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Divas of Spring

Tulips Star While Perennials Sing Backup

By Deb Terrill • Photography By Ron Capek
March/April 2010

Like the 17th century “tulipmania” collectors who traded on the tulip craze, many of us invest in tulips each year. Every spring we admire those that are glowing from the gardens of others and we long to try different types. Nowadays, tulips are attainable and everyone can have them, but this is more easily accomplished when armed with knowledge.

Tulips, a bulbous perennial, grow naturally in Kazakhstan, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan. A few are also found in China, North Africa and Italy. They typically grow at high elevations, which provide them with a cold period in the winter and hot, baking conditions in the summer, as well as excellent drainage. The common association with Holland, where tulips are grown commercially, belies the cultural requirements that allow tulips to thrive.

Although tulips have been selected and hybridized for centuries, and virtually none of them are commercially grown in the Middle East, they still carry their ancestral DNA and require good drainage, a period of cold, and warm dry soil in the summer to succeed.

What has changed is the ability of the hybridized tulips to naturalize and spread. Most modern hybrids do increase prodigiously, according to Brent Heath, co-owner of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, but not in a good way. They split into smaller bulbs that may not flower, especially when planted too shallowly. Wild, or species, tulips are much closer genetically to their ancestors and many of these will increase or colonize, but they are very different from the tall, large-petaled flower we think of when we say “tulip.”

Species Tulips
Species tulips are much longer lived than their puffed up progeny, and some do colonize to create pools of color in early spring.

I love my Tulipa batalinii ‘Bronze Gem’ which forms a solid clump of 6-inch, attractive, slender, blue-green leaves and bears perfect tulip flowers in mid to late spring. I especially like the butter-colored flowers infused with peachy bronze.
Tulipa tarda makes a pool of very short, spiky green leaves that are covered by yellow and white blooms that open flat during the day. Tulipa praestans ‘Fusilier’ is the earliest tulip in my garden and rewards me year after year with fire engine red blooms in small clusters.

Brent Heath recommends ‘Little Princess’ and ‘Little Beauty’, two species hybrids that are wonderfully scented. He says that while several species tulips colonize, only a couple naturalize. “Naturalizing” means to spread by seed, and the best species tulips for that are T. clusiana, with its many hybrids, and T. sylvestris, a grassy wildling with yellow blooms. T. sylvestris is very fragrant.

Companion ‘Sisters’ That Work
Tulips are lovely all by themselves, but they can create garden music when planted alongside early-blooming perennials. A framework of small trees or shrubs and natural features like boulders make the best sites for groups of tulips. Plant clusters of 12 or more bulbs in natural but tight drifts, and then work in companion perennials to fill the frame.

Although the best companions will be flowering perennials that complement the tulip colors and bloom at the same time, don’t underestimate the power of unfolding green foliage to add fullness to the picture.

Newly emerged and unfurling foliage can lend shades of yellow, chartreuse, red, pink, purples and minty grays. These tints can be found in columbines, bleeding hearts, and bluebells. The spring color of newly emerging perennials can rival the hues of fall and you can play them up by repeating these colors in the tulip blooms. The fish-like shoots of Solomon’s seal, for example, have strong tints of glowing pink. A tulip of this color would pick up the pink tones and amplify them. Add some pink and white vernal peas, and the scene will glow with soft electricity.

Hostas and Solomon’s seal make excellent fillers to round out the planting and fill the empty space when bulbs and spring companions are finished.

Terrill’s Top Tips

1. Order bulbs early from a reputable firm, or shop early at the garden center. Buy the fresh bulbs as soon as they are available and store them in a cool, dark and dry place, usually a garage or basement. Provide good circulation; do not seal them in plastic.

2. Don’t plant until late October in our area.

3. Mark your plantings. I cannot recommend this strongly enough. I have ruined too many bulb plantings by digging in the garden when the bulbs were not visible.

4. If you have a wildlife problem, spray the emerging foliage with animal repellent in the spring. Spray again when flower buds expand to keep squirrels from biting off the flower heads.

5. Keep foliage intact for six weeks after bloom, or until the leaves turn brownish and collapse. At this point, photosynthesis is not happening.

Tulip Tips from Brent Heath

Although many tulips are now considered to be annuals that are removed after blooming and replanted every fall, you can still get a few years out of your plantings if you follow a few guidelines. In a recent chat, Brent Heath offered some tips that will extend the life of your plantings.

  • Plant bulbs in soil that does not get extra water from irrigation systems. Too much water in the summer months will cause bulbs to rot. Tulips must be dry in the summer months.
  • Choose a site that does not remain too wet in winter either. Poorly drained, saturated soils, or those with standing water will cause bulbs to rot.
  • For longevity, it is important for tulip bulbs to get the hot dry baking period in summer. Consider this when selecting a site.
  • If voles are a problem, drench bulbs in a repellant and let them dry before you plant them. Planting 10 inches deep will also place bulbs below the depth that moles and voles typically run.
  • Bone meal is useless and can even be detrimental to tulips. It provides only a small, extremely slow release of phosphorus, which is not lacking in most soils east of the Mississippi. It does however, attract any digging animal that wood be interested in eating bones.
  • Holland Bulb Booster was formulated by researcher Dr. Paul Nelson at North Carolina State University and provides just the right formula when applied at planting time in the fall. It is too caustic, however, to place against the base of bulbs in the planting hole. Heath recommends working the booster into the soil or using it as a top dressing.
  • Heath uses a compost tea, with fish emulsion added, to feed his plantings. If mixed with the compost tea and well brewed, the fish emulsion does not attract animals.
  • When planting bulbs very late in the season, it is helpful to remove the tunic (brown papery skin) from the base plate. This allows water to penetrate the bulb and encourages quicker rooting.
  • Water at planting time to encourage root growth because bulbs that do not grow roots before winter are susceptible to freezing. It is the development of roots that stimulates the compound that prevents bulbs from freezing.
  • Cut off the tulip’s seed heads as soon as the flower is spent. Seed development will rob the bulb of as much as 40 percent of its food supply.
  • When you plant tulips in containers, look for the more “bulbous,” rounded, side of the bulb. This is the side where the largest leaf will form, so place it on the outside to make your containers appear more uniform and full.
  • Grow Darwin Hybrids (like the Impression series) for longevity. These are the longest-lived tulips, apart from species types. Heath says that Fosteriana types (like Emperors) and single early tulips (like ‘Princess Irene’) also repeat well.

To Braid or Not To Braid

British gardening books often recommend weaving the leaves of tulips into neat braids after flowering is done and laying them in tidy rows until the foliage is spent and can be removed. The idea is that leaving the foliage intact allows for photosynthesis and food production for next year’s bloom.

While it is true that the foliage must remain to manufacture food, it is folly to think that sunlight can reach many
of the chlorophyll- producing chloroplasts when much of the foliage surface is not exposed. Leaving the foliage fully exposed to sunlight makes more sense. When the foliage begins to turn brownish and lose its bright green appearance, and when it begins to wrinkle and collapse, the chlorophyll production has slowed to a trickle and the foliage can be cut off.

Seven Sisters: Top Perennial Companions

Vernal Pea (Lathyrus vernus)—my flat-out favorite companion for bulbs; a bushy, non-climbing perennial relative of the more common sweet peas; forms a low mound covered with blue/reddish violets flowers in spring; also pink and white. Look for it at Meinke’s in Niles.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)—a woodland native whose white blooms come and go quickly; the double-flowering form (Sanguinaria canadensis ‘Multiplex’) has larger, quarter-sized blooms that look like exquisite miniature water lilies.

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis)—an outstanding bulb companion because it looks so good in all growth stages and then withers away along with the bulb foliage; leaving room for annuals; both pink and white flowers; or try the screaming chartreuse foliage of D. spectabilis ‘Goldheart’ with hot pink tulips.

Veronica ‘Waterperry Blue’—a dainty groundcover that spreads politely under a horizontal layer of small gray-green leaves; pale blue flowers look nice with species tulips; the
cultivar ‘Georgia Blue’ has deep peacock-blue flowers.

Soapwort (Saponaria oxymoides)—produces a blanket of tiny pink flowers in early to mid-spring; best in well-drained beds in full sun; cut back hard after flowering is finished and use as a companion for annuals.

Celandine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum)—a woodland native that’s a natural with tulips; large buttercup type flowers; blooms for a long period; not to be confused with the lesser celandine (Chelandonium majus), which is weedy and less showy.

Johnny-Jump-Up (Viola cornuta)—if you’re lucky, it will re-seed and come up each spring to bloom with your bulbs; try it with smaller species tulips in poor soils where other violas won’t grow.