Guide to Choosing Bulbs

Tulips planted in front of split rail fence

It won’t be long before we’ll be thrusting shovels, bulb planters and trowels in the soil, making space for bulbs – those seemingly lifeless objects that hold the miracle of spring-blooming flowers.

Before filling your cart with tempting netted packages with colorful labels be sure you are making good choices, so your money is well spent, and the garden is in full bloom come next spring.

Tulips planted at the base of shrubs

Annual vs. Perennial Bulbs

Independent garden centers usually only offer bulbs that are hardy for the area, but box stores and chain stores may be less discriminating in their assortment. Be certain bulbs are hardy to your hardiness zone.

Although tulips are considered hardy to Zone 4, some are more perennial in the garden than others. Darwin Hybrids, species and botanical tulips are more likely to return year and year than other types.

Scilla, Squill

Sun vs. Shade

Most bulbs require a minimum of 5 or 6 hours of direct sunlight and more is better, but bulbs that bloom in early- to mid-spring can still be planted under deciduous trees because they bloom before trees leaf out. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), crocus and squill (Scilla siberica) brighten shady gardens.


Well-drained vs. Damp Soil

Most bulbs prefer well-drained soil that has been amended with lots of compost, but there are a few types that, although they can grow in average soil, would rather be planted in damp soil. Instead of trying to change damp conditions, plant guinea-hen flower (Fritillaria meleagris), summer snowflake (Leucojium aestivum) and quamash (Camassia spp.).


Surprise, surprise – size does matter.

When it comes to bulbs, the bigger the bulb, the bigger and better (and maybe the more) flowers it will produce. These bulbs are labeled top grade or top size. Smaller bulbs aren’t necessarily bad, they just take several years in the ground to reach their potential (as long as the bulbs are hardy and naturalize). Smaller bulbs are often marked field or landscape grade. Larger bulbs cost more but are well worth the extra money.

Parrot Tulips

Make sure bulbs are healthy.

Bulbs should be firm when you touch them. If they feel soft, they may be rotting. If they feel very light, they may be dried out. Leave bulbs with signs of mold or soft spots at the store or garden center.

Planting bulbs is a great way to spend time outside in the fall garden. The crisp, cool weather is easy to work in without breaking a sweat and the flamboyant colors of fall are great company.

Garden with me!

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