In the Garden: Tiptoeing

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DSC01462By Charles Kidder

One of my earliest recollections of a public garden is the now-defunct Sterling Forest Gardens near Tuxedo, New York, about an hour northwest of Manhattan. When it opened in 1958, planted with one and a half million tulips, Princess Beatrix of The Netherlands came for the dedication. As a kid in my early teens, I was somewhat less thrilled than the princess might have been. The gardening bug had not yet bitten, and I can only recall being overwhelmed by a sea of tulips in blazing primary colors. Decades later, my attitude toward tulips has mellowed, although I still favor the pastels over the bolder colors.

The Netherlands is the main commercial producer of tulips, producing up to three billion bulbs per year and accounting for 87 percent of the globe’s acreage devoted to their cultivation. Small wonder that Princess Beatrix came to U.S. for that garden dedication in the Fifties.

Despite all the Dutch associations, tulips are not native to Holland. One of fifteen genera in the lily family, the approximately 75 species of wild Tulipa are native to a swath extending from the Iberian Peninsula, through the Mediterranean, and into Central Asia.

Cultivation of tulips began in Persia, probably in the tenth century. They were then spread widely by the Turks throughout their empire. (The word “tulip” may be connected to the Persian word for turban, owing to a similarity in shape.) The exact time of their arrival in northwest Europe is unknown, but Carolus Clusius planted them at the Vienna Imperial Botanic Garden in 1573. They reached their adoptive homeland in the Netherlands by 1593. Their subsequent great popularity was in part fueled by a disease, Tulip Breaking Virus.  Despite weakening the tulip’s bulb, it also caused flaming and feathering in the flowers.  These unusual and attractive effects led to wild speculation in tulip bulbs—Tulip Mania—beginning in 1634. The bubble collapsed in 1637, leading to a considerable weakening of the Dutch economy.

Tulips were recorded in the United States as early as the 1730s in Williamsburg, Virginia. I have to wonder if the Dutch didn’t bring them to New Amsterdam even earlier than that. Perhaps they were more concerned with raising edible crops and exporting beaver pelts. Later, many Dutch also settled in southwest Michigan, bringing windmills and, presumably, tulips. Today, the area around Holland, Michigan has a tulip festival, but it doesn’t appear that tulips are actually raised there currently. (And the Michigan Bulb Company is headquartered in Lawrenceburg, Indiana?!) The Skagit Valley of Washington was a major bulb raising area, but imports have taken a bite out of that enterprise.

With about 3,000 registered tulip cultivars, how do you decide which to plant? You could start by choosing among short, tall, or in-between. The teeniest tulips ring in at about 3” to 4” high; the tallest stand more than two feet. Probably the more interesting question to most gardeners is color. To boil it down, you’ve got red, yellow, white, pink, purple, and hints of green, as well as seemingly endless combinations of all these on one flower. Then there are shape variations that go beyond mere “tulip-shaped”: fringed, doubles, parrots, and lily-shaped.

Perhaps the major question to answer when buying tulips: do you want them as perennials, or are you willing to treat them as annuals? (Personally, I could not abide that much digging for something that lasts just one year, but that’s just Mr. Lazy Gardener talking.) Much of the tulip’s reputation as an iffy perennial comes from the use of complex hybrids that are not that durable, not to mention the growing conditions we typically provide. Recall the tulip’s native haunts: usually mountainous areas with good drainage, cool to cold winters with ample moisture, followed by hot, dry summers. Some of that doesn’t jibe too well with southern Piedmont clay soil and summer showers.

So, some tips to get your tulips to perennialize:

Pick the right kind, often marketed as “good for naturalizing or perennializing.” Species tulips, such as T. clusiana, T. bakeri or T. batallinii work well, as do some hybrids, namely the Emperors and the Darwins.

Plant in a well-drained area, such as a raised bed. Adding organic matter or Permatill will also help.

Plant deep, about 8” measured from the bottom of the bulb and including any mulch. For example: five inches of soil, plus three inches of mulch, equals your eight inches.

Water immediately after planting.

After the blossoms peak, clip off the flower heads, but leave the foliage to die back naturally.  Removing the flower heads will allow more energy to go into the bulb, but will be tedious if you have a lot of tulips.

Fertilize in the fall with a low-Nitrogen material such as well-rotted cow manure.  Don’t use bone meal. It will only encourage squirrels to dig up the bulbs.

And speaking of squirrels, deer and other pests….full disclosure: they will go after tulips, so employ whatever strategy that works for you. (If any!) For the bulbs themselves, some folks put hardware cloth or sharp gravel around or over them.

As for those “blazing primary colors”?  I’m okay with them sometimes, and if that’s what you like, have at it. But if you mix primaries with pastels, the soft colors lose the battle. Red and yellow blossoms combined scream, “Fast Food Restaurant!” to yours truly; putting some orange flowers between the two quiets things down a lot. And don’t be afraid to mix your tulips with other bulbs and perennials. The latter can hide the dying foliage of the bulbs.

A good place to see and buy bulbs as well as other perennials is Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, Virginia. They also offer guided tours of their gardens on Wednesdays and Saturdays beginning in the middle of March and continuing through April 16 of this year; a small fee is charged and reservations are required.

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