Tiptoe Through the Tulips

Tulips are one of the most popular flowers both to plant in the garden — to cut and give as a bouquet for a special occasion or arrange for a dinner table centerpiece.

By Mary T. Dial, The Itinerant Gardener

Robert Clark Photography styling by Mary T. Dial

Tulips are one of the most popular flowers both to plant in the garden to cut and give as a bouquet for a special occasion or arrange for a dinner table centerpiece. While they were cultivated as early as 1000 A.D., the fervor for tulips continues today. Original tulip bulbs were cultivated and traded by Turkish gardeners of the Ottoman Empire. “Tulipmania” began in the 17th century mostly in Holland but in other parts of Europe as well. Traders and buyers were in a frenzy to buy and sell this new, gorgeous flower that originated in Turkey. 

Special vases, tulipieres, were designed and sold at great expense to display and show off the exotic tulip blooms. These tulipieres are not seen as often now as they were in earlier times, however they were a fairly common piece of decorative art during the 17th century and were collected by the European elite. They are designed to accommodate one specimen tulip bloom per spout and are usually hand-crafted such as delftware.

The word “tulip” is thought to be a corruption of a Turkish word, “tulbend” which means turban. If you use your imagination, you can see why the tulip bloom may have been named after a turban as the six petals of the blossom could be “wrapped” to create one. Tulips grow from bulbs that store all of the food and nutrients needed to produce such dazzling, exotic blooms. Tulip blooms are constructed rather simply with the blossoms consisting of six simple petals that radiate off a central point. Hybridizers have created much more ornate petals which are “pinked” or ruffled. There are thousands of hybrids that include exotic color combinations, with striped and ruffled edges. Many of the ruffled tulips look as though they have been pruned to perfection with a sharp pair of pinking shears.

Most have seen the amazing aerial photographs of Holland in the early spring where it looks like the entire countryside has been painted in large bands of color, most of which are created by the growing fields of tulips. The tulips are planted in huge quantities and each variety and color is grown together. With this method of farming, the bulbs create the amazing tapestry of color that can be seen from the sky. Literally billions of tulip bulbs are grown, harvested and sold each year at the huge flower and bulb auctions, held daily during the harvest period.

Tulips are classified based on the time of their bloom. They are divided into early, mid and late-season categories. In the Midlands, the most successful tulips are the early to mid-season bloomers, because they bloom before the temperatures get too warm. Tulips do not “come back” as most perennial plants do since our climate is just too warm for the bulbs to recover from the hot, humid summers, by the end of which they have turned to mush. Therefore, tulip bulbs have to be discarded after one season of bloom. Tulips should be planted in masses in the garden, which can be a big undertaking every year. However, it is worth it! There is nothing more beautiful than a big plot of tulips blooming in all of their glory in early spring. Trenholm Road Methodist Church has a beautiful display of tulips that peaks at Easter every year. 

Another effective, and more economical, way to add tulips to your garden is to plant them in containers. I prefer planting all one type and color in each container, but it can be very beautiful to plant a variety of different colors. I recommend planting all one category of bulb, such as early bloomers, so that all the bulbs bloom at the same time, creating quite a show. The containers can be planted with just tulips, or the tulip bulbs can be planted under a display of pansies and violas. Many times I have forgotten that I under planted a container with tulips and am so pleasantly surprised when the tulips pop through the soil and remind me that they are still there!

Bulbs should be bought or ordered so that they are delivered in early fall. Sometimes, the bulbs will have to be chilled in the refrigerator for a few weeks before they are planted in the garden or in containers. Once, I tried to rush the cooling process and put my prized, expensive tulip bulbs in the freezer. That was not a good idea as they turned to mush after they thawed out teaching me a painful and expensive lesson. The merchant should know whether the bulbs have been “pre-chilled” or not. Always buy the highest grade of bulbs that you can find and can afford. The bulbs should be big and firm; big bulbs produce big blooms. I think it is better to have a smaller display of big blooms than a larger display of puny blooms. Remember, quality over quantity.

If you decide to go all out and plant a beautiful display of tulips in the garden, make sure the site is well dug and well drained. The bulbs should be planted after the soil has cooled down to at least 60 degrees. Remove all rocks and weeds from the site and level the ground to make sure that no puddles collect after rain or irrigation. Standing water can rot the bulbs. 

If the soil seems heavy, add a bag or two of play sand and mix it well with the existing soil. Mix in plenty of organic matter such as bulb booster and bone meal. Our local nurseries and garden centers carry most major brands, and it pays off to add them to the planting mix. Bulb food and bone meal feed the bulbs exactly what they need to produce strong, healthy and showy blossoms. The tulip bed should be in a sunny spot in the garden with at least six hours of direct sunlight a day. Of course, morning sun is preferable to scorching afternoon sun. Tulip bulbs will not thrive if planted too close to large trees, so make sure they are planted at least as far away from the trunk as the drip line of the canopy of the tree. After the bed is prepared, the bulbs should be planted 6 to 8 inches apart and at a depth twice the diameter of the bulb itself. For example, if the bulb is 2 1/2 inches in diameter, it should be planted at a depth of 5 inches. Make sure you put the root side down!

If you decide to plant a container tulip garden, place the container or containers in a sunny spot on the terrace or in the garden. I have used a big container of tulips as the focal point in a small vegetable garden, and it was very pleasing. Follow the same basic planting rules for planting nursery-raised plants. Make sure the potting soil is not too heavy. If it seems heavy, add play sand just as I recommended above. Make sure the container has adequate drainage so that the bulbs do not drown or rot. I usually plant the bulbs much closer together when I am planting them in a container as the blooms will look sparse if they are planted too far apart. Make sure to plant with the root end down and plant at a depth two times the diameter of the bulb.


Favorite Varieties

Tulips come in so many different shapes, sizes and colors that it can be daunting to choose. Spend a rainy day surfing the Internet or looking through bulb catalogs and choose the tulips that appeal to you. Try different ones each year, and keep records of which are the most rewarding and when they bloom. If you are like me, growing and learning about tulips will become a very happy and harmless addiction. I have included a list of early and mid season varieties to help you get off to the right start.

Early blooming varieties bloom in March and early April. These gorgeous tulips are a welcome sight after a long, gray winter. I have had good luck with the following varieties: Red Emperor, Apricot Beauty, Negrita and Spring Green. There are also some good mixes that are sold in bulk by many of the bulb catalogs. These tend to be better suited to a more informal type of garden and look fabulous when planted en masse in half-whiskey barrels.

There are many more interesting varieties to choose from in the Mid-Season blooming category. I think you will have a hard time choosing! These are some of my favorites: Red Darwin, Pink Darwin, Christmas Dream, Flair, Orca Double, Red Impression, Apricot Impression, Golden Apeldoorn and Banja Luka.

Tulips say spring like no other flower! Their bright colors, frilly petals and strong stems are a feast to the eyes after a long, colorless winter season. There are thousands of varieties to choose from based on color, height and bloom time. They are easy to grow, and they provide such exotic color and variety in the garden and landscape. I highly recommend adding some to your garden this year. You will be so glad you did!

Consider joining the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society, one of the oldest remaining florist societies. They have an annual show of tulips in the spring that has specialists in the history and cultivation of tulips. The society publishes a newsletter with helpful hints about growing and showing tulips and arranging garden visits in England. A garden tour of English gardens is definitely at the top of this gardener’s bucket list!


Gardening Chores for the March Gardener

•    Early March is a great time to evaluate problem areas in the garden. There is still time to move shrubs or perennials that are not thriving where they are planted.

•    March is a good time to plant trees and large shrubs. Peruse nurseries to see which flowering trees are in bloom and add one or two to your landscape if you have room.

•    Definitely check the irrigation system. Make sure there are no broken drip lines. Some spray heads may have to be adjusted if plants around them have gotten bigger and taller.

•    Add early blooming perennials to the perennial border. Our local nurseries will have their best selection of early bloomers now.

•    Add an herb garden. Early March is the perfect time to plant an herb garden. Add a decorative obelisk or object to give the herb garden some personality.

•    Daylilies, hostas and coreopsis may be divided if the clumps have gotten too big.

•    Complete heavy pruning that was started in February. It is not too late to cut back liriope and mondo, but do it earlier rather than later.

•    Fertilize shrubs and trees with a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or an organic choice, such as Milorganite.

•    Keep up your gardening journal. Record successes, failures, bloom times and wishes to add to the garden.

•    Prune roses that did not get pruned in February.

•    Begin treating hydrangeas for fungus.

•    Ride through our old established neighborhoods in Forest Acres, Shandon and Wales Garden to see what’s blooming. If you see something you like, add it to your garden now.


What’s Blooming in March

Azaleas, Banana shrub, Camellia japonica, Crabapple, Dogwood, Flowering Almond and Apricot, Forsythia, Quince, Raphiolepsis, Spirea and Wisteria, Ajuga, Carolina Jessamine, Columbine, Clematis, Daffodils, Tulips Heuchera, Iris, Pansy, Violas and Gerbera Daisy

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