If you’ve been sick of the lead-up to the elections Tuesday — apart from the deep gratitude we should have for the ability to vote — you can look forward to Election Day as a promise of renewed life no matter what the outcome, by planting spring-flowering bulbs.
By Tuesday, it looks like we will have had our first frost and freeze — combined in one night — and it will probably feel more like we’re letting go of our summer green, and even of some of our autumnal color. So this is a good time to plant our next possible flowers, making sure, at any rate, to get the job done before the ground freezes.
Daffodils can take more shade than tulips, and they come back more reliably. I love the pink and white ones best. My planting of tall orange tulips two years ago came back last year, while only one of my three giant aliums made the return. I’m replenishing that supply this fall, because those huge spiky globes on a stick are so much fun in the spring, and I’m adding some viridiflora tulips and Christmas Dream tulips.
Christmas Dream tulips could sound like a contradiction in terms, a confusion of seasons. But I think the name is perfect. We’re planting them while we’re starting to look forward to Christmas. And somehow Christmas shines in any season.
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I also love when Christmas names are given to pink things. This tulip displays what is considered triadic harmony, garden writer Norman Winter of Georgia says, because it blooms in three shades: fuchsia pink, mauve rose and a deep rose pink.
When shopping for bulbs and planting them, remember to mass them in one color for the biggest impact. This is hard for me because I’m a sampler, wanting to try lots of kinds of things. I have already violated the rule by buying a Green With Envy mix — the viridiflora tulips so named because they have streaks of green through the petals.
Another way to make an impact is to plant bulbs that will bloom in the same season. While massive plantings such as those in neighborhoods often combine early-, mid- and late-season bloomers for a longer bloom period, “I’d rather have a big show and a short show than a mediocre show and a long show,” said Robin Macy, owner of Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine.
Pat McKernan at Botanica plants mainly mid- and late-season tulips, because that’s when people expect to see them. He does include some early-season ones, too, though, for the surprise factor.
Pat says there’s often a solitary bulb of one color that pops up in a sea of another color. “People think it’s so great that we screw up,” he says. But it’s either the result of distributor error, or a bulb survives in the ground and pops back up, he says.
A cute but maddening scenario happens at Botanica when gophers and squirrels move bulbs around. “They’re busy-bodies,” Pat says. “We’ve had gophers move like 25 bulbs and put them in a corner somewhere. Usually they chew off base plate so they don’t sprout. If they forget to do that, suddenly there’s a bouquet blooming in a corner.”
Robin also likes a variety of alliums. “I think alliums are underused. And there’s a bunch of different ones you can plant that are all different seasons. They’re just so amazing.”
Kari Ossman at Wichita State notes that tulips traditionally are planted in clumps; small clumps accent a small garden. And planting tulips in drifts rather than in lines make a small planting look larger, Winter writes.
“Masses of tulips do look gorgeous,” Kari says. “It signals spring, the beginning of hope. … We really try to hit the mark so we have this beautiful thing of color, raking the beds out and putting pre-emergent on top.”
At WSU, hitting the mark means watering the bed where the bulbs will be planted, raking it to level it, then watering again and raking again. When the soil is dry enough, the bulbs then are planted, and Treflan is put on top of the soil at the very last. “The pre-emergent keeps it clean until May,” Kari says. The tulips are watered during the winter if it’s a dry one. She’s seen tulips that have been watered grow taller than those that should have been watered and weren’t.
“Watering does really make a difference for your tulip health.”