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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.


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.

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,


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,


A plant combination even we can love. April 24, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were headed for the nearby town of Kutztown, PA yesterday to get some cat litter. We had run out, which as all cat owners know is a crisis of epic proportions, and since the only brand of cat litter we’ve ever used, EverClean, is only available from pet supply stores, replenishing our supply requires a little more effort than just heading to the grocery. (Trust us, we curse EverClean for this every time we have to get some. But it works—no odor at all, so easy to clean up—so we keep buying it.) We also needed a new litter scoop, since someone who shall remain nameless (are you reading this, Ben?!!) had managed to actually break our old one without bothering to mention it.

What’s this got to do with plant combinations, you ask? Just this: While passing through the tiny town of Maxatawny en route to Kutztown, our friend Ben and I were struck by a very pretty plant combination. At its heart was creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), one of the great old-time spreading evergreen groundcovers beloved of cottage gardeners around here. Even if you’ve never grown it yourselves, we know you’ll recognize it, spilling down banks in an April effusion of Easter pastels: lavender, blue, pink, white, and just to brighten things up, hot pink/magenta/fuchsia. In bloom, the plants are a solid spill of color.

We’ve never planted creeping phlox ourselves, but we really do love it. What we don’t love are hyacinths. To us, the fat, gross, waxy flower heads and overpowering scent are the epitome of Victorian excess, and not by any means in a good way. Give us grape hyacinths and compost those awful obese plastic-flower-air-fresheners-come-to-life, please. So we were amazed to see that somebody in Maxatawny had created an appealing plant combination of creeping phlox, hyacinths, and tulips, in a range of complementary Easter pastel colors. Not only did the flower colors echo each other, but the homeowner had the good sense to plant masses of tulips and hyacinths instead of a lonely lollypop row. It worked. It actually looked good. Really good.

The moral of this story is that there are no bad plants, just plants that are used in bad ways. We’re still not planning to stock up on hyacinths anytime soon. But at least now we know how to use them.

          ‘Til next time,


Of bulbs and birthdays. October 9, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening.
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Isn’t it great when you share a passion with other members of your family? Our friend Ben’s grandmother on one side and great-aunts on the other were passionate gardeners. My grandmother grew an old-style cottage garden, with all the beloved old flowers (including plenty for cutting), an extensive vegetable plot, and fruit trees. My great-aunts created a formal Edwardian flower garden for their Tudor-style home that would have done credit to Gertrude Jekyll. (Alas, when they were alive, I didn’t know of Miss Jekyll, so I didn’t have the opportunity to ask if she was in fact their inspiration.)

The gardening bug skipped my parents’ generation. They meticulously restored our Colonial home and maintained its three-acre grounds in keeping with the era, but it was clear that they did so as duty, not pleasure. Not one plant found its way there that wasn’t necessary to the landscape. Any herbs and such snuck in by, ahem, their plant-loving eldest child were ruthlessly eradicated.

Interestingly, all three of the children were bitten hard by the gardening bug. Our friend Ben is the family generalist: I love historical gardens, herb gardens, vegetable beds, flower borders, wildflower meadows, shade borders, houseplants, greenhouse gardening, water gardening, fruit and nut growing, ornamental trees and shrubs, groundcovers, cacti and succulents, orchids, you name it. My sister is a huge fan of cottage-style ornamental gardening, and has transformed her Southern suburban yard accordingly. And my brother is passionately interested in old-time ornamentals, from peonies and roses to iris and daffodils, which burst from every corner of his property in a glorious fragrant display.

Our friend Ben’s birthday is this coming Saturday, and I was thrilled when a big box arrived from White Flower Farm to commemorate the occasion. My brother, who plants hundreds upon hundreds of bulbs each fall, had sent me a more manageable but choice assortment to brighten the spring display at Hawk’s Haven, the little cottage I share with Silence Dogood and numerous pets in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania.

Silence and I were thrilled to see that my brother had included two orders of what White Flower Farm referred to as “A Blossom Ballet,” a pairing of ‘Apricot Beauty’ tulips and ‘Cool Flame’ daffodils. ‘Apricot Beauty’ is in fact our favorite tulip. In typically hyperbolic fashion, White Flower Farm describes its blooms as “a satiny salmon-rose with apricot highlights and golden overtones,” and notes that it has “a soft fragrance.” (Right. But better than no fragrance!) ‘Cool Flame’ is a creation of Grant Mitsch, the famous Oregon novelty daffodil breeder who began his work in the 1930s and is still regarded as the preeminent American daffodil breeder. White Flower Farm’s online catalogue proclaims that the midseason-flowering ‘Cool Flame’ “flaunts large cups of soft coral that deepen to dark salmon and are surrounded by snow-white petals of perfect form.” Though White Flower Farm seems determined to give us descriptions of 1,000 words, our friend Ben suggests that you head over to their website (www.whiteflowerfarm.com) and check out their “A Blossom Ballet” photos for yourself. You will instantly see why Silence and I were so delighted.

But my brother wasn’t satisfied with this glorious gift. He wanted to make sure we had some truly vintage daffodils. So he also sent bulbs of Narcissus ‘Maximus’, a sixteenth-century selection of the species daffodil Narcissus hispanica. The golden three-inch trumpet flowers resemble early ‘King Alfreds’, with one distinct difference: their petals are twisted.

At least as old is Narcissus ‘Conspicuus’. When our friend Ben first received the bulb order, I rushed to the White Flower Farm website to check this daffodil out. It was the most gorgeous thing imaginable—short red cups with large primrose-yellow petals. Wow! No wonder it was called ‘Conspicuus’. The website announced that these bulbs were sold out, so I was especially pleased that my brother had chosen them before they vanished. Unfortunately, returning to the website today to get the “official” description to share with you, our friend Ben found that the bulb had vanished not just from availability but from the A-to-Z list of daffodils on offer. Search though I might, I could not find Narcissus ‘Conspicuus’ anywhere.   

This clearly called for a consultation with my good friend Google, which appeared to be doing its damndest to trip me up. A search brought up Narcissus bulbicodium var. conspicuus, the famous little yellow hoop petticoat or yellow bells daffodil. You may be familiar with the very distinctive appearance of these diminutive narcissi—they’re the ones with a (comparatively) large yellow trumpet and vestigial, almost nonexistent yellow petals. Definitely not my bulbs! Further hunting brought up Narcissus minor var. conspicuus, which looks a lot more like the photo (formerly) in the White Flower Farm online catalogue. The photo of N. minor var. conspicuus showed coral trumpets and pale yellow petals, and since it was strongly backlit, it’s possible that the trumpets would have been a much deeper color in a more natural light. We’ll find out this spring!

Silence and I have decided to plant the ‘Conspicuus’ and ‘Maximus’ daffs in the ornamental bed beside our deck, where we can enjoy them as we sit outside with our morning coffee. And we’re planning to plant the glorious ‘Cool Flame’ daffodils and ‘Apricot Beauty’ tulips in the bed surrounding our most gigantic maple tree, where they’ll create a show of salmon, apricot and white to brighten the scene as the tree’s foliage begins to expand.

What a perfect and joyful gift to brighten the life of a gardener, and what joyful memories the blooming bulbs will bring in the years to come. Talk about a gift that keeps on giving! Our friend Ben thinks it’s going to be a very good year.