New in Fall 2018 – Colorblends Tulip Blend Votive Motif™ presents a mix of two-tone clusiana tulips for mid-spring bloom of a different sort. Diminutive clusianas are known for their wild tulip look with striped, elongated flowers on slim stems. In full sun their pointed petals open wide; as light dims they close tight. (Photo: ©
New in Fall 2018 – Colorblends Tulip Blend Votive Motif™ presents a mix of two-tone clusiana tulips for mid-spring bloom of a different sort. Diminutive clusianas are known for their wild tulip look with striped, elongated flowers on slim stems. In full sun their pointed petals open wide; as light dims they close tight. (Photo: ©
In Texas it’s bluebonnets. The Southwest, golden poppies. Magnolias and azaleas do it for Dixie, and ferns and hellebores the Pacific Northwest. But if it’s spring in Maine, there must be tulips. Deer may munch them, chipmunks nibble the bulbs and a gradual decline in flower quality is virtually inescapable, but after the dull greys and slush white of a northern winter, few gardeners can resist the candy-bright tones of a bed of tulips.

Not just any tulips will do. Who among us hasn’t bought some discount store bags of tulip bulbs and, for at least one spring, had a worthwhile display? But to increase the odds on their proliferation, take the experts’ advice and buy the biggest, healthiest bulbs you can find and stick to old-fashioned varieties. According to one expert in the bulb business, the large hybridized tulip bulbs sold en masse by retailers every fall are often fancy hybrids that have 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 species 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, especially planted close to a path or near the house, where they can be easily seen.

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 you need to give your bulbs spring fertilizer, as well.

While now is the time to start buying your fall bulbs, it’s still early for planting tulips around here, especially in this hotter-than-usual season. Tulips do best when planted mid- to late fall, after the soil has thoroughly cooled — later is actually better than earlier with tulips. Once you have your bulbs, if temperatures remain elevated, 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 extend their seasons of bloom.

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 needed to create a tall stem has 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 that stem. 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, droopy tulip foliage is unsightly, it’s necessary to the future health of the bulbs. Concealing spring annuals can conceal the dying foliage, or consider planting some “Purissima Blondes.” These special tulips have foliage as handsome as Hosta aureomarginata, the hostas with broad golden margins. Occasionally, a bulb grower will find a plant with a yellow- or white-colored rim on its leaves, but the blossom isn’t necessarily a good one. In the case of Purissima Blonde, it was stock worth breeding and, after years of growing, the bulbs have begun to appear on the market. This variety’s foliage will remain attractive while it stores its needed nutrients.

Best known for their immense blooms, Fosteriana tulips are more commonly known as Emperor Tulips, and the names of many of the varieties reflect this (Red Emperor, White Emperor, Orange Emperor, etc.). They are an early-flowering variety and a good choices to give your tulip plantings a more lasting presence in your garden. These elegant tulips were cultivated from a wild species of tulips found in the mountains of Central Asia, which explains their ability to come back year after year, even under drought-like conditions. Their bright colors make huge impacts when planted in large drifts, and some even have an amazing fragrance. Except for the short rock garden tulips, these will probably be the first tulips to flower in your garden, and their bright colors mix well with the bright blues of other minor bulbs that flower at the same time.

Greigii tulips were developed from the Tulipa greigii species, native to Turkestan. Fairly short as tulips go, the blooms are very large in proportion to the plant as a whole. They come in very bright colors, like red and yellow, and the flowers open wide in full sun, creating cup-shaped blooms that can be more than five inches in diameter when fully open. Because of their diminutive stature, Greigii tulips are ideal for rock gardens and containers. They have an added attraction in that the leaves are usually patterned with stripes or spots, in purple or brown, and, if left alone, they come back year after year and even multiply.

No article on growing tulips in Maine is complete without mentioning The Deer Problem. The most practical gardeners will say, “Cut your losses: plant daffodils,” advice which will result in less depredation but also less color, although narcissus Apricot Whirl has huge blossoms that are a swirl of warm salmon-pink against a background of luminous white petals. Others suggest throwing the deer off the scent by surrounding the tulips with a bed of daffodils or mixing deer-repelling alliums in with them. This is my best suggestion: keep the tulip beds close to your dwelling, where the scent of people and dogs coming and going will help deter them. It may be every gardener’s dream to have drifts of tulips about the property, but a tidy yet brilliant dooryard bed is a welcoming harbinger of the season. Limit your drifts of spring blooms and narcissus throughout the lawn. Call it “gardening without tears.”