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Hamptons Life

Oct 7, 2019 10:45 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Plant And Protect Tulips That Will Come Back Year After Year

Tulip bulbs need to be planted ‘nose’ (pointed tip) up about 6 inches deep in the soil measured from the base of the bulb. ANDREW MESSINGER
Oct 7, 2019 11:11 AM

Several years ago, in early May I received an urgent call from a condo property manager for some help. It seems that their landscape contractor had a crew on site that was weeding some beds that had been full of blooming tulips just weeks previously. Wanting to get the begonias planted in these beds ASAP, the crew yanked every single tulip out by its lush green foliage. When I queried the manager as to why this had been done he simply explained that tulips last for only a year — don’t they?

Well, there’s more than a month of planting time, and the garden center bulb bins are brimming with tulip bulbs wanting to be in your garden. The crew supervisor in the above situation is long gone and hopefully reeducated. I’ll bet that once again the condo complex is about ready to plant hundreds of “replacement” bulbs.

The tulip, for all its spectacular spring beauty, is one of the easiest flowers to grow and yet many gardeners — and apparently some alleged professionals — don’t understand them. Plant a bulb in the fall and even the blackest of thumbs can rightfully expect to see a beautiful flower come spring. But getting a tulip to perform well in the second, third or even the fifth year is another story.

Why is this so? The tulip, as duly noted in horticultural texts, is a perennial flower (or geophyte). This means that a tulip should be expected to return and bloom year after year, but for all intents and purposes this isn’t always the case. Most tulip lovers (or love/haters) content themselves with treating it as an annual, replanting again each fall, or every other fall. But, if tulips are perennial, then why don’t they always behave that way? The answer to this pressing horticultural puzzle is surprisingly simple.

“Tulips are indeed true perennials,” explained Frans Roozen, the technical director of the International Flower Bulb Center in Hillegom, the Netherlands, when I posed the question to him several years ago. “Getting them to bloom in your readers’ gardens year after year is no problem, if your garden happens to be located in the foothills of the Himalayas or the steppes of eastern Turkey.”

According to Mr. Roozen, the tulip, an oriental native first introduced to the Western world over 400 years ago, is at its perennial best in conditions that match the cold winters and hot, dry summers of its native regions. Sound familiar? Cold winters (check, well sometimes) and hot dry summers (double check, well most years anyway).

The next logical question, since virtually all of our tulips are grown in Holland, one of the wettest countries on earth, is how this can be. And Mr. Roozen smiled, answering, “That takes a bit of know-how.” And indeed, they do know how.

Mr. Roozen explained that Holland’s sandy soil (familiar again?) and the proven ability of the Dutch to perform miracles of hydraulic engineering (translated to mean that they can get water to do just about anything they want) actually offer some of the most excellent growing conditions for tulip bulbs on the planet. To get the bulbs to not only return but to multiply (a sort of prerequisite for supporting an ongoing industry) is a bit more problematic.

“Professional Dutch growers subject their plant stock to an ingenious series of heat and humidity treatments each summer before planting,” explained Roozen. Developed over the past 400 years, this manipulation of temperature and humidity levels allows growers today to perfectly replicate the tulips’ native habitat.” But, the Dutch are still subject to the anomalies of the weather such as one summer’s drought and extreme heat or another’s flooding.

By the time the bulbs are tucked into the sandy Dutch soil for their winter’s sleep and Ma Nature’s cold treatment, the bulbs have been fooled into thinking they’ve been through another summer drought in the Himalayas. This is why the Dutch growers always have scads of tulip bulbs to sell each fall, and the rest of us, left to our own climactic devices, have dwindling stocks.

Mr. Roozen warns home gardeners: “Don’t try this at home as the process for temperature treating bulbs is quite tricky, requiring years of experience and expensive climate control systems such as the ones you’d see in Dutch bulb sheds.”

But for those of us who live a just a few miles from Turkey and at an altitude of about 50 feet above sea level instead of 8,000 feet higher, Mr. Roozen has provided some tips and guidelines for East End gardeners:

• Choose tulips that are marked good for “naturalizing” or “perennializing.” This characteristic is usually pointed out in catalogs, on garden center signage or marked on the packs of bulbs bought in stores.

• Generally, species of botanical tulips and their hybridized strains are a best bet. These are cultivated bulbs that have not been extensively crossbred and thus are very close to the bulbs found in nature. Though crossbreeding or hybridizing sometimes diminishes a tulip’s ability to “perennialize,” other times it enhances this ability. Such is the case for the following varieties: Keizerkroon, Christmas Marvel, Coleur Cardinal, Don Quichhotte, Golden Melody, Kees Nelis, all Darwin hybrids, Burgundy Lace, Aladdin, Maytime, Ballade, White Triumphator and Red Sunshine.

• Plant bulbs in a well-drained area. This is always good advice for bulbs and is essential for naturalizing. Plant away from roof runoff and downspouts.

• Plant tulip bulbs deep, about 8 inches deep, measuring from the base of the bulb.

• Water bulbs after planting. Though standing water is not good for bulbs, sufficient water is necessary to get them growing. Watering is especially important right after planting to ensure that the plants develop a strong root system before winter dormancy.

• In the spring, after the blossoms have passed their peak, clip off the flower heads and allow the green foliage to grow until it browns. This technique lets the plant put all its energy into building a strong bulb (and flower) for next year. Don’t let your gardener or landscaper tie them in bundles, cut them back or rip out the foliage.

• Fertilize in fall and spring. Healthy bulbs have more than enough food stored up to ensure a vigorous bloom the first season. But if a comeback performance is desired and if your bulbs are not planted in the most magnificent soil, then some feeding will be necessary. Well-rotted cow manure is excellent or apply a bulb fertilizer each fall. Do not use bone meal as it is virtually useless but do consider super phosphate. In spring, as the shoots first appear, a balanced or high-nitrogen liquid fertilizer can help promote foliage growth and the foliage “feeds” the bulb for future performance.

Remember though, deer and squirrels know the very second you plant tulips. While it’s easy to imagine squirrels digging them up, many a neophyte planter is shocked to find that deer will actually dig them up as well. Using a bulb dip prior to planting will give you protection the first year, and a surface applied repellent will work the second and successive years. But once rooted, the bulbs are less likely to be robbed. The best dip I know of is Bobbex-R (only the R formulation works for this) and if you can’t find it locally you can order it directly at bobbex.com. Dip the bulbs directly in the concentrate for about 3 minutes, allow to air dry, then plant.

Another trick we use is to take plastic deer fencing and, using sod staples, apply the fencing over the ground where tulips are installed. This foils the deer and, in the spring, when the foliage begins to emerge the fencing is lifted and stored. But don’t forget to protect the foliage — the battle isn’t over yet. Keep growing.

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