The Bay Gardener
By Dr. Frank Gouin
Dig Now for Spring Tulips
Fall’s the time to plan for April bursts of color
Tulips are often an annual crop in Chesapeake gardens, as our warm springs disagree with them. But there are tulip tricks to make your bulbs last.
Unlike daffodils and hyacinths, tulips produce a new mother bulb each year, plus possibly a few daughter bulbs. Because our springs are short before long, hot summers tulip foliage does not last long enough to build a new bulb equal to or larger than the original. The Netherlands and more northern states like Michigan enjoy optimum tulip climate: cool springs that last for several weeks.
To get your tulips to flower more than one year, plant them no later than mid October in a well-drained location in full sun. Early planting assures that the bulbs develop a large root system before soils cool with the arrival of winter.
Dig planting holes at least 12 inches wide and 12 inches deep. Then fill with a four-inch thick layer of a homogeneous mixture equal parts by volume of good compost and existing topsoil. Place bulbs at least one inch apart on top of the blended soil with the flat side of the bulb against the wall of the hole. Planting this way will direct leaves to bend outward, giving the planting a more appealing appearance. Placing a single bulb in the center of the hole also improves the appearance of the planting. Cover the bulbs with eight inches of blended topsoil and compost.
Most tulip bulb instructions suggest planting only six inches deep and placing only five inches of soil over the bulbs. But planting the bulbs deep discourages daughter bulbs, encouraging larger replacement bulbs, which will produce larger flowers the following year.
Do not put sand under the bulbs. The rumor that this improves drainage is incorrect; the Dutch place sand under their bulbs so that when harvesting, they will be easier to clean.
Do not fertilize the bulbs. Using compost means you don’t need to apply any fertilizers during the first growing season.
If you want your tulip bed to last many years, plant only yellow flowering tulips. For some unknown reason, yellow tulips perform better and last longer than red, white or pink tulip cultivars.
Another way to get your bulbs to keep blooming each year is to remove wilted flowers before they set seed. To prevent diseases from entering the bulb through the stem, only remove the flower, not the stem.
Fertilize tulips only after they stop flowering: sprinkle two tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer over the planted area as soon as the flowers have been removed. Leave the foliage after blooming; the bulb needs all its foliage to function as efficiently as possible, producing a new big bulb for future flowers.
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