plant files

Tulip Time

- a great time to decide which tulips to plant for next year

By Kate Bryant April 17, 2010

This lovely tulip – a Triumph type – has a powerful, deliciously citrusy fragrance, in addition to being a nuanced shade of orange. I think it pairs well with the apricot flowering currant bush (Ribes x gordonianum, to left) and the orange-twigged dogwood (Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, to right).

April is tulip season in our region – and definitely the best time to see tulips in bloom at the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm’s Tulip Fest in Woodburn (I recently wrote about Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm here). It’s also the perfect time to look at your own garden and think about where you’d like to add some tulips, daffodils or other spring bulbs. Best to do it now, while the memories of what you liked or didn’t like are still fresh in your mind.

Tulips are diverse in color and form. They range from diminutive species just a few inches high to two-foot tall plants with dramatic flowers. A scan through the tulip section of Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm, Brent & Becky’s or Van Engelen’s will quickly give you an idea of the diversity of forms and colors that are available.

The best time to plan your tulip planting for next spring is now, while the bulbs are in flower and you can see what they look like. By the time fall rolls around and the tulip and narcissus bulbs show up in the garden centers ready for planting, it’s sometimes hard to remember what colors and types you wanted where. As further incentive, spring is also a great time to buy them, as the selection is best and many bulb companies offer early bird discounts.

Tulips are not difficult to grow but here are a few useful things to know about them.

They come from southern Europe, North Africa and Central Asia, where winters are cool and wet (or cold and snowy) and summers are hot and dry.

Tulips do best when planted in well-drained soil in areas of the garden that don’t receive extra water in summer. If you plant tulips in heavy clay soil or in gardens where they receive summer irrigation, the bulbs often decline in size, rot and – in short – may not stick around much longer than a season or two.

So when you’re thinking of where to place them, think of warm, sunny places where they can bake dry in summer. After all, tulip bulbs were born to thrive in summer drought – their roots develop in the fall and winter when the rains come, flowers appear in spring, and then the tops dry up and their energy is stored underground during the hot, dry summer… until the rains come again in fall. Replicate a dry hillside in the Caucasus and your tulips should do well.

Luckily, our climate is naturally wet in winter and dry in summer so good perennial tulips tend to do pretty well for us anyway, as long as they dry out in summer and have reasonably good drainage. In my garden, tulips grow best planted in the drought-tolerant Mediterranean beds, where I have amended the soil with pumice and rarely water in summer.

If you must plant them in garden beds that receive summer water, just think of your tulips as springtime annuals. And if they come back next year, it will feel like a bonus.

Having said that, some tulips are more "perennial" than others. In general, "species" tulips (wild-growing types, not hybridized for color or form) tend to persist well in the garden and increase over time. These include tulips like Tulipa humilis, with hot pinkish-purple or red cupped flowers opening wide like stars and only 3-6" high or fragrant little Tulipa batalinii, with yellow or apricot flowers reaching 4-6" high. (These can be found in some of the bulb catalogs I list above.)

Another type that grows well in the garden are Darwin tulips – mostly nice, sturdy reds like the classic Apeldoorn and yellows like Golden Apeldoorn). When you see old Portland gardens with huge drifts of red and yellow tulips that look like they’ve been there forever, they are usually old-fashioned Darwin tulips that have naturalized.

On the other end of the spectrum are tulips like Prinses Irene and Gavota – these are Triumph tulips, considered the most short-lived types. After all, they are bred by the floral industry to be grown and sold as flowering bulbs in pots for a season and then thrown away. I too plant them in pots for myself and clients but I also plant some directly in my garden – I just refresh the plantings with some new bulbs every year so that there are always strong new plants growing amidst the older ones.

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