Now is the time to get bulbs in the ground

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photoRain clings and splashes away from a Verandi tulip Sunday April 4, 2010 at the eighth annual Woodland Tulip Festival at Holland America Bulb Farms in Woodland.

(/The Columbian)

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On the Web

Check local retailers and garden centers for your desired varieties or:

John Scheepers

johnscheepers.com.

The company also has a catalog for discounted large orders,

www.vanengelen.com

Brent and Becky's Bulbs

www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com.

Longfield Gardens

longfield-gardens.com.

Squirrels and Moisture and Deer! Oh, My!

Tulip bulbs can be planted until the ground freezes, but don't push your luck: Put them in as soon as you have them. If you can't plant them for a while, keep them in the fridge, not the freezer, but not near fruits and veggies.

Left in damp, warm environments, tulip bulbs will rot.

Tulips should be planted deeply, at least seven inches, to thwart squirrels from digging them up.

If you are planting many bulbs in open ground, dig a trench with a shovel. If you are setting them among existing plants, you have options. In rich, loamy soil, a sturdy trowel will be sufficient. In poorer, denser soil, one of the best tools is a long-handled bulb planter -- a steel tube on a stick -- that puts the strong leg muscles to work. Even in established beds, designer Angela Jupe likes to use a narrow spade to dig segments of trenches between the perennials. If you want scores of tulips, this is quicker than digging individual holes, she said.

Tulips should be planted three to five inches apart, with the base down and the nose up. Tulips planted in organically rich soil don't need feeding. In poorer soil, mix in a little bulb food with the soil above the tulips. Avoid letting fertilizer touch the bulbs, and don't use high-nitrogen feeds.

Tulips look great in containers: The larger the pot the better the show and the happier the tulips will be, because temperature fluctuations will be tempered. In smaller containers, use shorter varieties. Give the tulips a good soaking after planting, but make sure the pot drains freely.

To thwart squirrels, keep the pot in an unheated shed or garage until the foliage begins to emerge in mid-winter. Water it monthly. When the leaf tips show, move the container into sunlight.

Deer love to eat tulips. Repellents might work, but they typically wash off after heavy rain. If you cannot exclude deer, consider planting daffodils and alliums instead. -- The Washington Post

If someone were to hand me $300 and say, "Here, spend it on something nice for the house," I know exactly what I would do: rush out and get several hundred tulip bulbs.

Actually, I'm doing this anyway, because out of all the necessary extravagances that go with home ownership -- getting the gutters cleaned or the chimney swept, for example -- none brings more joy than an eruption of tulips in April.

The idea of forking out the money now, spending hours planting the things and waiting through the dark months for the payoff might seem a little strange. I just regard them as an annual treat and rip them out after flowering.

This compounds the lunacy, you say. Wait until April, I say. Tree blossoms provide an aerial display at that time, but tulips paint the ground and capture the enchantment of the long-awaited spring.

Besides their magic, tulips are about color and form. My favorite way to use them is to pick three or four varieties that bloom at the same time and play with color harmonies and complements. The key is to be liberal with the number of tulips you plant but conservative with the number of varieties. I plant them in blocks or broad ribbons amid clumps of perennials, then just coming into life. The scale and framing of your garden will dictate the area covered, and thus the number of bulbs, but be generous. The pros put in 12 to 15 per square foot, so a planting of 15 feet by 2 feet could easily absorb more than 350 bulbs.

If you want a show you know will work, create a mix of pastel colors -- soft and safe and elegant. Some catalogs sell mixtures. You can also make your own. One year I assembled an assortment using single-late varieties (blooming at the back end of April) of Maureen, an ivory bloom; Pink Diamond, a medium rose pink; and Menton, a bluer pink. If I were doing it again I might add Big Smile, a clear yellow, or Dordogne, rose with yellow edges.

More recently, I planted a mix of lily-flowering varieties: Ballerina, orange-tinged rose, and Triumphator, which is white. It needed a bluish tulip in the mix, something like Purple Dream, Blue Parrot or Violet Beauty.

Wild tulips

If you consider planting hundreds of tulips for a one-time show too extravagant, you can turn to wild tulips and their varieties for a display that will return year after year, as long as you plant them in full sunlight in well-drained soil and go easy on the summer irrigation of the beds where they dwell.

Wild tulips are not used in assorted blocks, as you would the large hybrids, but are presented more as low, clustered bouquets, which can repeat all the way through a bed or up a hillside. They tend to open fully on warm days, revealing star-shaped blooms with striking contrasts at the base of the inner petals.

Lauren Springer Ogden, a horticulturist and landscape designer based in Fort Collins, Colo., likes to see favored varieties planted amid the spring foliage of dry-loving, silver-leafed perennials such as lamb's ears, snow in summer or the silver sage, Salvia argentea.

One of her favorite natural tulips is Ancilla, pink on the outside but creamy white inside, with a yellow center. Fur Elise is another reliably perennial variety, a creamy yellow with a rose blush. She also rates highly the more delicate Honky-Tonk,

similar in color to Fur Elise and with pointed petals held aloft on wiry stems. She likes to combine it with a dainty, spring-flowering perennial named pasque flower.

"Most of my clients have red fear, but with tulips they're OK with red," she said. She likes Tulipa linifolia, bright red with a black base, and with narrow leaves that recede into the background after the flower fades. She also uses the slightly taller Tulipa vvedenskyi. It's "a screaming orange-red" that goes well with aubretia and creeping or moss phlox.

In her meadow gardens, she likes to use the Tulipa clusiana varieties, which are slender and pointed, tall enough to be seen and typically candy-striped. Varieties include chrysantha, Cynthia, Lady Jane and Peppermint Stick.

Containers

If you don't have the time, energy or cash for a big display, take a large, handsome container that can handle freezes and fill it with one variety of tulip. One year I planted 50 Triumphator, the white-flowering lily tulip, in a 36-inch fiberglass bowl, and it was fabulous.

However you approach it, there's only one cure for tulip fever and that's tulips.