In times of stressed economy, it’s good to do what we can to save money.
Since I’ve been poor and cheap for decades, I’m well-prepared to inform those who are experiencing this for the first time. I have been working for years, very unscientifically, on getting my tulips to return, instead of buying them every year, as is our extravagant custom.
These Prinses Irene tulips returned year after year – until I made the mistake of digging them up
And then what do you do with tulip bulbs at the end of the year? Tossing them out makes me feel somewhat as I did in fourth grade, when the egg incubator failed in science class, and I had to pour a half-formed chicken down the drain (There seems to be a lot of trauma around science, here. Maybe this is the key to my unscientificness (lack of scientificity?).)
Keeping bulbs around seems to indicate that I should do something to help them survive. So I started looking for ways to do that.
Some of my ideas for getting tulips to return came from the folks at Old House Gardens, who have their own tip sheet for helping tulips come back. Others came from Janis Ruksans, who has been collecting, propagating, and breeding bulbs for decades. Brent and Becky’s gave me the good soil tip (which I ignored for many years). Still others are a combination of my own observation, research, and guesswork.
While I haven’t come up with the Definitive Home Method getting tulips to return, I have come up with a lot of things that will up your chances. Don’t be depressed by the length of the list; I don’t do all of the things on it, either. Bulbs are forgiving. Just taking heed of pointer #1 will give you ever-increasing returns on your tulips. Even in these hard times.
1. Buy the right varieties of tulip.
Older tulips were bred for gardeners. Newer ones (after about 1950) are bred for the cut-flower industry, which is more interested in instant results than lasting glory. But the category of tulip matters, too. Fosterianas, kauffmanias, greggis, and most so-called “species” tulips (they aren’t always) tend to repeat easily and reliably in the garden. Among these categories, some are more long-lasting than others. ‘Purissima’, ‘Sweetheart’, ‘Lady Jane’ and T. batalinii ‘Apricot Jewel’ have done well for me. (In an earlier post I went into this in more detail.)
2. Leave tulip foliage on until it’s dead, dead, dead. And don’t tie it up, either.
For some reason, there’s a gardening tradition of cutting bulb foliage when it starts to go yellow. To me, this neatness smacks of overzealous housekeeping, but you don’t have to militate against tidiness to see that cutting foliage has a very bad effect on bulbs. Tying up foliage, often cited as an alternative, is equally bad; those leaves need sun. Which leads us to the next point.
3. Give tulips enough sun.
I learned this one the hard way. Sunlight on the foliage is what feeds it. And since the foliage feeds the bulb and the bulb makes the flower….this is starting to sound like a folk song, but you get the picture. My semi-shady garden has made me very aware that the more sun you give tulips, the better they return. Frances at Fairegarden illustrates this with a story about her own tulips.
4. Don’t give tulips too much sun.
I learned this one the hard way, too. Hot weather can strike suddenly in spring, blasting tulip buds to tiny brown shriveled things, yellowing foliage before its time. Since the leaves make next year’s bulbs (this is beginning to be my theme song), foliage dead before its time usually means blind bulbs next spring.
5. Foliar feed tulips throughout the growing season.
I’ve been doing this for the last year for my tulips, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that suddenly, this year, I’m seeing blooms from several kinds of tulips I’ve had “incubating” for years as small bulbs in small pots. Janis Ruksans says that using foliar feed has vastly improved things in his bulb nursery, so I’m in good company. I use an organic foliar feed that promotes bloom, and I try to get it on my tulip foliage every two weeks until the leaves are gone. Every week would be better.
6. Calcium is great for tulips – as a foliar feed and in the ground.
Earlier, I posted my discovery that Janis Ruksans, bulb hunter, propagator, and breeder, found that his small offset bulbs did far better when they were planted in rocky soil. Since he’s an experienced bulb worker, he had good drainage both places. The difference, in his opinion, was calcium. And, I think, probably other minerals. Photos of species bulbs show them in the rocky landscapes which create high-mineral soils. This is a clue to what bulbs need.
7. Ground feed tulips in fall and early spring.
Besides fertilizing with minerals spring and fall, I use an organic high-phosphorus fertilizer to give bulbs a boost. Fall fertilizing feeds bulbs as they wake from dormancy and start to send roots into the ground, seeking food; spring fertilizing (at least this is my theory) gives the foliage something extra to draw on as it feeds the bulbs for the following year. (Actually, I read up on some Experts, and found that they also believe in spring and fall fertilizing. Very gratifying.) In my own area, both feedings take advantage of seasonal rains to wash fertilizers into the soil, saving energy (mine) and water.
8. Split up tulip offsets and give them room to grow (separately).
Bulbs which are squashed together don’t have room to develop into maturity. They compete for turf and nutrients, like rats in a cage, and fail to thrive. If you’re getting a lot of blind bulbs, or the leaves are looking smaller and smaller, you need to dig them up when they’re dormant, split them apart, and give them living room. I generally use small pots for this, so I don’t lose track of tiny bulbs.
These are the small leaves that show when your bulbs are too small to bloom. They’ve been split up into pots to grow out.
9. Don’t water tulips in summer.
Unlike many plants, tulips loathe water. They rot. They sulk. They don’t reproduce. This makes tulips the ultimate low-water plant, since water is at its most precious in hot weather. If you plant tulips in pots, shelter those pots from rain until it’s time to fertilize in fall. If you plant in the ground, put tulips in low-water areas with herbs and succulents. (For more detailed info on this, check out Old House Gardens instructions on keeping bulbs going.)
10. Don’t put tulips where they will have saturated, moist soil at any time – they rot.
This is a continuation of the previous point, but it bears saying. I once put some tulips in a spot where they would receive maximum winter water (under an overhanging roof where the rain ran like a little spout). I thought this would nourish them to a fine future. What it actually did was turn them to mush. Tulips may benefit from a little water during an early-spring hot spell, but they need drainage drainage drainage, all year round. (The one exception to this might be Tulipa sylvestris, but my jury’s still out on that.)
11. Plant them deeper.
Two reliable sources said 8 inches to a foot. Do be sure that there is plenty of nutritious and amended soil under the bulb, no matter how deep you plant it; it still needs to get nourishent through its roots, not its top. And remember that tulips need drainage. Since I plant in pots, I compromise at about 8 inches. Sylvia from England writes that she has been experimenting with this; she planted her West Points a foot deep, and promises to report on the results.
12. Use good soil.
One of my antique garden books says that tulips need good soil, but not rich soil. That’s what Brent and Becky’s advises, too (it used to be in their print catalogue, but I didn’t find it online). Most tulips originally come from rocky mountain soils, so obviously they can grow in poor soils as long as mineral content is high. Like many plants, though, even species tulips enjoy a loose soil with easily-available nutrients. The big flashy ones bred in the light, sandy soils of the Netherlands may sometimes survive in hard or poor soils, but they don’t thrive there.
Once they bloom, plants put all their energy into making seeds. They want the next generation to survive. If you want the foliage to feed your bulbs and future flowers more than the seeds, pick the green seedpods off as soon as flowering is done. If you have lots of tulips, you might be able to bribe some kids into doing it for something good to eat.
Maybe you’ve had experiences that refute these pointers. Maybe you want to exand on the ideas I’ve listed. Maybe you know of some tulips that seem to come back more easily than others, or even better, you’ve come up with yet another way to get tulips to return. Won’t you share the knowledge? And if you’ve got more questions about this (I sure do), maybe we can all put our heads together and discuss it.