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Spring Bulbs Will Be In Short Supply This Fall: Order Early!

By Larry Hodgson

There won’t be the usual wide choice of spring bulbs in garden centers this fall. Like last year, bulbs are going to be in short supply in the fall of 2021. 

As you might expect, this state of affairs is largely because of the current surge of popularity in gardening. I mean, everybody and their mother is now gardening, well over half of all homeowners in many areas. We’ve been told it’s because of the influence of COVID confinement: people spend more time at home and are learning to enjoy the opportunities gardening represents… and bulbs are the ideal plants for beginning gardeners: dig, drop, done!

So, if you want beautiful spring-flowering bulbs in your garden, order early. And by that I mean, right away.

Last Fall

Last summer, I became tied up with other things and finally only sent in one bulb order (I usually submit two or three). “Not a problem,” I thought, “I’ll just pick up the rest in the fall when the bulbs arrive.” My local garden center sends out notices about specials and new products, so when the notice came in that the bulbs for fall planting had arrived, I went in that very day. 

Bulb display in a garden center.
A full bulb display … before the current gardening craze. We are not likely to see this again for several years! Photo: Hippopx

I was shocked! For years, there had been 3 walls covered in bulb displays plus a number of benches and display units. This time, there was only 1 wall, 1 table and two end-of-row displays. I asked the department head what had happened. It turns out they’d sent in their usual order, but not even a third had been filled. There were just no bulbs to be had. Apparently a lot of the bulbs originally destined for the North American market had never even left Europe, having been bought up by anxious gardeners there. (The gardening boom was not just local, it was worldwide!) Only the leftovers had been shipped.

And my store’s now severely reduced bulb section was packed with people. On a Thursday! You had to line up to reach some of the bulbs. A week later, there were no bulbs left. Usually, there are plenty of bulbs to choose among from September right through October and still a decent choice into November, but not in 2020. This had never happened before. 

Honestly, I couldn’t find anything I wanted. The only bulbs available were the older varieties I already grew, plus Triumph tulips, lots of Triumph tulips… and they’re the tulips I like least, as they’re so short-lived, usually flowering only once or twice. (I prefer perennial tulips, like Darwin Hybrids, viridifloras and botanical tulips.) I finally concentrated my bulb plantings from that one mail order in the front garden, figuring to do better in 2021.

This Year

Everything indicates that the problem will repeat itself this fall. 

First of all, contrary to some expectations, the enthusiasm for gardening did not decline in 2021. The contrary happened, it increased, as we saw this spring, when garden centers, after announcing they had prepared for season by bringing in extra product, were emptied of nearly everything when sales jumped yet again, with even more people gardening then in 2020. And last year’s new gardeners increasing the size of their gardens added to the pressure.

Of course, bulb producers (most are located in Holland) know about this surge in interest, but it simply isn’t possible to boost the production of bulbs like you could, say, add more paper and ink to a printing press and print more money. Most bulbs are produced by division, something you can’t speed up, and the tiny bulbs produced take 3 to 5 years to mature to flowering size. That means it’s going to take several years before current efforts to double or triple bulb production (that’s what many producers need to do if demands are to be met!) bear fruit. At the moment, demand for bulbs simply exceeds supply … and by a lot!

What to Do?

They say the early bird gets the worms and that certainly applies to bulbs in the current situation. If you want a good choice of bulbs, order them in advance. Yes, by mail!

This may seem like a novel idea to beginning gardeners, but it’s certainly not a new concept. It is even a long-standing tradition. My dad received bulb catalogs when I was little and probably so did his dad before him. Spring bulb catalogs (formerly printed on paper, now mostly online) show up in late spring or early summer. So, it’s a matter of browsing through them, choosing your favorites and placing your order. So simple!

Hand holding tulip bulbs
Spring flowering bulbs ship very well: just pack them into a box and mail them out! Photo: iBulb

Bulbs, being dormant in the summer and without fragile leaves or roots, ship very well and will arrive at your home at the right time for planting, that is, early fall.

By ordering in advance, you can be sure you get the bulbs you want. Especially when you order online. When ordering from a paper catalog, that is, the old-fashioned way, you never know if the bulb you want is still in stock. After all, the catalog was printed months before, based on what was in stock back then. Any bulb more popular than expected could easily sell out. But most online catalogs display “sold out” as soon as the reserves of a given bulb are exhausted. So, you will know it right away if a bulb is not available and will be able to make another choice.

The Time to Order Is … Now

Essentially, it’s about 5 minutes to midnight when it comes to ordering bulbs for next spring. If you visit the websites of online bulb catalogs, you’ll already see that the “sold out” notice has sprouted here and there for certain bulbs. Over the next two weeks, it will appear more and more frequently! By September, it will be everywhere!

Where to Shop

For an eye-opening choice of bulbs, Canadian gardeners can try Fraser’s Thimble FarmsBotanusPhoenix PerennialsBreck’s or Veseys. Americans will find a wide range of choices at Brent and Becky’s Bulbs and Longfield Gardens. In the UK, try Dutch Grown and Farmer Gracy. And there are many, many more!

Have yourself a great bulb shopping spree!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

10 comments on “Spring Bulbs Will Be In Short Supply This Fall: Order Early!

  1. Margaret

    Thanks for the heads-up. I never would have thought of this on my own.

  2. I to had issues with the shortage last year so I ordered almost a month ago hoping to get what I wanted this year.

  3. This was supposed to be the year (for next year of course), but sadly, will not be. I just can not devote the effort to the garden just yet.

  4. Thank you for this timely reminder. I need to order bulbs for a garden extension and hadn’t realized it would be like purchasing seeds of summer bulbs over the past 18 months.

  5. Thanks for giving us the heads up.

  6. Pingback: Rumors are swirling that there is a bulb shortage, is there? – Laidback Gardener

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