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It’s always healing to admit your mistakes.

If a bit embarrassing.

I’ve been entirely mistaken about what makes tulips thrive. Or at least I’ve been very mistaken about some of them.

For years, I’ve been saying that tulips like a dry summer, that they thrive in the dry summers that mimic their ancient Mediterranean origins. I even started this blog because of that (you can read about it here).  I chose to focus on tulips because I lived on a piece of land that had a very very sparse well for about 10 people. I couldn’t have a well-watered garden, so I looked for plants that could do with very little of it. Bulbs were one of the obvious winners.

And bulbs did very well for me, once I stopped trying to plant them in the clay and decomposed granite that is our soil here – what is left of it after mining and clear-cutting. When I planted bulbs in containers of fluffy boughten soil, they came up lavishly in spring, richly unlike most other flowers you can grow in the woods. I didn’t have to water them in summer, and some of them came back.

But most of them didn’t, and I was always on the search for bulbs that would become perennial, bulbs I would never have to plant again. The closest I’ve come are some forms of narcissus, all older varieties, which came back for at least a few years: ‘Hawera’, ‘Thalia’, ‘Geranium’, and the sometimes-anonymous yellow trumpet daffodils that I either order or pick up at the hardware store. Most bulbs are much better bought from a specialist, but daffodil bulbs are so tough that sitting out with light streaming on them really doesn’t affect them all that badly. (And our hardware store is smart enough to put them in covered outdoor area, where they stay cool.)

Tulips were a different story. Even the ones that came back for a year or two died out, or reduced to single, blind blades, despite all the hours I hovered over them (figuratively or actually), cultivating, fertilizing and theorizing. I theorized that bulbs closer to the species, the ones who hadn’t been coddled by being hybridized in the rich wet northern fields of the Netherlands – I thought those tulips might come back more easily.

And I was sort of right. The beautiful T.  batalinii in its various forms often came back for me for a year, maybe two – and then disappeared.

But T. clusiana, which is one of the tulips dearest to my heart, stubbornly refused to return. I mean the original T. clusiana, not the upstart modern versions. (You can read a long caption on some of the different types of T. clusiana here and a post here, where you will find that I’ve actually fallen in love with one of the modern types. Nonetheless, that doesn’t keep me from my devotion to the original.)

The original T. clusiana - more slender, more elegant, more vividly colored than its descendants and imitators

T. clusiana is an ancient tulip first grown in Europe by Clusius, who was the first director of the botanical garden in Leiden, in the very early 1600s. This was the first beginning of what would turn into Tulipomania.

Anna Pavord’s The Tulip (which in the hardback form is an excellent, although not absolutely reliable (who could get every detail absolutely correct in such a huge compendium of knowledge from so many sources, including the field?) ) – Anna Pavord’s The Tulip says that Clusius got T. clusiana from a guy in Florence who got it from a guy in Constantinople, who probably got it from somebody else, eventually going back to someone who made a living – or part of one- by digging tulips in the wild and bringing them to the city to sell.

The Tulip also points out that, in the wild, T. clusiana grows in the wet fields of Iran and on to the Himalayas. No wonder it disappeared when I tried to grow it as a dry-summer perennial. I was making the assumption that ALL tulips came from the Mediterranean, or the dry mountains inland. I was making the assumption that dryness was over the entire landscape.

Well, you know what they say about when you assume: you’re making an ass of u and me (thus foreshadowing the days of texting). Of course the Mediterranean has wet areas, just as my very own dry-summer county does, and of course some tulips come from regions far from the Mediterranean, just as the madrones in my northern California home are the very bottom range of madrones that start in British Columbia, or beyond.

And then, as my Anonymous Gardening Expert says, a few hundred years of cultivation in those rich, relatively fluffy, lowland soils in a cold-winter Europe, a few hundred years of breeding to bigger and fatter bulbs and blooms, changed tulips utterly as plants.

The proof of it is in my garden, poking its nose (or noses) up, showing me my longstanding error. The salmon parrot bulbs I planted last year – one of the biggest and most effulgent types of tulips, the easiest types to lose – are coming up again. These are the ones I planted in the big raised garden bed, as a kind of cool-weather crop. I expected that, after I had watered and fertilized my hungry crops all summer, the tulips would turn to mush. Although I also wondered if, perhaps, they might return. The beds are rounds made of hardware cloth (1/4 inch metal mesh) lined with hay; they have excellent drainage.

Not only have the tulips returned: their noses have the double nested form that shows they will flower, every one of them. Most of my other last-year-and-older tulips, the ones in the dry containers, are coming up blind – the single blade that says, “I’m still here, but no flower this year. I just don’t have the energy.” The tulips I’ve been trying madly, for years, to get to return.

Unreturning tulip blade, next to Iris danfordiae

Long ago I made a conclusion, and I based all my efforts on that conclusion. One problem: the conclusion was based on a very scanty knowledge of the situation. The conclusion came early in my learning about tulips, and I never re-inspected it. I took it for granted as a given, and based all my subsequent decisions on it.

It seems to me that a lot of life runs that way. For instance: is faster always better? There’s even an online commercial that says so. But, is everything going faster making people happier? Is it making the rest of the world happier? Or healthier? Is it always such a great thing? Does it even feel good all the time? Could it be that some things feel better slower, and others faster, or even that varying the rhythm like the seasons do would work better for us as a species and a planet? Did we base the conclusion that faster is always better on someone else’s theory, a theory that sprang from an incomplete understanding, and became common knowledge?

In my own life, I look at my own assumption that making an error – especially a huge crashing error like this – is something to be ashamed of, and either fluff over or immediately remedy by a brazen crusade for the new notion. In some circles, admitting to this kind of error could crash a career, or even an entire academic discipline: for twenty years my tulip “career” was based on my understanding – no, my knowledge – that tulips prefer dryness. (Yes, tulips need drainage, or they rot. But drainage may be achieved by many methods, not just by keeping the soil dry.)

But what kind of silliness is it to shrink from admitting my errors? Isn’t it what makes life interesting, that we keep discovering new things, or new joys in old ones? Isn’t it the page-turner aspect of life that keeps it alive for us? And can we ever, really, predict a future, or declare absolutely that our lives are going to be a certain way, forever?

Even my new Tulip Truth, my new revelation being proven in the garden this moment, may not be more than partial.  Old House Garden Bulbs, a small but mighty operation that keeps heirloom bulbs in circulation by growing them on city farms – their directions for assured tulip bulb increase is to dig up tulip bulbs every year after they go dormant, and store in a dry cool place. That’s what they do, and their business proves it works. But they’re in Michigan.

If I dug my tulips up every year in my climate, would they multiply? It’s a moot point: I don’t have the energy and I don’t have the dry cool place. I will enjoy seeing how my new theory works, though: feed tulips like crazy, and give them good drainage and rich soil, see what happens. I planted more tulips in the garden beds last fall, so I’ll have more test material. Or fun.

This time I won’t assume that this is the method that works for every tulip, or even every gardener. I’ll just be interested to see what does work, and go on from there. Isn’t that, pretty much, the essence of gardening?

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Brent (Breathing Treatment) April 9, 2013, 10:20 pm

    I wish I wrote more like you do.

    Given the title and what little I know of you from your earlier blog posts, I thought that this post might be more directly about you.

    But maybe it is, after all.

  • Pomona Belvedere April 20, 2013, 7:07 pm

    Hi Brent, I’m a slow responder, but I appreciate your kind words, and you are right: this post is about me, too – it’s not all that clear to me where my garden ends and I begin.

  • Freda August 23, 2013, 1:50 am

    I have just found your lovely website (my curiosity was peaked by the title Tulips In The Woods – I thought but tulips don’t grow in woods!).
    I am so glad I found it and look forward to many hours of reading your thoughtful posts.

  • Grahame Ware August 29, 2013, 3:23 pm

    Really liked your blog on tulips. The perennializing of tulips is a good subject. I used to live in the N Okanagan of the south interior of BC. I planted lots of tulips for myself and even more for clients. It was an excellent climate that mimicked their origins of biodiversity. However, I now live on the east coast of Vancouver Island and its a Mediterranean climate here. I have had great success both in the Okanagan and here with Tulipa praestans var unicum, T. “Monte carlo’ T. “Tres Chic’, T. ‘Monte Orange’ and many others.

    The piece on perennializing tulips by Old House Gardens is, to say the least, antiquarian knowledge. Digging up bulbs and storing them and then replanting them is labour intensive and a little Dutch bulb merchant-esque.
    In order for the bulb to stay alive it has to remain relatively turgid. Studies at Cornell University have shown that a wide variety of bulbs perennialize best when planted near the surface of the soil (if not on top!) and then mulched with at least 6″ of organic matter.
    William Miller heads up the program. Here’s an edited section plus a link:

    To summarize, it is clear that top planting with mulch, is a good way to go. Here’s what you need do:
    a) Till the area 3-4” deep with a tiller
    b) Spread a bulb fertilizer, if possible, and till again
    c) Place bulbs on top of the tilled area and resist the urge to press them in to the soil as this could damage the bulb base)
    d) Cover with 2-4 inches of aged mulch or well rotted compost.

    There are a couple of limits to this study. We really can’t say whether or not top planting with mulch is better than normal planting, since the experiment was not large enough to accurately test this. However, visual inspection of the plots clearly shows the good quality and vigorous growth seen in the top planted plots.

    NOTE that a deeper mulch was not better- our research tables suggest a decrease in the number of flowers in the third year (2011) as mulch depth increased from 2” to 6”.

    This study does suggests top planting with top dressing with 2 to 4” of mulch to be the best approach.

    Over time, an organic mulch will decompose and release some nutrients and organic matter into the soil. In this trial it is very likely the mulch has decomposed quite a lot, as fresh mulch has been added each Fall. We made no attempt to add extra fertilizer to the non-mulched plots.

    Link to entire newsletter complete with pics: http://www.flowerbulbs.cornell.edu/newsletter/No%2026%20july%202011.pdf

    I hope this dovetails with what you have found and spurs you on in bulbology!

  • Paul Jackson April 23, 2014, 7:47 am

    Pomona, what a lovely and unusual name !
    Hello from sunny Ireland which is about to head into a hopefully good summer. Last year was perhaps the best summer I can remember for at least 10 years , but we have had our fair share of dreary wet summers to . Well that’s the cost we pay for out beautiful green field and fertile soil . I found you on line while doing a search for ” what to do with tulip bulbs ? ” You give some interesting advise and I think investing in a good bulb from a good source is stellar advice .
    I have used seaweed fertiler as a booster , a small handful sprinkled in where you plant the bulbs helps enormously .
    I have heavy clay soil and was surprised when some groups of tulips give me two to 3 years & some just don’t return at all .
    A lot of my bulbs are in pots this year and I will try some your pointers re – saving the bulbs and getting a second year or more.
    I have enjoyed the discovery of your blog and will visit again .
    Many thanks Paul

  • mliss July 17, 2015, 9:10 am

    Funny, I learned a similar lesson recently. I’ve been watching the British show “Gardeners World” on YouTube which has taught me so much and I highly recommend. Through it, I realized that drought resistant flowers love water, they just need good drainage, especially in the winter. Although they will survive with little water, they thrive with regular watering and good drainage.
    The show is great for tips on gardening without spending a lot of money. I’m propagating everything and having so much fun! Once you start and are successful it’s quite addicting.

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