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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.

Tulipomania strikes again. May 7, 2014

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It’s daffodil and tulip season here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. To cheer us up after the horrible winter that still hasn’t fully left us—tonight’s low is predicted to be 34 degrees—our tulip and daffodil display is our best ever.

That’s because OFB’s brother and his family gave us some nice gift certificates to White Flower Farm over the years, and this past fall, they offered phenomenal deals on their daffodil mixture, “The Works,” and a pastel tulip mix that was simply too gorgeous to believe. We decided it was time to cash in our certificates and purchased one of each mix. When they arrived, we mixed the tulip and daffodil bulbs—incidentally, the fattest, healthiest bulbs we’ve ever seen—and planted them on both sides of the path leading from our parking square down to our front door.

What would come up? What would the flowers look like? Would they bloom at the same time? Would the daffs and tulips look good together, or would they clash? All winter long, we speculated. The answer is that yes, they are blooming at the same time, and yes, they look great together. No, we wouldn’t have chosen every single tulip and daffodil in the mixes, but then, we wouldn’t have known to choose others that are, as it turns out, our favorites.

The daffs are unquestionably a great investment. No animal or other pest eats daffodil bulbs, which are poisonous; no disease affects them; and they multiply year after year during their very long perennial lives. (Think peonies and 50-year spans.)

Tulips, on the other hand, are simply an indulgence. Even the longest-lived, so-called “perennial” tulips like the Darwin hybrids bloom for five years at best; bulbs like the ones we bought will be unlikely to bloom a second year, though they may send up foliage, teasing us with hopes of blooms that never come. Species tulips are, in fact, true perennials, but they’re the size of crocuses and, while colorful enough, bear no resemblance to what most of us think of as tulips.

So why did we buy this tulip mix, knowing that we’d probably only see blooms this spring? Well, we had a gift certificate. It cost no more than a lavish flower arrangement, but would last much longer. And, okay, we love tulips, but never splurge on them because the flowers are short-lived and the bulbs seldom produce a second bloom.

In short, I guess we were suffering from modern-day tulipomania. The original tulipomania struck the Netherlands, specifically Holland, in 1636. Tulips, which originated in Turkey, had been imported into Holland and found the climate to their liking. The colorful flowers became a big hit. And then, multicolored flowers with bold color combinations and exotic “flamed” petals (such as white blooms with red “flames” on the petals) began turning up in growers’ fields. Pandemonium ensued, and prices shot up.

The phenomenon became known as tulipomania, and it became famous as the first financial bubble. At its height, a single bulb of one of the rarest varieties, such as ‘The Viceroy’ or ‘Semper Augustus’, could cost more than ten times as much as a skilled craftsman made in a year, or as much as two tons of butter, 1,000 pounds of cheese, 4 fat oxen, 8 fat swine, 12 fat sheep, 2 hogsheads of wine, 4 tuns of beer, a bed, a suit of clothes, a silver drinking cup, 4 lasts of rye, and 2 lasts of wheat combined. For ONE bulb.

Who was paying these prices?!! Wealthy collectors and speculators. Tulipomania was fueled by a number of strange and rare phenomena colliding, creating mass hysteria and zero common sense. First, the 30 Years’ War had been raging throughout the Germanies and sucker-punching the Netherlands, leaving it weak and depleted. Next, the bubonic plague was raging through the Netherlands at the time, creating a carpe diem (“live for today”) attitude, be it a lust for beautiful bulbs or a love of wine, women and song. And finally, most bizarre of all, no bulbs were actually changing hands during these transactions. The Bitcoins of their day, tulip bulbs were bought and sold on the open market by speculators who had zero interest in planting or selling actual tulip bulbs, only in making a fast buck.

Tulipomania peaked in 1636, then crashed in February 1637, when nobody showed up at the weekly bulb auction in Haarlem. (And yes, New York was originally settled by the Dutch, which is why it has “Harlem.”) To add to the irony, even if everyone who’d been bidding on tulip bulbs had been an avid gardener or collector, they wouldn’t have realized that all those exotic color combinations and “flames” on the petals were caused by a virus, which weakened the bulbs and ensured that the tulip varieties couldn’t possibly be seed-propagated and would die out in a matter of two or three years.

Today’s tulips don’t have viruses, even if they do display gorgeous flames of color. But they’re still usually one-season wonders. Which is why we’re considering our stunning display a one-time event. Unless somebody gives us another gift certificate.

Fall bulbs for spring bloom. October 26, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening.
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Silence Dogood here. For many years, I’ve wanted to plant White Flower Farm’s naturalizing daffodil mix called “The Works.” You get 100 bulbs of at least 30 varieties of daffodils. As anyone who grows daffodils knows, they’re long-lived, trouble-free, and deer-proof. Also squirrel-proof. Nobody and nothing is going to bother those poisonous bulbs, and they multiply all on their own every year.

There’s just one little problem, besides the fact that you have to plant them: You have to plant them in fall. As in, now, when it’s hitting 29 degrees at night here in our part of scenic PA. Not exactly planting weather, if you ask me, and totally counterintuitive for spring-blooming bulbs.

I guess I’m not the only one who feels that way. I was sitting in an examining room with our friend Ben this morning, waiting for his doctor to appear, when a pair of staff members came in and apologized for having to use the computer to call up someone’s schedule. I said it was no problem, we’d just been talking about daffodil bulbs. At which point one of the staffers said that she’d always wanted to plant daffodils and tulips but never seemed to get around to it, since it seemed like they should be planted in spring.

I told her that the one surefire daffodil you could plant in spring was the little, cheerful yellow ‘Tete-a-Tete’ that’s sold in pots all over the place every spring. You can enjoy the show indoors, plant out the pot’s contents when bloom is over, and the hardy little bulbs will return year after year to brighten your yard with their delightful blooms.

I, however, had finally reached a tipping point. White Flower Farm was offering “The Works” at an unbelievable discount: $56 for 100 bulbs, the cheapest I’d ever seen it. But that wasn’t all. They also had a special deal on their “Pastel Stretch Tulip Mix”—100 bulbs of at least 50 different cream, primrose yellow, ivory, pink, peach, soft orange, white, rose, and lavender tulips for $59. It was time to have a serious discussion with OFB.

Most people think that to plant bulbs, you need a bulb planter, a conelike device that you shove into the soil and twist, removing enough soil to allow you to drop in a single bulb, at which point you upend the planter and dump the soil back into the hole on top of the bulb. Want to do this 200 times, while bent double on a freezing fall morning? I didn’t think so.

Fortunately, there’s a much easier alternative: trenching. Take your favorite garden spade and dig a 12-inch-wide, 6-inch-deep trench where you want to plant your bulbs. Then place the bulbs in the trench, narrow end up, 3 to 15 inches apart, depending on what sort of show you want in subsequent years, and cover them with the spaded soil, tamping it down to firm it snugly around the bulbs. No fuss, no muss, as long as somebody’s willing to dig the g-d trenches, which is where OFB came in.

“Ben, would you be willing to dig a few trenches in the front yard so I could plant some daffodils and tulips? I love the daffodil display in front of our island bed and alongside the house, and would love to extend that and plant bulbs around our parking square to brighten our spring show.”

“Trenches?!! Say what?!!”

I patiently explained that surely carting him to the eye surgeon and to work 300,000 times might warrant his digging a few trenches in return. Even OFB couldn’t argue with that.

What I didn’t tell him is the problem with tulips. Unlike daffodils, tulip bulbs aren’t poisonous, and squirrels love them. But they’re also not true perennials. Even the so-called perennial tulips bloom at best for 5 years, while daffodils are true perennials, blooming decade after decade with no care whatever. The “Pastel Stretch Tulip Mix” I had my eye on would probably bloom for two years, if that.

So why plant tulips at all? In my case, the answer was simple, and so luxuriously indulgent: My brother had given me a White Flower Farm gift certificate for Christmas several years ago, and it covered the cost of both “The Works” naturalizing daffodil mix, the “Pastel Stretch Tulip Mix,” and shipping and handling, and left me with a $32 credit. In other words, I could revel in a year or two of beautiful tulips for free, not to mention a lifetime of daffodils.

While White Flower Farm is having incredible deals on bulbs, I suggest that you check them out online (www.whiteflowerfarm.com). It’s not too late to bring spring beauty to your landscape! And I also think a WFF gift certificate to an ardent gardener in your family is a wonderful idea. Like me, they may wait a while to use it, but when they do, the pleasure and appreciation will be boundless.

‘Til next time,

Silence