There's a remarkable amount of color in the landscape right now. As the foliage yellows and browns, fall blooms stand out more vividly; witness the glowing asters that populate the roadsides. The nasturtiums that are climbing throughout our vegetable garden glow like neon at dusk, as do the morning glories on foggy mornings. Too soon all this brightness will fade, but gardeners can take heart in knowing that planting bulbs now will bring colors back to the landscape in spring. An investment now in time and a bit of money can mean many seasons of tulips and daffodils lighting up spring perennial beds.

I've resisted planting tulips for many years because they weren't perennial enough for me. Planting them was a form of roulette; I gambled that they would return, but usually lost. Unlike daffodils, many of which will naturalize, multiplying for years, tulips put on a display for a couple of years and then disappear. And of course there's the deer factor: tulips are deer candy, while daffodils are, to deer, as broccoli was to a former president. But the deer seem to be giving our garden a break in recent years, not even bothering to nibble the hostas, and I'm tired of envying the tulip displays in other people's yards, so this is the year I'm planning to take the plunge and splurge on some tulips. But I'm hoping to increase the odds on their proliferation in my favor this year. First, I'm not just grabbing any tulip bulbs on offer. I've decided to take the experts' advice and buy the biggest, healthiest bulbs I can find and stick to old-fashioned varieties. According to one expert in the bulb business, gradual decline in flower quality is inescapable if you buy the large, hybridized tulips sold en masse by retailers every fall. These fancy hybrids have largely been bred for commercial pot-flower and cut-flower uses. Older varieties often perennialize better, as they were bred for gardens, not pots. Some varieties just last better, too, such as the single earlies, single lates, lily-flowered tulips, and species. Commonly planted in rock gardens, the specie tulips are generally earlier and shorter, yet will increase, with a single bulb becoming a clump in a very few years. They're not as showy as their taller relatives, but they do give you that bang for the buck.

No matter which tulip bulbs you eventually decide on, there are cultivation practices that will delay their decline. First, take care with your initial soil preparation. In the past I've gone out on a freezing late-October day, dug around a bit, planted the bulbs and called it good. Small wonder I haven't had a lot of "luck" with tulips. It's not a matter of luck; its cultivating deeply (at least 12 inches), putting in a lot of organic matter, such as compost or aged manure, and some bonemeal or rock phosphate. For continuing success, you need to repeat those soil improvements each season, and also need to give your bulbs spring fertilizer as well.

It's still a bit early for planting tulips around here. Tulips do best when planted in mid- to late fall, after the soil has thoroughly cooled — later is actually better than earlier with tulips. If you have your bulbs in hand, store them in open paper bags in a cool, dry spot while waiting to plant them. Where you plant your tulips is a significant factor in how well they will survive over the years. Bulb experts emphasize the importance of keeping tulips dry in summer. As tulips are native to Greece and Turkey, this best mimics their natural conditions. Try planting a few where you never water in summer, or near a thirsty shrub or tree, in a spot that gets lots of sun, and you'll see how well they return.



When you're ready to plant, set tulip bulbs about six inches apart from center to center (you can crowd them if you like that lush look) and six to eight inches deep. Scratch a tablespoon of bulb fertilizer into the surface soil, then water well and make sure the bulbs continue to have reliable moisture throughout their growing period, from fall planting through the ripening of their foliage. Then stop the watering, for the reasons described above.

Once spring arrives and all your fall planting efforts have resulted in dancing tulip blossoms, the most important thing to remember is to promptly remove all spent flowers, leaving as much of the flower stem as possible, along with all leaves. Experts all agree that the stem is worth four times the value of one leaf. All the nutrition that goes into creating a tall stem needs to be able to flow back down into the bulb, where it will be available for the production of next year's flower. The more green area available for photosynthesis to take place, the more stored sugar, and the more stored sugar, the bigger the bulbs, so don't take away the stem, which has a lot of surface area for sugar production to occur. Removing the blossoms, or deadheading, also ensures that no energy will go into the production of seed pods. Also remember that, should you pull the entire stem completely out of the bulb, it will create an opening in the bulb where rot can set in.

Even though brown and droopy tulip foliage is unsightly, it's necessary to the future health of the bulbs. Plan on planting some concealing spring annuals around the dying foliage to disguise it. Although a bed of tulips is a traffic-stopper, its bloom time is, alas, brief, so why not extend the bloom season by planting annuals in spring as soon as you see the first tulip shoots emerge from the soil? Just remember to choose lower-growing annuals in front of taller tulip varieties. Simple, old-fashioned varieties like Johnny Jump Ups, sweet alyssum or forget-me-nots work well. If the annuals are already blooming when you put them in, they'll be ready to accent the opening tulip blossoms.

If all the soil amending and deadheading seems like a lot of work for just the possibility of long-term bloom for your tulips, there is one age-old method of bulb preservation: dig them up every summer, store them in a cool, dry spot, and replant them in the fall. You'll end up with more bulbs every year, guaranteed. You may not feel it's necessary to do this, and take the chance on just a few good years of display. Either way, tulips and spring just seem to go together, so throw caution to the winds, gather together bulbs, shovel, trowel, compost, fertilizer and watering can and look forward to a more colorful spring.