A rather frantic gardener called earlier this week to ask, “Have I wanted too long to plant my tulip bulbs?” With the arrival of this cold recent snap, it’s easy to think autumn is done, and it’s time to man the snow shovel.
No, it’s not too late. Inevitably, I venture out to plant bulbs on an autumn day when a cold wind is blasting in my face, and my fingers are frozen inside gloves. As long as you can work the soil, you can plant bulbs. Spring-flowering bulbs need cooler soil temperatures to root.
Remember: Bulbs are not seeds. They are alive and need to be planted in the fall. They will not last in storage — or that sack on a shelf in the garage.
The conversation eventually turned to a few trouble spots in her yard where she’s planted tulips year after year, but the flowers don’t seem to thrive, or return after one season. What can she plant for spring color?
The short answer: Tulips: Not classic Darwins or Dutch hybrids, but smaller, shorter and hardier species or wild tulips. Of course, the “wild” ones we plant are cultivated varieties that retain native characteristics.
T. tarda has found a home in the tough, shallow soil near the sidewalk at the corner of my house. It naturalizes easily and produces tulips that open wide in the sun to show off yellow stars bordered in creamy white.
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“Shogun” is another pretty one with pumpkin-colored, red-speckled flowers native to the Gissar Mountains in Tajikistan. T. clusiana “Tubergen’s Gem” are pure yellow, stroked with crimson on the outside. Flowers open wide in bright golden star-shapes.
Other varieties bloom in shades of red, pink and white, as well as two-toned and striped. Blooming is from early to late spring.
Experts claim it’s easier to kill wild/species tulips with kindness than it is with neglect. For best results, you need a spot in full sun with good drainage — rocky, sandy, dry or poor soil is fine — and away from sprinklers in summer. (Too much moisture will rot bulbs.)
These bulbs are smaller than garden tulips, so plant about four inches deep. Plant before the ground freezes hard, or when nights are consistently below 40 F. There is no need to add fertilize or compost to enrich the soil.
For the best display, plant bulbs in clusters scattered along walks, patios, in rock gardens, along fences and in sunny areas with low-growing plants with similar needs. Don’t cut back the foliage after blooming; allow it to wither away.