Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Learn to Plant Perfect Tulips

Tulips When I first planted tulip bulbs in the front yard, I thought I had done the job once and for all. So I was surprised to see our neighbor, who has been gardening for 40 years, replanting his tulip bed. "Tulip bulbs don't last as long as daffodils; they tend to lose vitality as they age," he explained. To be sure of having a nice display, he replants his tulip bed every five or six years, or whenever he notices that the tulips are declining. Well-prepared plantings tend to have a longer productive life than spot-plantings. The soil will be loose and the drainage better and the bulbs will be less likely to be surrounded by air pockets, which discourage growth. If you've been tucking tulip bulbs in here and there, using a dibber or trowel, you might want to try this planting method. Wait until the soil is cool before putting the bulbs in the ground. For most gardens, that's sometime between mid-October and mid-November. Pick a site with excellent drainage; never plant tulips in a waterlogged spot. Although many cultivars will bloom in light filtered shade, most perform best in full sun. (Bulbs that receive too little sun are not able to store enough energy to bloom a second year.) The blooms will last longer if the planting is sheltered from wind. 1. PREPARE A HOLE It need not be rectangular. A circular, or free form, bed might be preferable for your site. Dig to a depth of 10 to 12 inches, and then thrust your digging fork into the bottom of the hole to aerate the bed a bit more. Next return a couple of inches of the soil you removed to the bottom of the hole so that the bulbs will rest on loose, free-draining soil with no air pockets. Smooth the bottom surface to make it level. If the neighborhood wildlife has gobbled up many of your flower bulbs in the past, consider encircling the hole with a barrier of small-gauge chicken wire or hardware cloth. If the hole is particularly large, you could encircle groups of bulbs within it. Some gardeners line the entire thing, bottom and sides up to soil level, with an open box of half-inch mesh hardware cloth. These wire barriers should be smoothed into place before the first few inches of loose soil is shoveled back into the hole. 2. FIRM THE BULBS INTO PLACE Planting Tulips If the bulbs are all planted at the same depth, they'll bloom together. Keep the pointed growing tip of the bulb on top and press the rounded bottom into the loose earth. Use a slight twisting motion to ensure that each bulb is in good contact with the soil. Set tulip bulbs six to eight inches deep. That is, they should rest on a surface six to eight inches below ground level. If planted too deeply, they waste energy working their way up to the light. Bulbs that are too close to the surface, on the other hand, are more likely to be damaged by soil heaving or eaten by rodents, who consider them a delicacy. Also, shallowly planted bulbs tend to divide into many small bulbs, none large enough to bloom, and they may be more vulnerable to Botrytis blight. Space the bulbs about eight inches apart. The planting will be showier if bulbs are grouped rather than strung out in a single line. When planting many bulbs at one time, protect them from prolonged exposure to sunlight, which may induce surface cracks (entry spots for fungi and bacteria). 3. FILL IN THE HOLE Use a nice sandy loam if you have it, and if you have some finished compost, mix it with the soil you use to fill the hole. Tulips have been found to require a good supply of nitrogen, so if you don't add compost, you might mix in dehydrated or thoroughly rotted manure. (Avoid using fresh manure; it may burn the bulbs.) Gardeners also have traditionally added bone meal, an excellent source of phosphorous, to the soil when planting bulbs. If you use a chemical fertilizer, that, too, should be mixed with the soil that you put back into the hole. Shovel the soil in gently at first, so the bulbs don't get jostled out of position. Fill the entire hole with soil, making sure it is in contact with every bulb surface. Finish off by mounding the soil slightly above ground level (it will sink as it settles). 4. WATER IN AND MULCHTulips Watering encourages root growth. Use a sprinkler or soaker hose for gradual penetration to a depth of 10 to 12 inches. If you can manage to do your bulb planting just before a good soaking fall rain, you won't need to water. Mulching helps control weeds and conserve soil moisture; use leaf mold, compost, shredded bark, or other attractive organic materials. One or two inches should be enough. Don't pile much more than that over your bulbs or next spring the stems will have to travel too far to reach the light. Nancy Bubel

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