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Why are tulips so short-lived? August 22, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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The thing about bulbs is that most of them are so long-lived. Plant them once, and they either come back reliably year after year, or come back and multiply year after year. They’re one of the easiest and most dependable flowering plants, something you can plant once and look forward to every spring thereafter. This is true of daffodils, grape hyacinths, hyacinths, crocuses, glory-of-the-snow (chionodoxa), star of Bethlehem, snowdrops, Siberian squill, and numerous others.

Planting them is ridiculously easy, too: If you’re planting a sizable group of bulbs, dig a trench deep enough to cover the bulbs (shallow for small bulbs, deeper for daffs) and long and wide enough to contain the number of bulbs you’re planting, set the bulbs in root-side down, put the soil back over the bulbs, firm the soil by walking over it, the end. If you’re just planting a few bulbs in an existing bed, tucking in some grape hyacinths, snowdrops, crocuses, and/or daffodils, a narrow trowel will open a V-shaped slit in the soil (again to the appropriate depth) and you can just drop the bulb in (making sure the root end is facing down) and step on the slit to firm the soil over it. This avoids the big holes that “official” bulb planters gouge out of the soil, potentially damaging the roots of nearby perennials, and saves the steps of inverting the bulb planter after each bulb, knocking out the soil, and then replacing it in the hole.

So, our friend Ben wondered, what’s the deal with tulips? Once planted, daffodils grow and multiply for decades without further effort from you. But tulips? Apparently, most tulip hybrids bloom for one or at most two seasons. So-called “perennial” tulips, such as the Darwin hybrids, bloom for at most five years, typically blooming for three before declining. Yet they’re at least as expensive and as much trouble to plant as daffodils. Many gardeners simply treat them as annuals, planting them every fall, then digging them up after they bloom and discarding them.

This wanton waste didn’t sit well with me, and besides, I wondered why they behaved so differently from the rest of the spring bulbs. I consulted my good friend Google and found an answer from ornamental horticultural expert Rob Proctor. He pointed out that in their native land, tulips endured poor, rocky soil, cold winters, wet springs, and hot, dry summers. In these conditions, they were true perennials, just like daffodils, returning to bloom every year. He compared the climate to Colorado’s.

Apparently, our problem is that we cosset our tulips to death. We water their beds all summer, encouraging bulb rot; we feed them or plant them in rich soil (or both); our climate isn’t cold enough in winter or hot enough in summer. Our friend Ben read a fascinating tip, that in Britain, where summers aren’t known for being hot and dry, gardeners dig up the tulips when their bloom cycle has ended and their foliage is starting to decline and bring them inside hot, dry greenhouses to “cure,” then replant them in fall, thus encouraging many years of bloom.

Of course, this still sounds like a lot of work, and you’d need a greenhouse to pull it off. Is it worth it? Er. Our problem would be trying to remember where we’d planted the tulip bulbs, what they looked like versus the daffodil bulbs they were interplanted with, and how on earth we could dig them up without exposing our entire bulb border, a major undertaking. We had such a gorgeous display of daffs and tulips interplanted in our border last year it was breathtaking. But Silence Dogood and I have agreed that we’d better leave everything as is for next spring and see what happens. Maybe we won’t get a single tulip, or a single blooming tulip, but at least our daffodils can stretch out. And if we do get a few more tulip blooms, that will be great.

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Should you try to grow tulips from seed? June 22, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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Our friend Ben has been fascinated by this question since Silence Dogood and I ordered a gorgeous pastel tulip mix from White Flower Farm last fall. We also ordered their famous daffodil mix, The Works, and interplanted the tulips with the new daffs. This spring, we had the most gorgeous show of daffodils and tulips that Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, has ever known. (And our daff display, thanks to the previous owners, has always been pretty spectacular.)

We felt good about spending the gift certificate from Silence’s beloved brother on The Works, because we know that daffodils will multiply every year and keep the show going and growing, almost certainly outliving you. But we felt guilty about getting the tulips, since, in contrast to daffodils, most tulips bloom for a year and then decline. Even the so-called perennial tulips like the Darwin hybrids typically only bloom five years, max. Only the tiny species tulips are true perennials, and their blooms are more crocus-sized and look nothing like what you and I think of as tulips.

Yikes. Our tulips were stunning this year, but we expect to see foliage and no flowers next year, and nothing thereafter. However, many of the plump, healthy bulbs produced not just gorgeous flowers this year, but huge, plump seedpods that are continuing to grow and ripen. Our friend Ben wondered if there was any hope that we could grow more tulips from the thousands of seeds in those plump pods.

I checked in with my good friend Google, and quickly realized why people bought tulip bulbs instead of growing their own. Obviously, the carefully bred hybrids you bought would look nothing like the seed-grown tulips you raised. But getting potentially thousands of free tulips every year would certainly console us for not getting premium hybrids. That wasn’t the reason people don’t grow tulips from seed. It’s the time/care factor.

This is the same reason most people don’t grow another bulbing plant, onions, from seed. You can get a lot more onion varieties if you buy seeds rather than sets or starts. But almost everyone buys sets or starts instead. That’s because, if you grow onions from seed, you get tiny, thin, threadlike seedlings from the seeds. You have to nurture them like the most delicate preemies, eventually setting them out into a carefully watered and weeded garden bed until, at the end of the season, you get not onions but onion sets, those thumbnail-sized round bulbs you generally buy and plant in spring to harvest onions in fall. You have to carefully dry your homegrown sets and store them through the winter, then plant them out in late spring to get onions the following year.

Most people aren’t willing to go to the trouble, especially when planting storebought onion sets is the easiest thing imaginable: Push the set into the soil until only the top protrudes, firm the soil around it, put the next set in about an onion’s width away, and so on. Before you know it, you have onions.

Not so with seed-grown tulips. Yes, you can let those fat pods turn from green to brown, then cut them off and harvest the seeds. But if you’re serious about growing them, you need to stratify them all in moist sphagnum moss and sand in plastic in the fridge or a coldframe, then carefully monitor the seedlings through the SIX YEARS it takes for the bulbs to reach blooming size. Yowie kazowie! No wonder everyone buys their tulip bulbs every year.

We loved our White Flower Farm pastel tulip mix, but damned if we’re buying it every year. Nor is our friend Ben about to sacrifice those perfectly splendid, plump tulip seedpods. Instead, once they’re dried and brown, I’ll scatter the seeds everywhere we want tulips. Winter will stratify them every bit as well as a refrigerator. Maybe they’ll grow and maybe they won’t. I guess we’ll know six years from now. Why do daffodil bulbs live, multiply, and bloom year after year, and tulip bulbs decline and die? Our friend Ben has no idea. But the tulips have given us a chance, through their seedpods, to keep them alive, and our friend Ben is going to take it.