The Old House Gardens Guide
For Preserving and Enjoying Heirloom Bulbs
We want our customers to have great success with all of our bulbs, so we do our best to provide complete, accurate information on planting and care. Here’s the “Heirloom How-To” we send with our bulbs. More is included (especially for our fall-planted bulbs) on the “bag-tags” stapled to each individual bag.
For FALL-Planted Bulbs (or click here for Spring-Planted Bulbs )
Right Now, Please . . . Open and Check Your Bulbs
Though we hand-inspect every bulb we ship, please unpack yours right now and count and re-check them — and enjoy their amazing diversity and beauty! Missing skins, small blemishes, and bits of mold will not affect performance. But, if you find a bulb that’s soft (unless it’s a naturally fleshy Fritillaria, Hyacinthoides, or Lilium), or if anything else seems amiss, call us right away so we can remedy the problem. Our aim is to always deliver fantastic bulbs!
If You Must Store Them
Small or fleshy bulbs are very perishable and should be planted IMMEDIATELY! Others may be stored briefly in a cool (ideally 40-50° F), dry, relatively dark place. Leave bags loosely open to allow some air circulation. Temperatures over 70°F can cause problems, especially for tulips. So can gasses from ripening fruit and vegetables and automobile exhaust fumes.
Small is Beautiful
Sizes vary widely, with antique and species varieties often having SMALLER-THAN-USUAL bulbs. All of our bulbs are blooming-size, and most are the largest available.
Sometimes the two bulbs of “double-nose” daffodils separate in transit. If a couple of your bulbs are distinctly smaller, count and see if this has happened. Don’t worry; these separated bulbs will grow just fine.
You’ll find bulb-specific “Planting & Care” instructions stapled to every bag of our bulbs as well as below
(for fall-planted bulbs) and here
(for spring-planted), and at the end of each of the bulb sections in our online store (for example, Crocus
If what you’ve been doing has worked well, keep doing it — even if you read something different here. Climate, soils, and garden practices vary so much that our best advice may not be right for your little piece of Eden.
For Local Advice
Local experts can often tell you more about gardening in your area than we can (though unfortunately we’ve also found that many experts have very little experience with bulbs or heirloom plants). One great resource is your county Cooperative Extension Office or Extension Agent. For the phone number in your county
, go to http://www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/index.html
and click on your state and then county. Other great resources for local advice include locally-owned garden centers, botanical gardens, universities, garden club members, and friends, neighbors, and relatives who garden, especially older ones who may be more familiar with heirloom varieties.
When to Plant
You can plant most fall-planted bulbs when soil temperatures in your area drop to about 60°F. You can also keep planting, as necessary, LONG after the first frost, as long as the soil remains workable. This is much later than many people realize, requiring many nights below freezing.
However, since small bulbs dry out in storage more easily and their shallow planting depths subject them to earlier freezing, they should be planted in most zones IMMEDIATELY. This is also true of all lilies, Fritillaria, Hyacinthoides, and Camassia.
Hyacinths root better in not-too-cool soil, so plant them next, then narcissus, and finally tulips, which prefer the coolest soil. Don’t wait too late, though, because if the soil freezes down to the bulbs before they root well, health and performance will be impaired. To keep soil warmer longer, apply a thick, light winter mulch such as straw or pine needles — but not if you have bulb-eating voles.
Your Winter Hardiness Zone
Your USDA hardiness zone is -.
Hardiness zones are based on average minimum low temperatures which are one crucial factor in determining what plants can survive in your garden. In 2012, the USDA updated its Plant Hardiness Zones Map for the first time since 1990 based on newer and much more extensive data as well as the use of sophisticated mapping algorithms.
The range of hardiness zones we recommend can be found at the end of each bulb’s description and in our comparison charts. We tend to be conservative with these in order to help assure your success.
The letter “a” in our recommendations refers to the cooler, northern half of each zone, while “b” refers to the warmer, southern half.
“WC” in our recommendations refers to the West Coast where milder summer temperatures allow some bulbs to thrive beyond the zones recommended for the rest of the country. For example, 8b(10bWC) means the bulb should do well through zone 8 in the Rockies and east, but through zone 10 along the West Coast. But some bulbs such as tulips need extended cold to bloom, so for them there’s no West Coast advantage.
The Sunset Western Garden Book offers some regional guidance on bulbs, and we highly recommend Scott Ogden’s Garden Bulbs for the South.
Hardiness Zone Bending
Here are several factors that may allow you to stretch the possibilities of your hardiness zone.
Global Warming — For the past five or six years, we’ve been growing bulbs we never could before simply because our winters have been warmer. You may find that you can too!
Micro-Climates — Seek and plant in those spots in your yard that are a bit warmer than the rest. These are often near buildings and paving, south of walls, on slopes, and protected from wind. Experiment!
Deep, Long-Lasting Snow — If you are blessed with the natural insulation of deep, reliable snow cover, you may find you can grow many of our bulbs a zone or even two beyond what we recommend.
Winter Mulch — When the ground (especially clay soil) repeatedly freezes and thaws, bulb roots break and don’t re-grow. This can be fatal. To help avoid this, apply a light, airy, non-matting winter mulch (oak leaves, straw, pine branches, etc.) after the ground freezes solid. This is especially helpful the first winter after planting.
Soil and Drainage
Most bulbs need well-drained soil to thrive, and soils that stay too damp for too long are a leading cause of bulb death.
Rich sandy loam is ideal for most bulbs, though soil that’s too sandy can cause bulbs to suffer from a lack of water and nutrients. Adding organic matter will help.
Clay or “heavy” soil is usually a bigger problem. Clay soil drains slowly and will cause problems for most bulbs, especially tulips and hyacinths which need to be as dry as possible when dormant in summer for best return. Clay soil also makes it difficult for bulbs to expand and multiply underground. Imagine trying to push your fist into a bucket of clay rather than sand and you’ll understand why this is so.
You can improve clay soil by adding lots of organic matter to it (compost, peat moss, etc.). Adding sand and gypsum can help, too.
Planting in raised beds is another way to improve the drainage of heavy soil and make it more bulb-friendly.
Many small bulbs such as snowdrops, snake’s-head fritillaries, and eranthis prefer more humus-rich soils that never go bone-dry in the summer, but they still want good drainage. Then there are some bulbs that actually thrive in clay soils and soggy spots
, including most Division-8 narcissus
(such as ‘Avalanche’), jonquils, Campernelles, Byzantine gladiolus, snowflakes (Leucojum
), and spring-planted cannas. For a complete list, see our easy, awesome Heirloom Bulb Search
Bulbs that grow ALL summer instead of going dormant — lilies, peonies, and our spring-planted daylilies, bearded iris, dahlias, cannas, gladiolus, etc. — need regular moisture throughout their entire growing season, but most of them still do best in well-drained soils.
Neutral to slightly alkaline
soil — a pH of 7.0-7.5 — suits most bulbs. If your soil is more acidic, and your bulbs do poorly, consider adding lime. Many lilies prefer acidic soils
, though, and other exceptions are noted on our bag-tags and in our bulb-by-bulb info for fall-planted bulbs below
and spring-planted here
. Your soil’s pH is one of the helpful things a soil test
will show you. Testing is available through your county Cooperative Extension Office (find yours at www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/index.html
), and simple kits are sold at many gardens centers.
Sunshine and Shade
In general, for best performance year after year, plant your bulbs in full sun. However, some bulbs — especially daffodils, snowflakes, and small early bulbs such as crocus and Siberian squill — can do well with a bit of shade — and seem to prefer it in the South — especially if it’s from deciduous trees that don’t leaf out till later. Some bulbs need cool, moist conditions and actually grow best in light shade.
For a complete list
of bulbs for dappled/light shade, half-day sun, or full sun, use the Sun/Shade options in our easy, awesome Heirloom Bulb Search
. You’ll also find bulb-specific advice on our bag-tags and in our bulb-by-bulb info for fall-planted bulbs below
and spring-planted here
Planting Depths and Spacing
Advice on planting depths varies, so we recommend you do what has worked well for you. A few basic guidelines are (1) plant larger bulbs deeper, smaller bulbs less so (three times the height of the bulb is often recommended), (2) plant deeper in sandy soils, less so in heavy soils, (3) plant deeper in the North, less so in the South. Deeper planting is said to enhance longevity and to keep bulbs from dividing into so many smaller bulbs that blooming suffers.
Full-size tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils can all be planted about 6-8 inches deep, measured to the bottom of the hole. Varieties with smaller bulbs such as ‘Rip Van Winkle’ should be planted 4-6 inches deep. Even-smaller bulbs such as crocus and snowdrops should be planted 2-4 inches deep. See our bag-tags and bulb-by-bulb info below
Full-size bulbs are usually spaced about 6 inches apart from center to center, though many gardeners like the lush look gained by closer planting. Smaller bulbs are planted 3 or 4 inches apart, or even closer for more immediate impact. To figure out how many bulbs you’ll need
to fill a specific space, see the handy charts and formulas for bulbs per square feet at our cool “Bedding with Bulbs” page
Don’t guess. Take a ruler into the garden, or mark off inches on your trowel with a permanent marker. Your bulbs will thank you by growing and blooming better.
Just like other plants, most bulbs do better in fertile soil. Though bone meal was a popular fertilizer for bulbs in the past, the way it’s processed today saps most of its nutrients, and it can attract animals. Bulb fertilizer is a better choice, or any relatively balanced mix (aim for 10-10-10, but just about any rose, tomato, or flower and vegetable fertilizer will work). Many experts now recommend a slow-release fertilizer scratched into the surface soil every fall.
: as we’ve learned the hard way, fertilizing year after year can cause nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium to build up in the soil to counter-productive levels. That’s why we always recommend getting a soil test before you fertilize
. Testing is available through your county Cooperative Extension Office (find yours at www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/index.html
), and simple kits are sold at many garden centers.
For bulb-by-bulb specifics on fertilizing, see our Planting and Care info for individual bulbs — fall-planted below
and spring-planted here
, water well. Fall-planted bulbs
need good soil moisture from fall through spring
— whenever the soil isn’t frozen — while they are rooting, growing, and flowering. In the summer
, however, many fall-planted bulbs like to dry out — and will suffer from normal watering
. Tulips, hyacinths, crown imperials, and a few others (see bag-tags and below
) often return best when kept very dry
in summer, so consider planting them where you never water or where shrubs or trees will soak up most of the moisture. In the South, keeping daffodils dry in the summer
when soil temperatures are high will help protect them from basal rot.
On the other hand, snowflakes, snowdrops, snake’s-head fritillaries, lilies, and a few other fall-planted bulbs — including daffodils in the North — can suffer from too little summer moisture. See our bag-tags and our bulb-by-bulb info for fall-planted bulbs below
For spring-planted bulbs
, see our bulb-by-bulb advice here
Protecting from Animals, Insects, Etc.
Most bulbs (and especially heirloom bulbs) are relatively untroubled by insects and diseases, and the best way to avoid problems is to give your bulbs what they need to thrive. When that’s not enough, though, our Insects and Diseases
page offers helpful links.
As for animal pests, daffodils and snowflakes (Leucojum
) are very
animal-resistant, and other bulbs that are rarely eaten include hyacinths, Crocus tommasinianus
, many of our Fall-Planted Diverse bulbs (alliums, winter aconites, glory-of-the-snow, snowdrops, Spanish bluebells, grape hyacinths, silver bells, and Siberian squill), and spring-planted iris, crinums, and St. Joseph’s amaryllis. For a complete list, choose the Animal Resistant category in our Heirloom Bulb Search
Tulips and lilies, unfortunately, seem to be a favorite on most animal menus.
If animals dig your newly-planted bulbs — including ones they won’t eat, like daffodils — try covering with plastic bird-netting, wire-mesh, a window screen, or burlap bags for a couple of weeks till the inviting smell of freshly-dug earth disappears.
If animals burrow to your bulbs
, either plant them in PermaTill
crushed shale (also sold as VoleBloc), wire-mesh boxes, buried plastic pots covered with chicken-wire, or miniature plastic laundry baskets with their bottoms replaced with wire mesh.
Moles often disturb bulbs as they dig for grubs. Killing the grubs (try beneficial nematodes or spraying your lawn with bitter, organic Mole-Med) will reduce the moles — and this will discourage voles and mice which often use mole tunnels to munch on bulbs.
If animals eat spring growth, cover it with chicken wire for a few weeks (while they are hungriest), sprinkle blood meal around it, fence them out, or — my most successful solution — spray it with bitter, non-toxic Ro-pel, available at many garden centers. Bulbs can be dipped in Ro-pel before planting, too.
Blasting: Why Good Buds Go Bad
When buds form but fail to develop into flowers it’s called blasting. This usually happens because the plant wasn’t getting enough of something it needed. In most cases that’s water — especially for newly planted bulbs — but late planting, high temperatures, too little sun, and improper storage can also be to blame. Learn more.
How to Make Maturing Foliage Look Beautiful
It’s important to leave all foliage to mature, since this is what builds up the bulb for next year’s flowering. Leave stems, too, since they also photosynthesize, but snap off spent flower heads so seeds don’t form — except for bulbs you want to self-sow. Leaving the foliage for at least six weeks after blooming may not be convenient or pretty, but it is essential. Even braiding or tying the foliage will diminish future bloom. You may remove the foliage as soon as it yellows. This often leaves holes in the soil where the foliage used to be. Lightly cultivate the soil to prevent insects from using these as routes to attack your bulbs.
It’s not that hard to camouflage maturing bulb-foliage with annuals (old-fashioned forget-me-nots, corn poppies, and larkspur are favorites of ours) or nearby perennials. Planting your bulbs in narrow, foot-wide drifts or ribbons rather than in broad patches helps the maturing foliage “disappear,” too (a suggestion from Gertrude Jekyll herself). Reminding yourself of the important work the foliage is doing, and the beautiful flowers that will follow next spring, is sure to make it less of a problem, too!
Other Ways to Make Bulbs Last
Daffodils are generally long-lived. When they increase to the point of being crowded, however, their bloom often diminishes. It is then time to dig, divide, and replant them. This can be done “in the green” — right after bloom — or wait till the foliage yellows and then dig and store the bulbs until fall. Put a sticky-note on your calendar so you don’t forget them!
Tulips: Back when tulips were more of a luxury, people often dug them after the foliage yellowed and stored them through the summer. This dry rest promotes good increase, and I recommend it for any truly rare tulip you may be growing — though it is a lot of work. Happily, many antique and species varieties are long-lived even when left in the ground year-round, especially if you keep them as dry as possible. After all, they were bred for gardens, not greenhouse and cut-flower production as most modern tulips have been. Parrots and doubles are the hardest to make last, however, requiring near-perfect conditions.
Hyacinths are usually left undisturbed and are often slow to increase. Dry summers but rather cool, rich soils seem to suit them best. Some varieties do better in different conditions, so experiment!
Crocus usually multiply happily when well-sited, though they can be smothered by fallen leaves or thick turf.
Many of our small “diverse treasures” such as snowdrops, grape hyacinths, Scilla siberica, and even eranthis and freesia in the right spot will naturalize eagerly.
Lilies: Our lilies are generally long-lived when planted in humus-rich, well-drained but well-watered soil, their roots cool but their heads in the sun. Although most prefer slightly acid soil, Madonna, Henry’s, and tiger lilies do best in neutral to alkaline soil.
Growing Bulbs In Pots
Container gardening can be a lot of fun, but you can’t grow bulbs in pots and other containers the same way you do bulbs in the ground.
Compared to the garden itself, containers are tiny, cramped, highly artificial worlds where even a small mistake can lead to disappointment. To do it successfully, see our helpful “Bulbs in Pots” page.
Forcing is fun! The gentle art of coaxing bulbs into winter bloom dates back to the late 1700s. For easy instructions (and cool antique illustrations) check out our special Forcing Bulbs page
Allium, German and Purple-Headed Garlic
Choose a sunny site with well-drained soil, though alliums are adaptable to most soils except heavy clay. Plant with tip up, about 3” deep and 4-5” apart (or closer for a lush look sooner). Scratch a bit of bulb fertilizer into the soil surface after planting (slow-release 10-10-10 is ideal) and water well.
Consider protecting with plastic netting, chicken-wire, etc., for a few weeks after planting, typically the only time critters bother these relatively animal-resistant bulbs.
Mulch lightly or not at all. Bark mulch is often too thick or heavy for small bulbs to emerge through and their growth will suffer.
When well established, alliums don’t require a lot of water. Water moderately their first spring till they bloom. After that and in following years they’ll do best if you allow them to dry out between waterings.
Anemone, Grecian Windflower
Plant these naturally small bulbs ASAP because they can dry out and die if stored too long.
Grecian windflowers prefer well-drained soil that’s moist while they’re growing and then dry during their summer dormancy — but they’re quite adaptable. In the North, full sun to light shade is best. Further South, they prefer light to half shade.
You can soak them in lukewarm water for 5-6 hours before planting, but it’s not necessary. Since it’s hard to tell which side is the top, plant them on edge and they’ll right themselves as they grow.
Plant 2”-3” deep and 3”-4” apart and water well. Consider protecting with plastic netting, chicken-wire, etc., for a few weeks after planting, typically the only time animals bother these animal-resistant bulbs.
Mulch lightly or not at all. Keep moist but not soggy during the fall while they’re growing roots and throughout the spring.
After bloom, allow the foliage to yellow completely to feed the bulbs before removing. For rapid increase, allow flowers to mature and scatter their seeds. During their summer dormancy, keep the soil dryish if possible, as it is in their native lands.
Chionodoxa, Turkish Glory-of-the-Snow
Plant ASAP when you receive them in October. These naturally small bulbs can dry out and die if stored too long.
Choose a sunny to partly shaded site with well-drained soil. Turkish glory-of-the-snow is adaptable and will grow happily under deciduous shrubs or trees (even walnuts!) and in turf that’s not too dense. (For best increase, avoid mowing till the foliage turns yellow.)
Plant with tip up, about 3” deep and 3”-4” apart. Scratch a bit of bulb fertilizer into the soil surface after planting — slow-release 10-10-10 is ideal — and water well.
Consider protecting with plastic netting, chicken-wire, etc., for a few weeks after planting, typically the only time animals bother these animal-resistant bulbs.
Mulch lightly or not at all. Bark mulch is often too thick or heavy for small bulbs such as glory-of-the-snow and their growth will suffer.
After bloom, allow the foliage to yellow completely to feed the bulbs before removing. For rapid increase, allow flowers to mature and scatter their seeds.
For best growth and bloom, plant crocus as soon as the soil cools in the fall, giving them as long as possible to establish roots before soil freezes completely. If absolutely necessary, store briefly in open bags in a cool, dry spot.
Choose a site with well-drained soil (avoid or improve clay soil). Though crocus prefer neutral to slightly alkaline soil, they are very adaptable.
Plant in full sun to very light shade. Crocus often do well in the dappled shade of deciduous trees and shrubs or around the base of perennials such as peonies because they can complete most of their life cycle before these plants leaf out fully and limit their sun.
Though it’s never the first place we recommend, in the right conditions some varieties can do well in lawns. For helpful advice from our customers and the Missouri Botanical Garden, see our “Crocus in the Lawn”
Plant with the growing tip up. For SNOW OR SPECIES CROCUS, plant with the base 2-3 inches deep and 2-3 inches apart from center to center (or closer for a lush look). For TRADITIONAL CROCUS, plant with the base 3-4 inches deep and 3-4 inches apart from center to center (or closer for a lush look). Scratch a little bulb fertilizer into the surface soil (slow-release 10-10-10 is ideal). Water and make sure the soil stays reasonably moist from fall through spring. During the summer, however, crocus do better if the soil is dry.
If animals dig your newly-planted bulbs, try covering them for a couple of weeks with chicken wire, plastic-mesh netting, old screens, etc. An airy mulch of straw, etc., can be helpful the first winter, but remove it in earliest spring. Do NOT apply a thick mulch of shredded bark, etc.
After bloom, allow the foliage to yellow completely (to feed the bulbs for increase and future bloom) before removing.
Cyclamen, Sowbread Cyclamen
Plant ASAP when you receive them in October. To thrive, these tubers MUST establish good roots as early as possible.
Choose a lightly shaded site — under high-branched deciduous shrubs or trees often suits cyclamen well, or on the east side of a house — with well-drained soil that’s rich in humus (moisture-retentive organic matter). Make sure it’s a spot where you can see and enjoy these short plants, too!
Space 4-6” apart, leaving room for tubers to expand in future years. Plant flat with KNOBBY (often indented) side UP and smooth, BARE side down. (C. hederifolium roots and sprouts from the top and sides only.) Cover with 1-2” of soil. Water well, once, but allow soil to dry out a bit between future waterings. Cyclamen do NOT like soggy soils.
Leaves may appear the first fall or you may not see them until the NEXT fall, after they flower. (Have faith, and mark where you planted them.) A little protection from bitter cold and wind the first winter can be helpful. Snow is best, but a light sprinkling of straw or an evergreen bough will work, too.
Leaves go dormant in summer. Allow to yellow and wither naturally. Avoid watering while dormant. Top-dress lightly with well-rotted leaves, compost, or other organic matter. Look for first flowers next fall, usually before leaves re-appear. In the right spot, cyclamen will self-sow if you allow flowers to mature and scatter their seeds.
Plant in mid-fall when soil cools; earlier is better than later. If necessary, store till then in open bags in a cool, dry spot.
Choose a sunny to lightly shaded site. Full sun is best in the North, but the further South you garden, the more shade you can give them. (You’ll find additional expert advice for growing daffodils where winters are warm in our “Daffodils for the South and Warm West.”
Plant in well-drained soil. Avoid or improve clay soil, or grow in raised beds. Dig down three times the height of the bulbs, about 6-8 inches for standard varieties, 4-6 for smaller varieties such as ‘W.P. Milner’, and plant with the narrow ends up, about 6 inches apart from center to center (or closer for a lush look). For each bulb scratch a tablespoon of bulb fertilizer into the surface (slow-release 10-10-10 is ideal). Water, and keep moist through the fall while the bulbs are growing new roots, through the winter if the soil doesn’t freeze, and through the spring at least till blooming is finished.
Re-fertilize lightly every spring and fall. After bloom, remove the spent blossoms but allow foliage to yellow completely (to feed the bulbs for next year’s bloom) before removing it. IN THE SOUTH, keep soil dry when soil warms up after blooming and through the summer to avoid disease problems.
Deer, rodents, and most other pests leave daffodils alone, but if some of yours mysteriously fail to appear in the spring, visit our Daffodil Bulb Fly
page to learn about the likely culprit.
With good care daffodils will multiply, making an increasingly beautiful display every year. When decreased bloom indicates overcrowding, dig and divide after foliage yellows.
Tazetta narcissus are almost as easy to force as their cousins, paperwhites. For simple how-to, see our Forcing Bulbs
Dicentra, Dutchman’s Breeches
Handle these fragile little bulbs with care, and plant any tiny bits that break off because they’ll grow, too.
Plant ASAP when they arrive in October. Dicentra are never happy in storage.
Choose a site in light to half shade. Well-drained soil is essential, and if it’s also humus-rich, moist but not soggy in spring, and never bone-dry, that’s ideal. In the wild they seem to prefer rich soil on slopes under deciduous trees, but in gardens they’re quite adaptable.
Plant about 1” deep and 6-12” apart. You may want to protect with plastic netting, chicken-wire, etc., for a few weeks after planting, usually the only time animals bother these animal-resistant bulbs. Water well.
Do not apply thick or bark mulch. A light layer of shredded leaves is fine, but thick or heavy mulch can be too much for small bulbs such as these and their growth will suffer – if they emerge at all.
Keep soil moist in spring until blooms fade. Allow seed pods to form and mature. Soon the foliage will yellow and then wither away as these spring ephemerals go dormant for the summer. This is normal.
Over time these bulbs will multiply underground, and in the right spot they’ll spread by seeds, too, which are dispersed by ants.
Eranthis, Winter Aconite
Plant these tiny perishable rhizomes ASAP when you receive them in October. Delayed planting is the most common cause of failure with eranthis.
Choose a sunny (but not hot) or partly shaded site — maybe at the base of deciduous shrubs — with humusy but well-drained soil that never gets bone-dry. Unlike most bulbs, winter aconites need regular moisture year-round. They also prefer neutral or slightly alkaline soil.
Plant with the tiny bumps (the eyes) up, or on their side if you’re not sure, about 2-3 inches deep and 2-3 inches apart. Consider protecting with plastic netting, chicken-wire, etc., for a few weeks after planting, typically the only time pests bother these animal-resistant bulbs. Water well and keep soil moist through fall as new roots grow. Fertilizing is usually not necessary.
Do not mulch. Mulch is often too thick or heavy for small bulbs such as eranthis and their growth will suffer — if they emerge at all.
After bloom, allow seedpods to ripen and scatter their seed, and allow the foliage to wither (to feed the rhizomes) before removing. In the right spot, Eranthis will multiply into ever-increasing colonies.
Erythronium, Trout lily
Plant ASAP when they arrive in October. The naturally tiny bulbs of trout lily can dry out quickly and even die in storage.
Choose a site in light to half shade in zones 3-5, or half to full shade further south. Soil that’s moist, humus-rich, and acidic is usually recommended, but we’ve seen trout lilies growing in drier, neutral-to-alkaline soils in oak-hickory forests throughout the Midwest.
Plant deeper than you’d expect for bulbs this small – 3-5” deep (in the wild they can be found up to 12” deep) and about 6” apart. Water well.
Do not apply thick or bark mulch. A light layer of shredded leaves is fine, but thick or heavy mulch can be too much for these small bulbs.
Keep moist in spring until blooms fade. Shortly afterwards the leaves will yellow and then wither away as these spring ephemerals go dormant for the summer. This is normal.
Transplanted bulbs are often slow to bloom, so please be patient. Over time they will multiply underground, spreading by stolons, and they may multiply by seeds, too. New bulbs typically take years to reach blooming size, but the mottled leaves make an attractive spring groundcover to enjoy in the meantime.
Freesia, Antique Freesia
The corms of this species freesia are naturally TINY. Plant ASAP when you receive them in October. By then they have already had a longer-than-usual dormant season, and they are eager to start growing again.
Choose a sunny to lightly shaded site with loose, well-drained, humusy soil. Plant with the broader end down, about 2” deep to the base and about 2” apart (so the wiry plants can support one another). Mulch only lightly, if at all. Water regularly through the growing and blooming season, but reduce watering after that as the seeds mature and the foliage begins to ripen.
After bloom, allow the seed heads to mature and scatter their seeds. Corms are dormant through the summer. Do not water till growth resumes in the fall. Fertilizing is rarely necessary in good soil.
Freesias like dry, Mediterranean-climate summers and are challenging elsewhere. If you’re a skilled, attentive gardener, though, you might like to give them a try in the Southwest, Texas, or Southeast. The Mobile Press-Register’s Bill Finch, for example, reports that they bloom well for him in soggy Mobile where he plants them “just on the edge of the skirts of large, long-legged shrubs” which help to keep them dry in summer.
Fritillaria, Snake’s-Head Fritillary
Plant ASAP when you receive them in October. Though our snake’s-head bulbs are wax-dipped — which helps a lot — they are naturally small, fragile, tunic-less bulbs that are never happy in storage. If you absolutely have to, store them briefly in their closed bags in the refrigerator (but not the freezer) — and keep your fingers crossed.
Plant 3”-5” deep — some experts say the deeper planting leads to better flowering — and 4”-6” apart in a lightly shaded site with moist, humus-rich soil. Consider protecting with plastic netting, chicken-wire, etc., for a few weeks after planting when they’re most attractive to animals.
Mulch lightly, if at all. Mulch is often too thick or heavy for small bulbs such as snake’s-heads and their growth will suffer — if they emerge at all.
Water well, and then assure even moisture in spring and fall. Even in the summer, unlike most bulbs, snake’s-heads don’t want bone-dry soil. Fertilize occasionally. After bloom, allow the seed heads to mature and scatter their seeds. In the right spot snake’s-heads will spread by seeding themselves about rather randomly (and charmingly).
Galanthus elwesii, Giant or Elwes Snowdrop
Plant ASAP when you receive them in October. The naturally small bulbs of Galanthus can dry out and die very quickly in storage (Despite modern folklore, however, planting “in the green” is not essential for success).
Choose a lightly shaded site with well-drained or average garden soil that never gets bone-dry in summer. Though G. elwesii can do well alongside the more common G. nivalis, it actually prefers less shade, less moisture, and better drained soil than G. nivalis (as well as warmer temperatures).
Plant 3”-4” deep and 2”-4” apart. Consider protecting with plastic netting, chicken-wire, etc., for a few weeks after planting, typically the only time critters bother these animal-resistant little bulbs. Water well, and then assure even moisture in spring and fall.
Do not mulch. Mulch is often too thick or heavy for small bulbs such as snowdrops and their growth will suffer — if they emerge at all.
After bloom, allow seedpods to ripen and scatter their seeds, and allow the foliage to yellow and wither away naturally to feed the bulbs. Fertilizing is rarely necessary. Over time your bulbs will multiply and spread into large colonies.
Galanthus nivalis, Traditional Snowdrop
Plant ASAP when you receive them in October. The naturally small bulbs of Galanthus can dry out and die very quickly in storage. (However, despite modern folklore, planting “in the green” is not essential for success.)
Choose a lightly shaded site with well-drained or average garden soil that never gets bone-dry or overly hot in summer. Galanthus do best with more moisture than most bulbs, and they can even thrive in clay soil.
Plant 2”-4” deep and 2”-4” apart. Consider protecting with plastic netting, chicken-wire, etc., for a few weeks after planting, typically the only time critters bother these animal-resistant little bulbs. Water well, and then assure even moisture in spring and fall.
Do not mulch. Mulch is often too thick or heavy for small bulbs such as snowdrops and their growth will suffer — if they emerge at all.
After bloom, allow seedpods to ripen and scatter their seeds, and allow the foliage to yellow and wither away naturally to feed the bulbs. Fertilizing is rarely necessary. Over time your bulbs will multiply and spread into large colonies.
Gladiolus, Byzantine glad
For more information on our many SPRING-planted glads
, click here
Fall-planted Byzantine glads are not fussy, and they do well in a wide range of sites. Ideally, though, choose a sunny to very lightly shaded spot with well-drained soil.
Plant in early to mid-fall, 3”-4” deep and about 6” apart. Water. Consider protecting with plastic netting, chicken-wire, etc., for a few weeks after planting, typically the only time these animal-resistant bulbs are bothered.
Their first winter, a deep, light winter mulch such as straw, oak leaves, pine needles, etc., will help these Southern-grown bulbs adapt to more northerly conditions.
New foliage usually emerges in mid-winter — though in the North this will be delayed well into spring. After blooming in late spring or early summer, the plant will gradually yellow and wither as it goes into dormancy. When you remove the foliage, you may want to mark the spot so you don’t accidentally disturb or plant over them later. With minimal care, Byzantine glads will multiply and increase in beauty every year.
Hyacinthoides hispanica, ‘Excelsior’ Spanish Bluebell
Plant ASAP when you receive them in October. Hyacinthoides bulbs are very perishable.
Choose a site in sun to part shade (some shade is best in the South). Though Spanish bluebells prefer rich, moist, woodland soils, they are very adaptable and will thrive in ordinary garden soil. In fact, they’ll grow just about anywhere — and they’re widely animal-resistant! Plant with bases 4”-5” deep and 4”-6” apart from center to center. Water well.
After bloom in late spring, allow seed-heads to ripen and scatter their seeds and allow the foliage to yellow completely to feed the bulbs before removing. Bulbs often multiply rapidly, and within a few years clumps may be dug, divided, and replanted immediately after flowering.
Hyacinthoides make a long-lasting cut flower. Cut or snap off stems rather than pulling them which can damage the bulbs.
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, English Bluebell
Plant ASAP when you receive them in October. Hyacinthoides bulbs are very perishable.
Englishman Roy Genders writes that bluebells are “happiest beneath mature trees where they enjoy partial shade and damp humus-laden soil.” Choose a site accordingly (though the mature trees are not essential). Plant about 3” deep, about 6” apart from center to center. Water well, and assure even moisture from fall through spring.
After bloom in late spring, allow foliage to yellow and seed-heads to ripen and scatter their seeds — unless Spanish bluebells are nearby, in which case you will get mongrel offspring that will eventually crowd out your true English bluebells.
Though challenging to establish outside of mild, English-like climates, in the right spot true English bluebells will multiply happily and may be dug, divided, and replanted right after flowering. They make fragrant, long-lasting cut flowers. Cut or snap off stems rather than pulling them which can damage the bulbs.
Some people are allergic to hyacinth bulbs, developing a localized itch, so you may want to handle them with gloves. Plant in mid-fall. If necessary, store till then in open bags in a cool, dry spot.
Hyacinths do best when DRY (but not hot) in summer. Choose a sunny site with well-drained soil, avoiding or improving clay or damp soil, or plant in raised beds. Plant bulbs with base 6-8 inches deep and 5-7 inches apart on center (or closer for a lush look). Scratch a tablespoon of bulb fertilizer into the surface soil (slow-release 10-10-10 is ideal). Water.
A light, airy winter mulch such as straw, oak leaves, or pine boughs is helpful in colder zones to minimize root damage from soil repeatedly freezing and thawing.
For best results, re-fertilize lightly spring and fall, and assure even moisture then. After bloom, strip off spent florets but allow foliage to yellow (to feed the bulbs for next year’s bloom) before removing. Close the hole left in the soil by the withering foliage to deter pests. And keep those bulbs dry!
Five-Second Forcing — All hyacinths — even wild hyacinths — topple eventually. Usually it’s no big deal, but if the weather is unseasonably warm it can be disappointingly premature. To counter this, take a thin green bamboo stake about 12 inches long and run it along right next to the stem from the top of the bloom-spike down into the soil a few inches (but not so deep that you hit the bulb). The florets will clasp the stake and you’re done!
Hyacinths are easy to force for winter bloom. For complete directions, see our Forcing Bulbs
Leucojum, ‘Gravetye Giant’ Snowflake
Choose a site in sun, light shade, or even half-shade in the South. Snowflakes like more moisture than most bulbs, so avoid bone-dry sites. Although most bulbs prefer well-drained soils, snowflakes can do well in clay soils, too. They are also highly animal-resistant.
Plant 4”-6” deep to the base of the bulbs and 4”-6” apart. Scratch a little fertilizer into the soil surface; slow-release 10-10-10 is ideal. Water well as they establish roots in the fall, and assure even moisture through bloom-time.
After bloom, allow the foliage to yellow completely (to feed the bulbs) before removing. With good care snowflakes will multiply, making an increasingly beautiful display every year. When decreased bloom indicates overcrowding, fertilize especially well. If that doesn’t produce more flowers the next spring, dig and divide.
Lilies are more perishable than most bulbs, so plant them as soon as possible. If necessary, store briefly in plastic in the refrigerator, away from fruit. Lily bulbs often feel a bit soft, and a little Penicillium mold is common, but neither is cause for alarm. Remove brown or mushy scales.
Well-drained soil is essential for lilies! So avoid or improve clay soil, or plant in raised beds. If it’s also fertile and humusy, that’s ideal, and most lilies prefer soil that’s slightly acid. Tiger lily and Henry’s lilies are two lilies that thrive in neutral to alkaline soils.
In the North, choose a sunny (but not hot) or very lightly shaded site. In the South, give afternoon shade. Good air circulation is critical, too.
Plant so bulbs are covered with three to four times their height in soil. Deeper is better than shallower, except in heavy (clay) soils. Space most lilies 9-18 inches apart, depending on their ultimate size. Smaller lilies such as L. pumilum and the martagons, for example, can be planted 6-12 inches apart.
Lilies like their heads in the sun but their feet in shade, so add a good mulch to help keep the soil cool and moist or over-plant with low-growing annuals or companionable perennials. Water as you would other perennials; lilies like moisture (though not heavy, water-logged soil). Rich soil is good, but heavy fertilizing is NOT recommended.
Add a winter mulch in the North to help keep sprouts from emerging too early (and being damaged by late frost).
Be prepared to stake the heavy heads of some lilies in bloom, especially those grown in less than full sun. Like many perennials, lilies rarely reach their full height, bloom, or beauty the first year, but your patience and good care will be rewarded.
The red lily leaf beetle
is a new pest that’s spreading through New England and beyond. Hand-picking and neem-based insecticides are two widely recommended controls. Learn more here
Lycoris radiata, Red Spider Lily
Choose a site that’s sunny or — in the South — partially shaded. Red spider lily is highly adaptable but often does best in loose, well-drained, acidic soil.
Plant in the fall so that the neck of the bulb is just an inch or so beneath the surface, or about 5”-6” to the base of the bulb, and about 6” apart from center to center. Scratch a tablespoon of bulb fertilizer into the surface soil; slow-release 10-10-10 is ideal. Water well.
Leaves will emerge the first fall and will need protection over the winter when temperatures dip below 20 F. They will yellow and go dormant next summer.
Flowers will appear the following fall — or even the year after. Please be patient. Though our bulbs are all blooming-size and freshly harvested by our Texas grower, Lycoris always resent transplanting and storage and are naturally slow to re-establish themselves and bloom again. Once settled in, though, they will multiply and increase in beauty year after year.
Lycoris squamigera, Surprise or Magic Lily
Choose a sunny to lightly shaded site that you can keep relatively dry in summer. Surprise lilies bloom best when given a dry resting period after their foliage withers in early summer. (This may be why they are often seen in low-maintenance lawns — or are they simply the only survivors of earlier flower beds that have been grassed-over?)
Plant so the neck is just below the soil line, or about 5” deep to the base of the bulbs, and about 6” apart center to center. Water well. Their first winter in colder zones, protect with a thick but airy mulch (straw, oak leaves, etc.).
Leaves emerge in the spring, looking like those of giant daffodils. They eventually mature and fade and the plant goes dormant for six to ten weeks before the flowers burst forth in late summer.
Lycoris resent transplanting and are slow to re-establish themselves. Don’t be surprised if they don’t bloom till the second fall after planting. This is common (unless a neighbor has given you a freshly dug shovelfull). We hope you’ll be patient with Mother Nature!
Muscari, Grape Hyacinths
Plant ASAP when you receive them in October. Grape hyacinth bulbs are naturally small and can dry out and die very quickly in storage.
Choose a sunny to lightly shaded site with well-drained soil. Plant about 3” deep, 3”-4” apart. Scratch a tablespoon of bulb fertilizer into the surface soil; slow-release 10-10-10 is ideal. Water well.
Consider protecting with plastic netting, chicken-wire, etc., for a few weeks after planting, typically the only time pests bother these animal-resistant little bulbs.
Do not mulch. Mulch is often too thick or heavy for small bulbs such as grape hyacinths and their growth will suffer — if they emerge at all.
For rapid spread, allow flower-spikes to mature and scatter seed after bloom. In subsequent years, your Muscari may begin to send up leaves in the fall. Don’t be alarmed. Mother Nature has built them tough, and their leaves can survive great cold.
Ornithogalum, Silver Bells
Silver bells seem most at home in dryish soil in light shade. In our old neighborhood, they even spread themselves about amid beds of common orange daylilies lining old gravel driveways in the shade of mature trees.
Plant 4”-5” deep and 4”-5” apart. Scratch a bit of fertilizer into the surface soil (slow release 10-10-10 is ideal), and water well. Consider protecting with plastic netting, chicken-wire, etc., for a few weeks after planting, typically the only time pests bother these animal-resistant bulbs.
Do not mulch. Mulch is often too thick or heavy for small bulbs such as silver bells and their growth will suffer — if they emerge at all.
For best increase, after bloom allow the seedpods to ripen and scatter their seeds, and allow the foliage to yellow completely (to feed the bulbs) before removing.
Peonies are tough, undemanding perennials that can bloom happily for a century or more with little care.
Plant in early fall. Do not delay! Since peonies are planted only 1-2 inches deep, the soil around them will freeze much earlier than it will for bulbs planted 6 inches deep. If they don’t have enough time to establish new feeder roots before the ground freezes, they will struggle and could fail altogether.
Choose a sunny to lightly shaded spot with good air circulation and plenty of room for them to grow. Because they like ample water, they do best in somewhat heavier (clay) soils and away from the roots of trees and shrubs.
Peony roots and eyes (buds) are brittle, so plant carefully. Dig a generous hole and position the rootstock so the eyes face up and are no more than 1-2 inches below the surface of the soil once it’s been filled in and firmed. Shallow is best; deep planting leads to poor or no bloom. Mark the spot with a stake or peony ring to protect it. Water deeply, and maintain even soil moisture until the ground freezes to help the plant develop as many feeder roots as possible its first fall.
To protect these delicate new roots the first winter, apply a winter mulch. After the ground freezes, mound the newly planted area with 2-4 inches of soil or 5-8 inches of a fluffy, non-matting mulch such as straw, cornstalks, peat moss, or evergreen boughs — but not leaves.
In spring, be sure to remove the mulch before top-growth begins, and be careful not to injure new sprouts. Different varieties will emerge at different times, so patience is advised. Scratch a couple of tablespoons of balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 is ideal) into the soil around the plant, outside the ring of stems, as its leaves begin to unfurl. Water throughout spring and till after bloom-time, especially the first year.
Staking – Even the strongest peony stems will bow when their gloriously double flowers are drenched by rain. Most of the time, though, they’ll stand back up if you gently shake the water out immediately afterwards, so most gardeners grow their peonies au naturel.
If you want to, though, the easiest way to support them is to cut a circular wire tomato tower in half and set it over the plant, pushing the legs securely into the soil. Do it before the plant has leafed out or you’ll need a helper – or twine – to contain the foliage while you slip the support over it. Leave some foliage outside the support for a more natural-looking plant and to hide the wire which, in any case, is virtually invisible.
A better, more historic way is to insert five short stakes in a circle around the plant, weave twine back and forth to create a star, and then circle the stakes with twine. For a diagram and easy instructions, see our Supporting Peonies page
Bloom will be meager the first year as the plant pours most of its energy into establishing a strong root system. More blooms will follow the second year, and even more the third. As you cut blooms, leave as much foliage as possible to continue feeding the plant.
In the fall
when the leaves begin to turn brown, cut the stems to the ground, collect all the foliage, and throw it away instead of composting it. Though peonies are generally healthy and tough, this will help prevent diseases such as powdery mildew
, botrytis blight, and leaf blotch from getting a toehold or carrying over to the next season.
After the first spring, fertilize only sparingly. Peonies generally need little fertilizer and plants that are over-fertilized will not bloom well. If you do fertilize, keep it away from the crown of the plant where there are no feeder roots. Spread it instead 6-18 inches from the crown, work it into the soil, and water well.
Rhodophiala, Oxblood Lily
To quote our friend Greg Grant of Texas writing in Country Living Gardener, oxblood lily is “easy and adaptable [and] thrives in any type of soil, with any pH, and any exposure. Moreover, it never needs dividing, never needs extra water, and has no insect pests. Its only two requirements are a dry summer and not removing its foliage before it goes dormant naturally” in late spring.
We’ll just add that it multiplies best in loose, well-drained soil, and its blossoms last longer with light shade. Plant with the base 8-10 inches deep. Water well. Leaves will emerge soon but bulbs won’t bloom till late summer next year (or even later). Fertilize lightly after bloom — and look forward to years of carefree beauty!
Scilla, Siberian Squill
These small, handsome bulbs are surprisingly perishable when dormant. Please plant them ASAP when they arrive in October.
Siberian squill naturalizes eagerly, so choose a site where it can spread at will. Full sun is okay, but Siberian squill seems to prefer light shade and will bloom even in fairly deep shade. Ordinary garden soil is fine, as long as it’s not bone-dry, and there’s no need to fertilize.
Plant about 3” deep, about 4” apart (or closer for a lush look sooner). Water well. Consider protecting with plastic netting, chicken-wire, etc., for a few weeks after planting, typically the only time critters bother these animal-resistant little bulbs.
Do not mulch. Mulch is often too thick or heavy for small bulbs such as Siberian squill and their growth will suffer — if they emerge at all.
After the bulbs flower in early spring, allow seed heads to ripen and scatter their seeds and the foliage to yellow to feed the bulbs before removing.
Plant ASAP when bulbs arrive in October. Since Sternbergia put up leaves in the fall, prompt planting is especially important.
In their native lands, Sternbergia thrive in hot, dry conditions, often growing on rocky slopes. Choose a sunny site for them, preferably with well-drained soil (though we hear they grow fine in clay soil, too).
Plant 3-5 inches deep (shallower the further south you are), and 4-6 inches apart. Water moderately but not heavily throughout the fall, especially their first year. After that — through winter, spring, and early summer — Sternbergia do best when kept fairly dry.
Leaves appear in fall. Flowers may precede them, though you may not see any blooms their first fall as the bulbs re-establish themselves. Foliage is evergreen, so protect it with an airy mulch (straw, etc.) where winters are harsh. Allow it to yellow completely when the bulbs go dormant in late spring to feed the bulbs for future bloom.
Sternbergia do best when left undisturbed, and in the right spot will multiply over time into thick colonies.
Plant ASAP when they arrive in October. Although ours are always freshly dug, these naturally small rhizomes are never happy in storage.
Choose a site in light to half shade in the northern half of its range, or half to full shade further south. Moist but well-drained, humus-rich soil is best. Although many sources recommended acidic soil, in the wild trillium grow happily in soils that are neutral-to-alkaline, too.
Plant with pointed end up – or horizontally if that isn’t clear – about 3” deep and 9-12” apart. Consider protecting from animals with plastic netting, chicken-wire, etc., for a few weeks after planting. Water well.
Keep soil moist through fall and again in spring until blooms fade. Don’t pick leaves – and protect them from deer – because each rhizome sends up just one stem and without leaves it can’t replenish itself for the future.
As flowers fade they usually turn pinkish. A few weeks later the foliage will yellow and then wither away as this spring ephemeral goes dormant for the summer. This is normal. You may want to mark the spot to avoid damaging the rhizomes by later digging or planting.
In time and with good care, trillium multiply into ever-larger clumps – but it’s a SLOW process, so please be patient with Mother Nature.
Tulips Can Live Forever
Well, almost. Though they have a reputation for being short-lived, we know of tulips that have been blooming beautifully for decades. Here’s how to get the most out of yours.
For a start, you need to be in zone 7 or colder, or zone 8 or colder on the West Coast where winter temperatures stay cool longer. (Gardeners in warmer zones can grow tulips as annuals, but you’ll need to pre-cool or pre-chill them in the refrigerator for 8-12 weeks before planting.)
Then most important, we’ve learned from experience, is keeping them DRY in SUMMER (as in their native homes). Try this: plant a few where you never water in summer — or near a thirsty shrub or tree — and see how well they return.
Beyond that, the basics include well-drained soil (improve heavy soil, or try raised beds), lots of sun, regular fertilizing, and — this is very important —letting the foliage ripen to yellow to feed the bulbs for next year’s bloom. Some authorities recommend deep planting, especially in the South — to 12 inches — but we say 6-8 inches is plenty.
Then there’s this age-old method: dig them up every summer, store them in a cool dry spot, and replant them in the fall. You’ll end up with more bulbs every year, guaranteed.
Some varieties just last better, too — often Single Earlies, Single Lates, Lily-flowered tulips, and species.
And there’s a good reason why OLD VARIETIES OFTEN PERENNIALIZE BETTER: they were bred for gardens, not for commercial pot-flower and cut-flower uses as most modern tulips have been.
Tulips do best when planted in mid- to late fall, after the soil has thoroughly cooled. Later is better than earlier with tulips. If necessary, store in open bags in a cool, dry spot (or the refrigerator — NOT the freezer).
Neutral to slightly alkaline soil is ideal, though tulips are very adaptable. Set bulbs about 6 inches apart from center to center (or closer for a lush look). For each, scratch a tablespoon of bulb fertilizer into the surface soil (slow-release 10-10-10 is ideal). Use no manure. Water well and make sure the bulbs have reliable moisture throughout their growing period, from planting in the fall through the ripening of their foliage the following summer.
Learning From You
We want to know more about growing bulbs successfully — all over our wonderfully diverse country. Our own experience feels limited (so much gardening, so little time!), and though we’ve learned a lot from books and articles, we’ve also found that not all published advice can be relied on.
So we’d love to hear about your methods, tips, hunches, experiments, discoveries, resources, and whatever else — especially if you garden in conditions different from our mostly zone-6a, sandy-loam, Midwestern gardens. Please write, call, email, or Facebook us!