An informal rite of spring in Alexandria is the annual bulb giveaway, when city workers unearth thousands of wilting tulips, crocuses and daffodils from beds across the city and offer them to residents for replanting at home.

"Each year it's become more noticeable," said Jim Chasnovitz of the City of Alexandria Recreation Department, which manages the landscape program. "They start fading and people start wondering what we are going to do with them. This year more than ever before, people have been bird-dogging the bulbs. It's unbelievable."

The phones have been ringing regularly during recent weeks at the city's recreation department, with calls from residents wanting to know when and where they can line up for the bulb handouts. "It's kind of comical because I'm in charge but I never know where they'll be dug up at a given time," said Chasnovitz. "It seems that anything free is really coveted."

Last week, as workers used pitchforks to gently dig out hundreds of red and yellow tulips in a bed at the base of the Masonic Temple near the King Street Metro Station, passers-by stopped their cars and collected bags full of bulbs.

"She's got that 'I want some bulbs' look in her eye," said David Katz, City of Alexandria flower and shrub supervisor, spying a determined woman making her way toward the piles of discarded tulips.

Nancy Wilson, a town resident who has collected leftover bulbs at other area parks in the past, took away two bags of bloomless tulips that she said she plans to add to her garden of daffodils, peas and lettuce, among other items.

Over the next hour, four other bulb-hunters stopped by, including one who had scouted out the site by contacting the recreation department and three who happened by and took advantage of the free tulips.

Alexandria resident Beth Black had retrieved throwaway chrysanthymums from the city landscaping crews last year. As she sorted through the tulip bulbs, she said, "I think it's wonderful. It's just such a good idea to not see them go to waste."

Pat Chamberlain was planning to purchase some fall bulbs for her garden and her parents', but gathered several bags full at the public flower beds instead.

Katz, who leads the city landscaping crews that have given bulbs away for the past four spring seasons, explained that "the quality of the bloom goes down" after each season. "We can maintain a better quality display if we put in a fresh bulb every year."

The workers get a special satisfaction from recycling the flowers, however. "I'd rather see people make use of the bulbs than just discard them," Katz said. "This is their community's garden, after all."

The workers planned to finish removing bulbs from the city's approximately two dozen flower beds this week. They will then plant annuals such as geraniums, petunias, marigolds and caladium that should last through September. Mums are placed in the beds between September and the end of November each year, after which another round of bulbs goes in for blooming display during the March-to-May spring months, Katz said.