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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.


Don’t throw out spring bulbs! May 6, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Each spring, our friend Ben and I enjoy celebrating the arrival of spring by bringing some pots of ‘Tete-a-Tete’ daffodils (the little bright yellow ones) and tulips into our home here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home we share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA.

After this horrible winter—nights here are still dipping well into the 30s—the cheerful faces of the blooming bulbs are especially appreciated. But eventually the blooms fade. What then? Do you compost your bulbs or try to save them?

We’re big fans of composting, but when it comes to bulbs, we always try to plant them. Our experience is that the ‘Tete-a-Tete’ daffodils always come back, though they may be shorter (and sometimes, a lot shorter) than when you bought them in pots. Year after year, your tiny investment in these delightful daffodils will pay off. Tulips, on the other hand, aren’t so reliable. Some will send up leaves but not bloom; some will simply disappear. We still plant them out and hope. And buy more tulips and daffodils to brighten our home every spring.

If you have tips for perennializing potted tulips, please let us know!

‘Til next time,


Not exactly a Tete-a-Tete. April 8, 2013

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood love the cheerful little ‘Tete-a-Tete’ daffodils available in pots at groceries, nurseries, etc. now. The abundance of miniature, bright yellow blooms on the plants make you feel like you’re bringing sunshine into the house after the long, dark winter. They’re even lightly fragrant. And they’re so inexpensive, we always buy a few pots in spring to brighten up Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home.

But for us as gardeners, the really great thing about ‘Tete-a-Tete’s is that, once their indoor bloom is over, you can plant them outdoors and they’ll survive and bloom reliably every year. They’ll even multiply, as a good daffodil should. Best of all, you can plant them in spring, after you’ve enjoyed them indoors, and you can see where your other bulbs are so you won’t annihilate the now-dormant bulbs while planting new ones in fall, when you’re “supposed” to plant bulbs. (Grrr, it just isn’t right.)

Mind you, with us, after that first indoor year, they usually reach abour 3 inches in height, forming mats of cheerful yellow rather than daffodil-size plants. But they’re every bit as floriferous in subsequent years as they were in their pot at the store. Just remember to plant them at the front of the garden bed!

This year, however, we were in for a bit of a shock at the first grocery that carried them. They proved to be impostors! The plant tag said ‘Tete-a-Tete’ clear as day. But the plants were taller and the blooms fewer and larger, though still only about a third the size of your average “standard” trumpet daffodil bloom. And we felt that the color was a little washed out compared to a true ‘Tete-a-Tete’.

We planted them out after their bloom was done and the weather (finally) warmed up, anyway, and found a pot of real ‘Tete-a-Tete’s to take their place in the house. But we’re curious about what this impostor bloom really is. Does anyone out there know?

The upside to a cold spring. March 27, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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Yuck, it’s almost April, and the temperatures here in our part of scenic PA are still dropping into the 20s every night. Brrr!!! What happened to global warming?!

However, as all gardeners know, there’s one great thing about cold spring weather, even if it makes you want to hide indoors: It makes the blooms of spring bulbs and flowers last longer. Our snowdrops and crocuses are still in bloom; our hellebore flowers are still pristine. We’re hoping to see a long daffodil, tulip, and grape hyacinth season, as well as a fabulous year for our chionodoxas (glories-of-the-snow), Spanish squill, and windflowers (Grecian anemones).

Bulb blooms can wither in a day if the temperatures are unusually hot, and seldom last more than a week in normal weather. But cold, for whatever reason, keeps them vibrant, and we appreciate that.

The cold has also kept our winter birds here. We still have juncos, chickadees, and titmice, along with our year-round residents, the woodpeckers, wrens, goldfinches, cardinals, mockingbirds, and the like. (Sadly, I think our bluejays have left us.) And we also have the spring arrivals, robins, starlings, and grackles. I can’t recall a time when I’ve seen juncos and robins together on the ground!

So, despite the cold, this spring has its own gifts for those who have eyes to see. Now, if we could just persuade the juncos to stay year-round…

Seek and ye shall find. March 2, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, pets, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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“Ben, it’s March, have you noticed?”

“Uh… ” Our friend Ben knew what Silence Dogood was about to say next, since she says the same thing every spring. Adopting an “I-can’t-hear-you” attitude, I quickly slunk into the mudroom to get some seed for the outdoor birds.


“Oh, sorry, Silence. You were saying?”

“It’s time to recycle our Christmas wreath and put out the grapevine wreath instead.”

“But, Silence! That wreath still looks as fresh as the day we hung it up! And besides, there’s still snow on the ground…” Our friend Ben managed to find two tiny spots where the ice hadn’t completely melted. “Besides, didn’t you see the forecast? It’s supposed to be in the 20s every night this week. Don’t tell me it’s not still winter!”

“Ben, it’s MARCH. You’ve managed to drag Christmas out to record lengths this year, but enough’s enough. Even you have agreed to stop putting seed in our cabin feeder so the bulbs that make such a gorgeous display underneath that tree every spring won’t be trampled and buried in birdseed. Maybe instead of fighting the inevitable, you should start looking for signs of spring.”

“Oh.” Our friend Ben is nothing if not sentimental, and Christmas is such a beloved season that I hate to see it end. But I had to concede that Silence had a point. Heading to the front door with the birdseed, my eyes came to rest on our mantel. “What happened to our Valentine’s cards?!” I wailed.

“Ben. It’s. March.” At this point, Silence’s eyes were rolling back in her head. “I’ve put them away until next year. But look, there’s the wonderful photo of our black German shepherd, Shiloh, that you gave me as a Valentine’s present, still up on the mantel. We’ll leave that up all year as a reminder.” She handed me a bag for the ornaments, bow, and solar Christmas lights from our wreath, and the grapevine wreath to hang in its place, and shooed me out the door. “Look for signs of spring,” she reminded me, closing the door.

After dealing with the wreath issue, I wandered over to fill our tube feeders, stopping on the way to check for the tips of bulbs poking through the soil beneath the cabin feeder. Nothing. I filled the feeders, then continued on around the side of the house to see if any of the hellebores had started to bloom in our shade garden. The plants looked healthy and even seemed to be putting on new growth, but so far, there was nary a bloom in sight.

Making the most of the snow’s retreat, I began one of our more constant backyard chores, pick-up-sticks (we have lots of mature trees, so falling twigs and branches are an unending fact of life). At least the firepit had emerged from under its snow blanket so I had a place to deposit the sticks. It was on the way back around the side of the house that I noticed that the bed beneath our home office windows was showing signs of life. Sure enough, a telltale clump of healthy green shoots had pushed up through the groundcover. Snowdrops!

Where there were some snowdrops, there had to be others. Rushing to another bed, I saw more clumps pushing up. Rounding the other side of the house to fill the backyard feeders, I saw that our ‘Ice Follies’ daffodils were up and running. I raced to several beds in the back where we’d planted bulbs for a colorful spring show. Yes!!! There were the shoots of crocuses, mini-daffs, and even tulips pushing up. And in the bed beneath our shrub border, I saw that the delightful chrome-yellow winter aconites and snowdrops had actually started to bloom. 

“Silence!!!” I rushed back in the house.

Silence, who’d been deep in composing a thoughtful essay, leapt to her feet, her face going white as chalk. “Ben! What’s happened?!!”

“The first aconites are blooming, and there are buds on some snowdrops!”

“Oh my God, Ben, I thought for sure Shiloh had escaped and run into the road!” Silence glared at me, clutching her heart. But she did let me take her outside to show her our first signs of spring. She even suggested that it was time to take our shiitake logs outside for the season, and pitched in with an armful of pick-up-sticks before returning to her essay.

“See, Ben, signs of spring! Don’t you think that it’s time to pack Christmas away and prepare to welcome the return of life to our land?” Silence may not live up to her name, but she’s a born psychiatrist. I had to agree. Spring is not just in the air, it’s in the ground. It’s time to turn our backs on winter for another year and celebrate the arrival of spring.

The bulb detector. November 17, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Where is an inventor when you really need one? Every fall, our friend Ben laments the fact that no one has yet invented a bulb detector. (As in metal detector, not lie detector.) Think how useful it would be to have this handy-dandy invention to sweep along your garden beds as you ponder where to put that peony or package of daffodil bulbs or potted mum that’s ready to leave the deck for its permanent home! As you stare at the bare ground, you just know that wherever you put the spade, you’re going to chop through at least one precious bulb.

Spring-flowering bulbs are so inconsiderate that way. True, once their spectacular flower display is over, their foliage is nothing to write home about. In the case of daffodils and tulips, it’s so homely it’s one of the strongest arguments I know for interplanting. But still, you’d think that instead of mercifully departing each summer, just when you think you can’t stand to look at it another second, it would at least have the decency to leave a tidy, discreet little marker behind so you could find the stupid bulbs when fall planting time rolled ’round.

Instead, we hapless gardeners are told to mark each bulb’s resting place ourselves, with golf tees or little flags or the like. How totally attractive! Here at Hawk’s Haven, we can in fact think of a good use for little flags: To mark where our black German shepherd, Shiloh, has chosen to take a bathroom break in the backyard so we can find it and clean up once she’s back in the house. But one flag for one hour is not a sea of flags (or tees) in your garden beds for months. What are these helpful people thinking?!!

Our friend Ben would like a handy bulb detector instead, one with a screen that would actually reveal the shape and size of the bulb, corm, rhizome, fleshy root, or whatever as you passed the detector over it. Would I still manage to slice a few bulbs? You betcha. But at least damage control would be in place. So if any inventors are reading this…

Don’t toss those bulbs! April 16, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. If you got pots of blooming bulbs for Easter, will most likely get them for Mother’s Day, or simply bought a few pots to brighten up your home and welcome spring, don’t throw them out when their blooms have dried or dropped.

Yes, we’ve all been told that you have to plant spring-flowering bulbs in fall. As a result, you may believe that those beautiful flowers have no further use and are destined for the compost heap once their blooms are past peak. But I’m here to tell you it ain’t necessarily so.

It’s apparently true that there’s no point in saving and planting out Christmastime paperwhites (I wouldn’t know, I can’t take that overpowering smell). But the pots of blooming daffodils, mini-daffs, tulips, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, crocuses, and lilies that are springtime staples are an entirely different story. I just planted out my Easter bulbs yesterday (three pots of yellow and white mini-daffs and one of tulips), and am confident that they, like the generations I’ve planted out before them, will survive and thrive.

It’s so great to get these inexpensive pots of spring cheer and know that they’ll be cheering your heart and eyes for many springs to come! But the best thing about planting potted bulbs in spring is this: It’s easy to see where all your other bulbs are, so you can plant them to complement a color scheme, fill out a display, or start a new batch of bulbs where none are currently planted.

What an advantage over planting bulbs in fall, where, unless you have no bulbs at all or you’ve put markers where every one of your now-dormant bulbs is planted (talk about an eyesore, a forest of markers!), you’re dealing with a by-guess-or-by-God situation. Not so in spring, where you can see exactly what’s growing where, and won’t accidentally end up planting an orange-and-yellow daffodil next to a pink-and-white one, or slicing into your best-loved bulbs while trying to plant the new ones. Give me potted bulbs in spring every time.

         ‘Til next time,


Spring garden blues. April 11, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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And yellows and whites and purples. Spring has sprung here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. We have an acre here that we tend and water by hand, so let’s call our general gardening style “informal at best.” Our gardens will never, ever look like “real” gardens—like those of, say, Frances at Faire Garden or Nan at Hayefield.

But in spring, they come close. The beds are carpeted with color, and if you saw them now, you’d be hard-pressed not to gasp with delight. (At least, we do every time we see them.) The blues of Siberian squill and crested iris and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) and vinca and grape hyacinths. The yellows of daffodils and ranunculus (buttercups) and crocuses. The purples of Grecian windflowers (Anemone blanda) and glory-of-the-snow (chionodoxa) and crocuses and hellebores. The white of bloodroot and Dutchman’s-breeches and daffodils and crocuses and hellebores and Siberian squill and snowdrops and Grecian windflowers. The breathtaking, awesome, oh-my-God glory of it all. (And mind you, this is before the tulips and columbines and bleeding hearts take off.)

We love each and every bulb, every flower, every new bud or shoot showing signs of life. But at this time of year, we love Siberian squill (Scilla sibirica) best. This tiny true-blue-flowered bulb seems to have escaped the taxonomic abuse bestowed on so many of its kind; our friend Ben can’t find any change of name from Scilla sibirica, though cousins have been banished from Scilla to Hyacinthoides and worse.

But what’s in a name? Every year, the little bulbs spread their bounty throughout our beds. And this year, they’re even blooming in the lawn, adding continuity to our garden scheme. A few bloom pure white to remind us that they have a mind of their own, but most are the most gorgeous clear gentian-blue. They press against the pavers of our front path as though some gardening genius planted them. And yes, clearly He did.

“Glory be to God for dappled things,” the poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins exulted. And glory be to God for small things, our friend Ben would like to add. For Siberian squill and all the little, bright, effortless bulbs. Glory hallelujah!