Bulbs are an easy way to add color to your flower garden from spring through summer, and they require very little work. Many of them are hardy in the north (growing zones 4-5). Flowers that grow from bulbs come in sizes from very small to tall and impressive landscape plants. Most bulbs are planted in the fall, and will bloom the following year, although some may be planted each year in the spring and taken up in the fall. Everything from crocuses, to daffodils, to tulips, to gladiolas, to Cana lilies, and hundreds of less well-known flowers, come from bulbs.
But how can you be sure that you are getting quality bulbs?
Buying Bulbs from Catalogs
First of all, skip the bargain catalogs. Most of these companies will sell you the smallest bulb that is legally allowed. You may get a dozen bulbs for $2, but you probably won’t see any flowers for several years. They may offer a guarantee, but if you don’t know if you get blooms for five years, you may have lost the paperwork, or just not feel like bothering to try to collect. I’ve personally tested this.
Better companies may look more expensive, but you can be sure that you are going to get top size bulbs that will give you flowers the next spring. These companies will also stand behind their products, and replace bulbs that fail to grow the very next season. I’ve personally tested this out several times, too– a much more satisfactory test than the other.
Any catalog that does not tell you the size of the bulbs you will get should be avoided. Some companies even offer regular and “jumbo” bulbs, giving you the option of paying a little more for full-size bulbs.
Buying Bulbs in Person
You might choose to buy bulbs that you can actually see, rather than take a chance on an unknown. Garden stores are an obvious source, but even discount stores, hardware stores, and other places may carry some. (But don’t expect any but common varieties of plants at these places.)
Look for bulbs that don’t have cuts or wounds. They should have substance when squeezed. If they feel like a dried onion, they are possibly not viable. A small bit of sprouting may not be cause for concern, but don’t buy any that have stem growth of a couple of inches or more. Don’t buy bulbs with soft or squishy spots.
On the other hand, sometimes you can get good bargains on less-than-perfect bulbs at the end of the planting season. If the markdown is significant enough it may be well worth taking some home to see what will survive. Waiting an extra year for flowers at less than half the price may be an acceptable tradeoff.
Trading Bulbs with Friends
This is one of the time-honored traditions of gardeners. It’s also a really good way to be sure that your plants will thrive. If someone in your county has had good success with a particular species, the chances are that you can grow the same bulbs in your garden. Some modern varieties of plants are patented, and you aren’t supposed to share them. However, most of the familiar old standards that seem to thrive and divide prolifically, making a gardener want to share, aren’t a problem. If they were patented, the time limit has probably run out.
If someone wants to give you some dried out bulbs just to get them out of their way, say “yes!” Again, they may take a couple of years to grow and bloom, but for free, why not take that chance. If there is any bit of a solid core that you can feel in the bulb, it is potentially still alive.
A good rule of thumb when looking for healthy bulbs is to think of the good old onion. Indeed, an onion is a bulb. You know what you would choose when buying a nice healthy onion and if you apply the sam principles you will get nice healthy flower bulbs.