Image by daneen_vol via FlickrAs the curtain of winter lifts, tulips are one of the first flowers to take the spring stage. As the last drifts of snow seep into the soil, these bright signs of spring dance in the sunlight. However, you don’t have to wait for spring to grow tulips. Whether it lies in a bed, under a shrub, in the crevices of a rock garden or in a container, a tulip bulb is an underground flower factory just waiting to “spring up” from whatever soil it occupies.
The whole purpose of a tulip bulb is to flower. In fact, in the center of each bulb, tiny leaves cradle a baby bud. The white, onion-like bulb that surrounds the bud stores all the nutrients that the bud needs to sprout and grow. The only real help the tulip needs to grow is a generous drink of water and some soil to keep it moist.
When selecting bulbs, a simple rule of thumb is that the bigger the bulb, the bigger the flower. Choose plump bulbs that are firm and heavy for their size. Although the tunic (outer papery skin) need not be intact, avoid bulbs that are withered, overly dry, scarred, and have traces of mold, soft spots, or other blemishes. However, more difficult than selecting bulbs is first choosing from the over 100 varieties of tulips which are divided into 15 divisions. Careful selection from different divisions can help you plan a tulip garden that begins in early spring and dances on through the end of May!
1. Single Early
Short-stemmed tulips (usually about 8-inches high) that flower in late March and early April.
2. Double Early
A profusion of petals on 12 to 15 inch stems makes an attractive display when these bulbs are forced indoors. Although they usually bloom from early to mid-April, they are more delicate than some other cultivars and need protection from cold and inclement weather.
A standard since 1923 when they were named by Dutch breeder, N. Zandbergen, these tulips take the throne at the end of April as they tower to 18 inches high.
4. Darwin Hybrids
One of the tallest garden tulips (usually over 2-feet tall) these red and yellow beauties are perfect for naturalizing and are those you generally see returning in established gardens May after May.
5. Single Late
Originally known as Cottage tulips, these hybrids inter-mingled and successfully merged with Darwin hybrids. Like the Darwins, they grow well over 2-feet tall and bloom in May.
Another May-flowering tulip, this group was originally grouped with Cottage tulips but was reclassified in 1958. On stems that grow from 1 ½ to 2-feet tall, long, shapely flowers have pointed petals that most closely resemble native Turkish tulips and boast the first scented tulip, the Ballerina, in their troupe.
A short (12 to 18 inches) but showy group of tulips that brightens the May garden with ruffles that either mirror or add a contrasting color to the rest of the bloom.
May blooms with a flash of green streaked through their petals, this group of tulips varies from one to two-feet tall.
Once highly prized by gardeners, today these tulips are nearly obsolete. Although streaked with beautiful breaks and stripes of artistic color, it was discovered that this palette was created by a virus that could spread to other tulip cultivars. Although some suppliers still offer the Rembrandt, these tulips are no longer commercially grown and advertised types are generally no relation to the true Rembrandt cultivars.
A riot of petals that curl in all directions, these blooms look like they could use some preening. However, they aren’t named for their resemblance to feathers, but rather for the bud that resembles a parrot’s beak. A few of these May-blooming cultivars are scented. They generally grow from 16 to 24 inches tall.
11. Double Late (Peony Flowered)
Although less resistant to poor weather, peony flowered cultivars are another excellent choice for container tulip growing. From mid to late May, these tall (1 ½ to 2-feet) blooms bear a profusion of petals in close resemblance to their namesake.
If you have difficulty in pronouncing the name of this group, you can also call its cultivars ‘water lily tulips’. Opening flat under the mid-March sun, the foliage of these flowers is characterized by deep purple or brown blotches. Shorter than some other cultivars, the Kaufmanniana is only 6 to 12 inches high.
Greigii crossed with Kaufmanniana “fostered” this division. From 8 to 18 inches tall, these tulips add drama to the April garden with foliage that ranges from grey-green to glossy green.
Another short (8 to 12 inches) addition to the early spring garden (late March to early April), striking wavy edged foliage provides a perfect backdrop for an eruption of upright blooms that stand amidst a frame of flared-out petals.
The last and the least? This group is truly the dwarf (4 to 12 inches) of the tulip family. However, they’re easy to naturalize and their cheery blooms repeat year after year anytime from March to May, some varieties even seeding themselves freely! They are definite proof that good things come in small packages!
Planting the tulip Bulbs
Although grown in Holland since the late 16th Century, tulips are native to the mountains of Turkey. There, the winters are cold, the spring rains are plentiful and they have cold winters, plenty of water in the spring, and the rest of the year is well… hot! Tulips need the warmth of summer sun to ripen next year’s flower buds. However, they need the cold of winter to rest for their lively emergence in spring.
Generally, unplanted bulbs are difficult to keep over winter. Once evening temperatures dip to 50F, it’s time to put them in the ground. Fall is also the best time to nourish your tulips. Before you begin planting bulbs, work nutrient rich compost through your soil. Although bulbs will grow in nearly any type of soil, the richer your soil is, the bigger your bulb lift will be next summer. Good drainage is another crucial factor in keeping bulbs healthy.
Plant bulbs two to three times their height. For compact displays, plant them closely together, but not touching. The root side of a bulb is the more rounded side; the pointed side is the part that will open and sprout foliage and flower.
Container Tulip Tips
Choose container size according to the height of your cultivar and the density of your bulb planting. Plant bulbs the same as you would garden grown-tulips, making sure there is at least ½ inch of soil below the planting.
Plant tulips for indoor forcing in September and October. Place pots in a cool garden spot (outdoors) and cover them with an inch of clean soil. When top growth is about ½ -inch to 1-inch, transfer them indoors to a darkened area with a maximum temperature of 60F. Let the stems lengthen for about three weeks and return them to a lighted area with a slightly higher temperature.
Use fresh soil-based potting mixtures only. Peat based mixtures may burn the roots of your bulbs and soil less mixtures dry too quickly.
If putting containers outdoors, protect them from severe frosts particularly when combined with penetrating winds. Store them in a cool area like your garage or wrap with sacking or straw and cover them with plastic bags until the weather is more tulip-friendly.
It is essential to keep tulip containers sufficiently watered. Unlike garden grown plants, those in containers cannot seek for water deeper within their environment. Dry pots result in stunted and shriveled flower heads.
When tulips are done flowering, either snip the stem or deadhead the bloom. However, let the leaves die naturally. This is the time the bulb absorbs the nutrients it needs for next year’s growth. When the foliage becomes discolored, remove it to prevent “tulip fire”, which can poison your soil. This is also a good time to lift any tulip bulbs that you want to remove from your garden.
Lifting bulbs isn’t any more complex than digging them out of the ground or dumping them out of the pot. Usually each bloom produces one good-sized bulb and two smaller offshoots that can be discarded. Allow lifted bulbs to dry naturally. Then store them somewhere cool in an airy container (net produce bags and burlap bags work well) to provide good circulation until next planting time.
When tulips produce foliage but no flowers, the most probable cause is damage caused by slugs or snails. Although liquid slug killers are available from most garden centers, most of them are toxic to beneficial organisms and insects in your garden as well as your pets and your family. The easiest way to deter slugs from invading your tulips is to create a barrier of lava rock or diatomaceous earth around your tulips. Both have sharp edges that kill invading pests by cutting into their skin and causing them to dry up. Another effective way to control slugs is with beer traps. Partially filled cans buried up to the lip will attract and drown slugs.
Linda is an enthusiastic gardener, researcher and author of http://www.gardening-guides.com
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