Bulb story

red tulips with Hakonechloa ‘All Gold’

Once upon a time, there was a very earnest young gardener who imagined a field of tulips, ‘Red Emperor’ of course. She bought a big bag at the local store, came home, gathered her gardening bucket, her special bulb transplanter and gloves. Going outside, she dug holes at least three times as deep as the bulbs and then ever so gently placed the precious tulips in the ground. She heard a chattering in the trees above her, but, in a zen of planting pleasure, she ignored it. Five hundred red bulbs later and covered in dirt, she came inside, promptly ordered pizza for the kids and collapsed.

The next spring, she waited in anticipation for her red carpeted masterpiece . . . and got . . . nearly . . . nothing. Between the squirrels, moles and voles, her tulips became a winter smorgasbord. Some naturalists might find this story poetic justice, but the gardener wept and shook her trowel in the air in frustration.

Fast forward ten or fifteen years. Did she give up? No. She just learned to be more efficient in planting and to love bulbs other than tulips. Tulips are great, but they are like hard candy to the furry terrorists who live in my red dirt haven. So, now, I either take precautions surrounding them with chicken wire, or I plant them in a ring of Narcissus, that wonderful poisonous bulb no one wants to eat.

As for the squirrels, well . . . three furry predators, including one irascible pup, keep them at bay. In fact, I’ve seen nary a squirrel in my garden this fall. I can’t wait to see how the bird feeders fare.


I’ve also learned not to take myself so seriously. Thousands of bulbs later, I know not to worry so much about how the bulbs are planted, and I’ve expanded my repertoire beyond only the earliest blooming red tulips (although I still love them) to other beauties. A few new ones I’m trying this season are:

  • Hyacinthoides hispanica ‘Queen of Pinks’ which I planted next to the blue Phlox divaricata and beneath a couple of roses. This bulb is an heirloom from 1944, and I’ve found I’ve become more interested in heirlooms in the time I’ve gardened.
  • Muscari Plumosum, feather hyacinth, which is an heirloom grape hyacinth good for naturalizing. Anything good for naturalizing has a better chance growing in Oklahoma.
  • The lily flowered Tulipa ‘Maytime’, which I’ve grown before and loved. This year, I am planting it with Tulipa ‘Red Riding Hood’, a Greigii tulip which blooms mid-spring. They may end up not blooming at the same time because ‘Maytime’ is a late spring bloomer. We’ll just have to see.
  • Leucojum aestivum, summer snowflake. Leslie introduced me to these lovelies last year, and she’ll laugh when she hears I bought more. I just want to see them all over my garden. Unfortunately, while I was planting, my bag of summer snowflakes went missing. I’ll find it I hope.
  • Last year, I fell in love with Hyacinthus orientalis, commonly called chestnut flower. I love the little double blooms. They should be forced or planted near a doorway to catch their fabulous scent.

    Byzantine glads
  • Narcissus ‘Aspasia’ is one of the few daffodils I bought because I have so many already. This is one of those purchases where when I found it I thought, “Huh?” However, it is an heirloom and extremely fragrant so maybe that’s why it found a place in my cart.
  • Not so happy with some of my previous crocus adventures since they don’t seem to want to return and increase year after year (probably due to our not-so-cold winters), I’m trying a couple of cultivars of Crocus tommasinianus, ‘Ruby Giant’ and ‘Barr’s Purple.’ We shall see.
  • Cindy sent me some Zephyranthes candida, white rain lilies, and I’ve put them wherever I found well-drained soil. They bloom in fall.
  • After reading Elizabeth Lawrence’s book, The Little Bulbs: A Tale of Two Gardens, I thought I could again grow crocus if only I could find a variety which likes it here, hence the tommies. ‘Snow Bunting’ is one Lawrence particularly liked for its early bloom. When I opened the package, the pearly bulbs fairly jumped into my hands and begged to be placed in the soil for their tips had already sprouted. For pure winter pleasure reading, I don’t think you can beat any of Lawrence’s books. They are as fresh and timeless as anything being written today.
  • Fire engine red Rhodophiala bifida, school house lilies or hurricane lilies were ones I want to cultivate, so I planted about fifteen of them this fall.
  • Curtiss Ann sent me more byzantine glads for my garden. I promptly planted those. I love their color and delicate form.

As you can see, there are so many bulbs to plant, and there are just about as many ways to put them in the ground. You may have read some scholarly garden articles with step-by-step instructions. As I became a more confident gardener, I quit trying so hard when planting bulbs or other plants for that matter. Here’s how I go about planting my bulbs.

Double white hyacinths last spring

There are three main things to consider, decent soil with humus, bulb pointy side up (or sideways if you can’t tell with some of the more unusual bulbs) and planted three times as deep as the size of the bulb. It’s that easy.

What isn’t easy is digging the holes. There is the stab method where you take your trowel or garden knife and stab into the soil. You hold the soil back and plunk the bulb in. Then, you let go of the soil and pat it back in. That works well for the smaller bulbs.

Another method is to dig a large round hole and place the bulbs pointy side up. You can plant several diverse bulbs together within the same space if they are about the same size. If one is larger like a daffodil, you might want to plant it deeper placing some of the soil over it and then plant the smaller bulbs closer to the top of the soil. ‘Snow Bunting’ doesn’t need to be planted very deep as it is very small.

I once fed my bulbs as I planted, but unfortunately, the organic foods like bone meal made my dogs become bulb marauders. Also, bulbs don’t need much food because their food is contained within the bulb. Over time, I found it didn’t make much difference if I fed them or not.

This fall, on top of my bulbs, I’ve planted ‘Imperial Antique Shades’ pansies and a variety of blue violas. I’m hoping for a big show. Let’s all come back in spring and see, shall we?


  1. Linda Vater says:

    Dee, I think all of your squirrels came to pester ME. A wonderful list of bulbs, and that planting then collapse technique is the one I usually use! No doubt due to our hard Oklahoma red clay!

  2. Hi, Dee! I can’t imagine just starting out bulb planting with so many bulbs! Wow! And the disappointment must, indeed, have been devastating. I would have cried, too. Squirrels are in abundance here so I don’t give them any extra reason to be here. They already have two walnut trees here to tempt them. But I enjoy yours at the distance!

  3. gardenercaleb says:

    This is the first fall that I haven’t planted any new bulbs at home. Unfortunately, I’m not there at the right time to see the thousands that I’ve already planted when they bloom. College sucks for gardeners…

  4. I feel your pain about the 500 bulbs that were just back-breaking experience. But great for rallying! I’m always experimenting, since here, it can be the hot/wet/clay soil that dooms them. I too, have become less intense about how I plant. I don’t even bother going three inches in our soil. Thanks for encouraging others to experiment with bulbs: they are just such a surprise treat!

  5. Dear Dee, You are a great storyteller! I planted tulips one year and got a good show which the deer promptly depleted! So I stick to daffodils, crocuses, and grape hyacinths. I look forward to seeing your spring photographs! Pam x
    PS A very informative post. Thank you.

  6. Rose says:

    I love to try new spring bulbs, but I keep coming back to tulips and daffodils, because they always do the best for me. I have the most trouble with the smaller bulbs for some reason; whether it’s squirrels or even my cats, they often don’t come up. But I did plant some Byzantine glads after seeing your photos of them here–thanks for the suggestion, Dee! The best part of spring is seeing all these bulbs come up; it makes all the hard work of digging in the fall worth it.

  7. homeclynn says:

    Now I know what happened to all those tulips. Your post was just in time for my fall planting. I added narcissus around my 60 bulbs, hope it works.

  8. A great story, Dee! I laughed out loud.

    Nothing like that has ever happened to me, of course. 😉

  9. Donna says:

    I like the story aspect of the post. It was very entertaining and cutely written. I, myself, dig the big hole. When digging individual holes, the squirrels wait anxiously. I also like massing the bulbs in groupings, and like you, layer to extend the bulb season.

    I tried the wire and they figured it out like every birdfeeder purchased. My method learned, like yours of a thousand bulbs, is I plant them deeper than three times. They may not flower as specified in the correct time of the spring, but they will flower a little later. The next year, they revert to schedule.

    Why this seems to work, is the squirrels, being little neurotic rodents with OCD, they are too much in a hurry or just plain lazy to dig a little deeper. I see hundreds of holes, but the bulbs are tucked safely below.

    I hope you have them tricked this year, I do love Red Emperor.

  10. Well Dee dear,

    I just loved this story and could see you shaking your trowel to the heavens.

    I adore Elizabeth Lawrence’s writings. I especially loved her involvement in the Market Bulletins. Talk about gardener to gardener, no frills, no fakes.

    Love you,

    Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

  11. Donna says:

    This is the first I have heard of dogs digging the bulbs due to bone meal, but it really makes sense. But, when I have used bonemeal, it helped keep the squirrels away, or so I attributed it to helping.

  12. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Just reading all the descriptions of the marvelous bulbs you have planted gets me excited. However i am a hands on shopper. If it isn’t around here I usually don’t plant it. I need a plant shopper sort of like a personal shopper. I can’t wait to see your harvest. i will wish I went ahead and ordered some.

  13. Carol says:

    Yes, I will definitely be back to see your big spring flowering show, brought to you by all those bulbs. That’s great advice on planting and caring for them. Great advice.

  14. Helen says:

    Oh dear I’m hoping the squirrels dont come across my tulip bulbs but I have some others in pots ready to go out where there are gaps – this sounds organised but actually I ordered so many I couldnt work out where to put them!!

  15. The furry terrorists have been too much for me this fall. I’m not planting anything else & I wonder if any of the bulbs I planted this fall will be blooming next spring.

  16. Pam/Digging says:

    What a spring show you’ll have! And don’t forget the lovely fall bulbs for the South, like oxblood lily and spider lily. I finally got around to planting a handful of daffodils in the front garden since the deer won’t find them tasty. I find I have too many woody perennials and shrubs, though, to have room for a big display of bulbs.

  17. Great list of bulbs Dee and very informative. So far, the squirrels and not found the bulbs I’ve planted in pots….but the day ain’t over yet!

  18. VW says:

    I have Barr’s purple crocus and love them. With snow in the forecast for the day after tomorrow, we don’t have your problem with a lack of winter chill 🙂 As you have already, I’m discovering some of the other bulbs besides tulips and daffodils, and it’s lots of fun. Though those red tulips are stunning next to the yellow grass!

  19. ilona says:

    I think the greatest, almost hidden, advice in your garden story is to keep on trying. A gardener never knows if the weather, or the conditions, or the varmints are a bane or boon until the season tells us what it wants us to learn. Along the way are the joyful triumphs and the disappointments you have shared here. Your hyacinths are so pure – they almost sing 😉 Love that picture.

  20. Boy I can relate to the first tulip story. I never saw the 150 species tulips I planted last fall. And I should have known to take steps to prevent it, like plant the bulbs in grit, because I could see the tunnels as I was planting. Did you ever consider that varmints eat your crocus bulbs as well? The “tommies” are supposed to be the least appealing to them.

  21. So glad you are able to plant and enjoy bulbs in your garden after all. But what a disappointment it must have been that almost no pretty red tulips showed up after all that hard work. I feed my tulips with an organic fertilizer (dried chicken or cow dung pellets) as soon as they stick their noses thru the earth.

  22. We rarely see a squirrel here so I haven’t had to worry about bulbs being stolen. I like daffodils a lot so maybe just having so many of them keeps the squirrels out. I do the stab method a lot when I plant bulbs. For the larger bulbs, I use my sharp shooter instead of a trowel. It’s more of a stomp method since it involves using a foot to get it in the ground.

  23. Cindy, MCOK says:

    I’ll look forward to seeing the show in the spring! I think the rain lilies I sent were pink, those are the ones that bloom the best for me. I do love the Byzantine Glads. I have them in the back gardens but I don’t think I marked the spots … uh oh!

  24. Frances says:

    Hi Dee, what a delightful and informative post. Your bulb experience will help others just starting the road of bulbdom as well as those who have planted a few already. One thing is certain, more is never enough! We had the same experience with the bulb food and/or bone meal, it attracts varmints and the bulbs don’t need it. I love those glads, they do well here too.


  25. gail says:

    Dear Dee, Your list of bulbs is wonderful~I am crazy about Leucojum~I think they are a great substitute for Galanthus in a warmer garden. Those pesky squirrels, voles and chipmunks (here). They have been eating at our garden buffet long enough! I covered all my tasty bulbs with chicken wire and planted Tommies. Like you I’ve never added ‘food’ for the bulbs~especially the little bulbs. Speaking of the little bulbs~Elizabeth Lawrence’s ‘The Little Bulbs’ is possibly my favorite of her books. I will probably reread it this winter and wish I had ordered more bulbs! Love the Byzantine glads and might have to order them quickly! xxgail

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