In buying bulbs do not get any that are soft. I recently planted a soft daffodil bulb (though knowing better) and the best I can hope for is that it will simply rot quietly and not bother anything near it.
It is hard to discard a bulb of something new or rare or costly, and sometimes that bulb will sprout in spite of all, and in a year or two make a good sound bulb, but this is rare, and if you do propose to try to rescue such a bulb, then plant it in a sort of hospital bed, away from the others.
Once I had some soft bulbs (they developed miseries over the summer after I dug them in late June) that were hopeless, and, shame to say, I tossed them aside on top of the ground. They bloomed the next spring, the bulbs still above ground and the poor roots making contortions to get to the earth. Shocking.
But back to the store. Virtually all bulbs offered will be hard as rocks, which is what you want. The larger the bulb the better, within reason, and keeping in mind that a heavy bulb is better than a light one, never mind the size.
Nowadays bulbs are often sold from open boxes set on their sides to form a bin. When you select bulbs, put them instantly in one of those paper or plastic bags provided; otherwise you will forget which is which by the time you get them home. I speak now only to the slobs among us: Damn it, do not take bulbs out of one bin and willy-nilly put them back in a different bin because you have changed your mind and forgot where the first ones came from.
There were years, I noticed, in which the stores were full of unsold bulbs at the end of the season, but this rarely happens nowadays. Dealers have learned not to order more from the wholesalers than they are likely to sell, and however sensible that is, it means they now often sell out. So don't wait till the last minute.
How sad it is that we can go right through our gardening lives without trying new things. How many years does the gardener see Allium moly listed in catalogues, or sitting in a bin at the store, without anything registering?
Many of the lesser bulbs (lesser in the sense they are not as widely grown as daffodils and tulips and hyacinths) are inexpensive. Every year try a handful of new ones.
When I was a youth I ordered a few bulbs of what was then called Tritelia uniflora violacea, though it didn't look like much in the picture and I didn't know anybody growing it. Imagine my reward when it turned out the thing grew like a weed, flowering with the late or midseason daffodils, and shaping itself into the most exciting soft green hummocks of leaves solidly starred over with quite fragrant blue stars the size of a quarter for several weeks. (It is cometimes called Milla or Ipheion or Brodieaea, the last being correct, I think).
A group of bulbs not as neglected now as formerly are the wild tulips. The most wonderful ones to me are Tulipa clusiana, with small white and cherry blooms on stems about 14 inches high, and T. chrysantha, with yellow and soft red flowers smaller and shorter. There are at least a dozen kinds to be found in garden centers now, and more to be found in bulb catalogues.
I never see the bulbs at a store without a fierce itch to take them all home and plant them. Some of them have tufts of fur inside their glossy jackets, and the wild tulips in general are surprisingly heavy when you pick them up, though always small. They are not bulbs to be planted by the hundred for a great show; they are most delightful in patches of six, tucked in here and there in sunny places.
Crocuses are a high pleasure. They are relatively permanent; some of them seed themselves about in a modest way, which is not surprising since the bees have fits over them. About 12 years ago I planted crocuses in batches of 25 in little drifts, taking endless care and time over their selection. Now they are surprisingly jumbled up. Some have seeded and come up where I never planted them; others have died out here and there. And I suspect squirrels, who are busy planting acorns everywhere, have distributed the bulbs gradually in their excavations.
Squirrels are blamed for a lot. People always tell me the squirrels eat all their bulbs. Well, they don't eat mine. One winter morning we had 19 squirrels sitting outside the kitchen door, an extraordinary sight -- they looked like an army. We were late feeding them that morning. I mention this to show we have God's own plenty of squirrels, but they do not seem to eat the bulbs or do any damage to speak of. I believe it was one individual that used to slice off the blooming stems of the Exbury and Ilam azaleas just before they flowered. At the time this incensed me, but as it turned out I didn't like the azaleas very much anyway and no longer grow them. Squirrels never bother the evergreen azaleas with me. I confess I think they do eat anemones, because I have seen them in the act.
I planted some wild Anemone blanda, in several color forms of which the blue is prettiest. They seeded themselves around and I had rather a lot of them, but then they started disappearing. The ones I have left still grow vigorously, so it's not the case that conditions have gradually become unsuitable. I think it really is the squirrels. On the other hand I like squirrels as much as anemones so things even out. We have more black ones than formerly (squirrels) but I never see white ones. I always thought it would be good to have black and white squirrels together, racing about the place, but in gardens where they have white ones (they are pale gray-cream, not really white) they tell me they never get black ones. Most squirrels are the plain gray (or red, as people often miscall them) squirrel, though the black variants seem to me to be increasing.
When lighting the fireplace for the first time in the fall, I always light a small piece of paper and hold it in the chimney first. It makes a bit of smoke. If I do not hear great commotion, I light a whole sheet of newspaper and wait a minute, and if nothing happens then I lay and light the fire. If you go blundering about without these preliminaries you may face the horror of burned squirrels or birds coming down, and it seems to me if one is a human and has all these newfangled and unnatural inventions like fireplaces to play with, then the least he can do is use them in ways that do not inconvenience the native animals.
Scilla sibirica, to get back, is a flower that has never cared much for me, though there is a small patch about 15 years old in one place. I plant them off and on over the years, but I think they like more sun than they get, and more open windswept places. That electric gentian blue of their flowers is marvelous. They do not like soggy blankets of oak leaves over them, that much I am aware of, and I make a point of getting it off them in spring, though usually not before the poor scillas, their leaves ivory white, have been struggling for some time. It may be why they do not like me all that much.