can justify why and how I order bulbs so many ways, and I am certain that some of my reasons won't even make sense to many of you, as they are personal to the way I garden. I usually factor in rarity, the desire to try a variety or species I have never grown before (Dutch Iris for the greenhouse this year)- so something new has to make my list, then I add something super early blooming to add cheer to February or March (small rarer crocus species), unusual or rare greenhouse bulbs always make my lists as do nostalgic bulbs which I either remember as a child, or which I have neglected for a few decades (poeticus narcissus for example).

I am going to share my strategies for ordering autumn bulbs in this post, but please share with me any of your questions, either here in the comments section, or on my Facebook Page. I'll answer all of them- really!

1Order the fall blooming bulbs ASAP - colchicum, autumn crocus and the bulbs which are precious and sell out fast such as rarer fritillary species

2. Quantities of desirable bulbs are next - Move onto the high quantity, early sell out varieties and species such as Camassia, the larger Fritillaria  which tend to sell out early as well, but which are also often difficult to find in large quantities in mid-season.

I adore miniature narcissus, but they are so expensive and hard to find. I usually just get a couple of new bulbs every year, but rarely have any to enter into a competition such as this collection entered at a local daffodil show.

3. Be The Early Bird, or loose - Search catalogs for anything that says 'new', and order that.  It's not hard, since most catalogs look the same year after year - that it, until you spot that amazing tiny dwarf narcissus that hasn't been listed in decades, and then when you decide that the cost is worth it, it's gone - just saying'). The early bird my friend, be the early bird.

Camassia are all the rage today, and it's no surprise to me why this North American native is quickly becoming so popular in naturalized plantings, such as this bed in front of our house.

4. Trendy bulbs will sell out first - Deciding what to order first or what to wait on is not really like gambling at all. It's pretty clear what will sell out fast.  My tiering strategies can change with a popular Pinterest image showing a field of bulbs used by Piet Oudolf, and I know that. Like many things, selection is often dictated by fashion and desirability. if you want new purple or black  tulips, parrot tulips, dwarf narcissus, yellow velthiemia, and anything with the words 'snow' and 'drops' in it --- plan on it selling out fast. The same goes for trendy naturalizing bulbs like Camassia, the smaller Fritillaria which aren't Royal Crown's or the common snake head lilies ( as it's the small  and tall species which sell out fast), and of course - anything that says "limited quanities' -- these are all desirable,  and must be ordered now or you may loose out.

It's all about timing when it comes to forcing bulbs, many require 16 weeks for proper vernalization such as these muscari which I forced this past winter.

5. Forcing bulbs? order them soon - I force many bulbs, and since most require at least 12-16 weeks of cooling, the earlier one can pot them them better (except for tulips, which should be potted neither too early nor too late, mid Oct. is perfect.). I also like to order paperwhites and amaryllis early. paperwhites are a great value if ordered in volume - a crate price can reduce the bulb price by half, and it's such a luxury to have piles of them to play with, or to gift with.

I always see rare or new varieties of bulbs such as this green-centered narcissus on display at the Seven States Daffodil Show earlier this year, it's not that common so I might order this 'Mesa Verde' from a specialist grower (it's $75 BTW), but an all yellow generic "King Alfred"type may be something I would wait for a sale on.

6. Meh or common bulbs can wait until later -  Yellow daffs, or red or yellow tulips? Wait for sales unless you want the better, newer varieties. I may bash those big-box stores, but I am not below buying bags of yellow daffodils for $6 or Dutch crocus late in the season for a buck. I buy a few as filler bulbs throughout the season, but I also take advantage of mark downs after Halloween, if our soil is not yet frozen. Closeout sales are fine for most narcissus and crocus, but be careful with the late planted tulips or Fritillaria  since their internal flower buds may abort if stored improperly (indoors) or if planted too late in the season. I've planted species crocus as late as January in soft, melted spots in the garden - the bulbs were practically free.

At my friend Mike Fusaro's house in nearby Conneticutt, naturalized crocus bloom in quantities one could never imagine affordable, but buying them on sale or wholesale will help.

7. Take advantage of late season sales on-line from good sources as well. Many times, narcissus or crocus go on sale late in the season, and good values can often be had.

My amaryllis collection from last winter, which happened to be a snowy one here in New England, were find enough, even though I bought them at a local garden center. I could tell that they had ordered large bulbs, so I passed on  ordering them on-line for one year.

8. Sales are great, but you also get what you pay for - bulbs are sold by size or grades, and bulb growing is a big business in the Netherlands, which is where 99% of your garden bulbs come from. The most premium or largest bulbs will have more vigor and generally more flower buds, so that $38 amaryllis bulb from White Flower Farm is premium and may produce 3 stems extending your season throughout the winter, vs that $12 bulb from the nursery. It's your choice, but with narcissus, tulips and narcissus - price often means a larger bulb.

9.Consider long-lived bulbs an investment, so build your portfolio for growth - much like your 401K, some bulbs perform better over time - the afore mentioned Camassia for instance only gets better, forming clumps which can be divided over time. The same goes for daffodils and narcissus, and many of the smaller bulbs such as snowdrops, scillas and chinodoxa which can reseed. You may see a pattern here - cost, since many of the longer lasting bulbs cost more. I have clumps of snowdrops around the garden that I planted in high school nearly 40 years ago, so even though I may cringe at the $20 cost for a rare selection, I know that it will divide and seed for me, which often helps me (or not) justify the cost vs the same price for a gorgeous dark amaryllis that will die in a year.

If you've skipped growing this beauty - Corydalis solida, it's time to try it. I can't get enough of them, and yes, it's a bulb plant - unlike other corydalis. Look for varieties in Dutch catalogs, or if you really want to splurge - order some from Odyssey Bulbs or if you are adventurous-  from Ruksans in Latvia who has more than 30 varieties! (but you'll have to wait a year. Still, check out his collection of another must-have which he carries in far-too many selections - Anemone ranunculoides, oh my.).

10. Don't forget your soul - splurge a little, or try something new which you have never grown- long term growth is fine, but a spectacle and wowness is also worth something, right? Don't be too conservative. It's OK to splurge a little on some tall, magnificent lily tulips that will be yanked after one year - remember, these are flowers - try to think of that first, sunny day in February or March when you spot that golden crocus  and it blooms through the snow - what is that worth to you? Or that brilliant, blue-skied day in mid May when those orange, carmine and fuchsia colored tulips bloom en-masse making your heart swoon and the traffic stop in front of your house - sometimes, the experience alone is worth most any cost. After all, isn't that why we garden?


  1. I was rather horrified when I got my favorite bulb catalog in June this year, as my spring bulbs were still in bloom! When I lived in North Carolina, the spring bulbs would have been long past and it would have been fine. Now that I'm up North, however, I couldn't even look at it for a couple more months, much less do early ordering (like I used to do) even to save a little money. This year, since it is only a couple years into my new garden, my strategy is to find the earliest blooming bulbs I can - I need the early blooms up here after the long winter! I do always splurge on some beauties, though.

    1. Oh Indie, I agree with you. The older I get, the more I appreciate the real, early bloomers. That first spark of color always stands out in February or March, when the entire landscape is brown and beige - yellow never looked so good. Isn't it interesting how even a single white crocus flower stands out against the drab colors of late winter? Priceless.

  2. Thank you for these tips, this is really helpful!

  3. I whole-heartedly agree with all of these... :)

  4. Gosh, you are very organised! My purchases tend to be very spontaneous I'm afraid to say. Some good tips !

  5. As always, another great post. I especially enjoy it when you share your favorite online nurseries. some I already knew about and was a regular customer, but many I had never heard of. I ordered geraniums from California and Fuschias this year from Washington, and clematis from Bluestone. Thank you thank you. You make my gardening easier and that's saying something since I live and garden in the heat of Las Vegas.

  6. Juniper Gardener8:37 PM

    Thank you for inspiring me to place an order with Odyssey bulbs. I have been meaning to do for years and now I pushed the button. I will thank you again in spring (and in years to come) when these choice bulbs bloom.

  7. Thanks for the inspiration! I translated your article in Dutch and put it on my own website Planten.nl. Thought you'd like to know.


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