Shut Up and Dig

How not to plant bulbs

IMG_1770

These suck. 

For the most part, I have a healthy respect for garden
tools. Every pruner I have cuts what it’s supposed to cut, every spade moves
earth the way it needs to, and I’m still using claws, rakes, and hoes that I’ve
had for years. 

There is one family of tools that makes no sense to me,
however. I became acquainted with bulb planters very early in my gardening life,
because tulips and lilies were the first plants I wanted to grow.
My initial bulb planter was a short, soft-handled metal one with jagged edges. This did a very
good job of withdrawing a rock-solid plug of earth from my planting bed. After
spending an hour or so sinking the thing in and then poking and pounding at it to make
it give up its contents, I got maybe 10 bulbs planted.

Reasoning that the small planter was too flimsy, I went for
a much heavier long-handled version of it. Same results, except now I could
stand as I pounded the thing against the nearest hard surface to get the dirt
out of it. (I do think it would make a good weapon: easy to lift and swing, but
with a good, solid clang when it connects. I'm assuming.)

IMG_1768
 Works for me. 

I soon discovered that special tools were not needed;
shovels were better. For small bulbs, a short spade can be rocked back and
forth until it makes enough space for 3-5 species tulips, and the dirt falls
right in afterwards. For a big group of large hybrids (I only plant them in big groups), a
big shovel does the job. And now I have a new tool: when the ground is filled
with roots and small stones, the CobraHead seems to be able to claw its way through anything, loosening it up so I
can spade or shovel the rest.

Sure, there are dibbles, which are nice (great name), and augers attached
to drills, which bring power into the mix, but even these special bulb tools
are designed to plant one bulb at a time. And that is something I never do any
more. They don’t look good isolated, and if you’re going to make small holes
close together, why not make one or several big holes instead? Well?

I’m guessing no one will be sending me any bulb planters
now, and that’s fine. But I would be interested in what the bulb-planters among you think. 

Posted by on October 27, 2009 at 4:48 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.
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34 responses to “How not to plant bulbs”

  1. I, too, have one of those hand held bulb planters. I think that is one of those tools you have to buy when you’re starting out that you quickly become embarrassed to admit you bought when you realize there’s a better way to plant bulbs. I planted around 250 bulbs this fall and a shovel was the tool of choice. I can’t image planting bulbs individually (except for my forcing hyacinths). Instead of digging 250 holes I dug between 15 and 20 and the bulbs will form loose groupings instead of tulip, space, tulip, space, tulip.

  2. susan harris says:

    Same experience here. Getting the dirt OUT of the tubular bulb planter is a ridiculous task to have to perform, and solely because of bad tool design. Also, rocks? Can’t handle ’em. They DO work fine in pure compost, though, but what doesn’t?
    Since you turned me on to the radical notion of planting many bulbs in one hole I’ve been liberated from those gawdawful tools and now happily use my favorite shovel. Thanks, E!

  3. Katie says:

    A shovel or hoe for bulb planting, period!!

  4. Tibs says:

    One year I used the short bulb planter for about 200 bulbs. It was a newly made bed, the soil was pliable, so it worked fairly well. But….I got what I called Bulb Elbow. Same thing as Tennis Elbow. Over use of tendons or what ever by the repetitive jam, twist movement. Had to wear some stupid strap around my fore arm for a while. Shovel, or a good sharp long trowel if you are working in an already packed bed and are just tucking bulbs hear and there.

  5. I just planted a thousand bulbs, 800 tulips and 200 daffodils for a client in existing perennial flower beds. My tool of choice was a bulb auger on an electric power drill. I am trying to cover a lot of ground and create sweeps of bloom so the one hole lots of bulbs doesn’t work in this case. I did use a shovel in the Creeping Jenny and a hand trowel in the unknown Euphorbia grouncovers because the drill would have just wrapped those plants up into a big wad.

    The surprising thing is that in all those drilled holes I only hit other bulbs maybe six times and I know for a fact that the ground is soaked with bulbs. I have planted them in the same locations three falls in a row.

  6. commonweeder says:

    Forget the bulb planters. I not only couldn’t get the dirt out of the thing, I always wrecked the handle in very short order. I, too, tried a less flimsy model, but same result. A shovel is my preferred tool. I also just open up a slice of ground and slip in the little bulbs that are planted in my lawn.

  7. JWLW says:

    HI Elizabeth: go to Brent & Beckys and check out item #48-0110 Bulb Planter. Bulb Planter for Unprepared Soil, works great. I have found other uses for it also.
    http://www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com/spring/productview/?sku=48-0110

    John

  8. marlene says:

    I concur on the bulb planters; they are all but useless! I use a garden spade as well and usually plant 3 to 5 bulbs per hole. I’ve had great results combining early and mid season or mid and late season daffodils together.

    For the really small bulbs like scilla or drumstick alliums, my husband had a length of rebar with a handle on top. It’s very easy to jam this in the soil, rock it back and forth once, drop in the bulb and then cover it with soil. This works well when you’re scattering these bulbs throughout a large bed.

  9. Michele Owens says:

    For almost every gardening task…shovel.

  10. TC says:

    I think some find bulb planters like the one you’re giving down the road quite handy. Perhaps it has a lot to do with personal choice, and how many bulbs you’ll be planting.

  11. Lzyjo says:

    LOL! I have the same experience. I shovel and/or trowel works for me! Have you seen those ad that the late Billy Mays did for the weed aug, when when drill into fluffed up mulch to plant bulbs??!! The most basic tools usually do the job.

  12. Nell Jean says:

    I use a post hole digger. I make a big hole at the right depth, drop in three to five or more bulbs depending on size and shove the soil back in.

    It’s also possible to place many bulbs atop well prepared soil and cover them with several inches of topsoil/compost to make a slightly raised bed.

    Old ladies with bad backs improvise a lot.

  13. Donalyn says:

    I’m really lazy – I typically plant bulbs around the margins of perennials I am planting already. This serves two purposes – I get double duty for my work, and I have a perfectly logical explanation for the plants that have been sitting in pots since I bought them in June. I frantically work in October to get them in the ground, because I was “waiting” for the bulbs to come. Not because I’m lazy, disorganized and procrastinatish. It is for the bulbs. Regardless, I use a shovel and or trowel. A big, hefty screwdriver works for little stuff like crocus.

  14. I’m a minimalist when it comes to tools: a good shovel, a hand trowel, pruners, and that’s all I’ve needed for virtually any gardening task. Though I like Christopher’s electric drill! That could do the trick! (and all my neighbors would think I’d gone insane… wait, they already think that.)

  15. For quite a while, I thought it was just me, or just my soil. I used to shove the soil back out of the bulb planter with a dandelion weeder. Then I realized the futility of it. I don’t plant large groups of bulbs because I tuck them between plants, so the big hole method isn’t for me. Instead, I mostly use a hori-hori knife. This year I’m going to try my new spade/hoe thingy from Smith & Hawken.

  16. gardenmentor says:

    Bulb planters should be called groundcover dividers instead. They do any okay job of taking a cookie cutter 4″ pot size division of a spreading groundcover like (say) thyme.

    But, I wouldn’t go out and buy one for the purpose. Just use a shovel and favorite hand-tool instead.

  17. Kassie Schwan says:

    Over many years, I plant more and more daffs in a field that grows tall through the summer. In spring, the show is very nice. But the ground is hard clay. I use a mattock! I whale it into the ground, remove the divot, stick in a couple bulbs, and return the divot, and stomp on it. Not at all elegant, but it works.

  18. Thank you for having the courage to disparage those darn bulb planters. They are dumb. I prefer the husband-powered auger/drill method with me following along daintily dropping bulbs behind him.

  19. And here I thought I was the only one who hated those things. As for me, it’s either a shovel or a good long trowel.

  20. I remember when I was a hort. intern that we received 10,000 tulip bulbs for one exhibition planting area.
    The head gardener came in holding one of those hand held bulb planters and I just about lost it.
    Thankfully it was just a joke and we used a shovel.
    The only thing those hand held bulb planters are good for are cutting out equal portions of clay in the ceramic lab.

  21. donna says:

    Yup. My garden tools these days consist of a shovel, a hand trowel, a hori hori knife, and a good pair of clippers.

  22. MiSchelle says:

    Put one more on the rolls for the drill auger. I am in love with that tool! I borrowed one from a friend the year I had 800 bulbs to plant – took me a little over half an hour. The next half hour was spent online tracking one down for my own shed. It’s great for breaking up soil, cranking out dandelion roots, planting annuals and 4″ perennials – so many uses I finally dedicated a power drill to its use.

  23. Kristen says:

    The drill auger is my vote, absolutely – especially when planting hundreds of bulbs. Since it’s a ‘power tool’, my husband was even willing to help plant. Getting him to stop making holes everywhere was the only problem…

  24. I’ve also used a drill to plant bulbs, specifically crocuses in my lawn, though I couldn’t find a an auger, so I used a flat ‘spade bit’. Other than wearing it out after a few hundred bulbs, it worked great.

  25. i’ve planted over 3000 bulbs in the last few weeks and a bulb planter hasn’t been used for any of them (although I do have two languishing in the shed) – i dig the soil over first then use a pointed transplanting trowel to move the soil aside so they can be popped in and pushed down with fingers

  26. I use a dibble for the Crocus Bank because I don’t want a lot of broken up soil washing away. If I had gotten a hori hori knife first I’m sure I would have used that. For large swaths of daffodils I use a mattock. No, wait. I have one of my sons use the mattock, making wide trenches. I have never used a bulb planter, but I am wondering if the augers work as well in pasture sod as they do in garden beds.

  27. dirtchick says:

    If you do the big hole planting method..what happens after they die back? You’ve got a big empty space? Or do you have perennials that come up and branch over them.

  28. I think one of the biggest reasons I don’t plant bulbs is cause the first year I bought some, It came with a short handled variety that you feature above. It was awful. It’s been 30 yeas since and I’ve maybe planted 10 bulbs. Now I just got a Cobrahead and I’ve taken that thing out to test drive every weekend.

  29. Eliz says:

    Dirtchick: I pull those bulbs out of there and put in a big colocasia and other summer annuals. I think others would have such perennials as daylilies planted over or among the bulbs. But as I’ve commented, I don’t regard hybrid tulips as perennials, so see no reason to leave them to die back.

  30. MiSchelle says:

    Kathy/CCC – My yard was formerly used as a parking area, which is why my friend loaned me the auger – just to see how much abuse it could take. It passed the test using a “corded” drill. I don’t think cordless would hack it in difficult soil, so if you’re using it more than 100′ from a power source you may have a problem…

  31. MiSchelle says:

    And it does do well in sod, but not viney weeds. They wrap around the bit.

  32. I always use a variety of weapons. The soil type really determines which works the best.

    I didn’t see a irrigation or trenching shovel on your list. It is a sturdy big type shovel with a width of 2 inches up to about 6 inches. It can be a very effective tool.

  33. Jennifer says:

    I’ve completely eliminated the need to dig by making raised beds with a cardboard base. The cardboard sits directly on top of the existing soil/grass, followed by a layer of compost/soil, bulbs, more compost/soil and then mulch.

    I have never had any luck with “bulb planters” because the soil here is heavy clay. The only thing I will dig a hole for is a larger potted plant, a tree or a shrub. Depending on what time of year it is, even that is back-breaking labor.

  34. tom says:

    I have problems with arranging the bulbs; so have made large beds by removing the soil, set the bulbs and then covered. This also affords a chance to add whatever(compost/cottonseed meal/greensand) and even some squirrel proofing mesh. Since our move, we only have success with daffodils due to deer.

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