Dig Those Tulips

THE REAL DIRT

September 13, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Each summer during the flood of incoming tulip catalogs, I think of Tiny Tim.

He turned me on to tulips 25 years ago.

Remember Tiny Tim, the singer? Stringy black hair and a beak. Played the ukulele. Falsetto voice like a frightened canary. Sang "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."

That tune was such a hit that I went out and bought my first bag of tulip bulbs and stuck them in the front yard. To heck with soil requirements. Tiny Tim's music made tulips fun to grow.

Despite my ignorance, the bulbs survived. Every tulip bloomed the following spring, and I hummed a familiar song as I tiptoed through the garden, inspecting the petals and enjoying their fragrance. There were lily-flowering tulips, several peony types, a couple of huge Darwins and one gorgeous Rembrandt, which looked as if the artist himself had slipped down from heaven and painted it overnight.

I was darn proud of those tulips and anticipated seeing them for years to come. Alas, they never returned. The second spring yielded a few bits of twisted foliage, but no flowers; the third year produced nothing.

Stardom was fleeting for my tulips. Heck, they couldn't even outlast Tiny Tim.

Undaunted, I bought more bulbs and tried again. This time I pampered the tulips, sweetening the soil with ground limestone and bone meal, their favorite food. I even mulched the bed in winter. No matter. The tulips flowered once and vanished.

Baffled, I did what any normal weekend gardener would do.

I gave up.

Years later, I learned the truth: I hadn't killed the tulips, they're made to self-destruct. Tulip bulbs regularly split into smaller bulbs, thereby weakening the plants and shortening their lives. (Other bulbs, such as daffodils, do not blow up. When daffodils multiply, the mother bulb remains intact.)

Tulips face other problems. Deer eat the leaves. Squirrels eat the flowers. Mice and moles eat the bulbs. (The English used to eat the bulbs, which were once considered an aphrodisiac.)

At around $1 apiece, tulips are expensive, especially when planted in sweeping drifts for best effect. Yet for many gardeners, the awesome brilliance of these plants in early spring is worth every cent.

In fact, tulip prices have been slashed since the 17th century, when tulipmania gripped Europe and single bulbs sometimes sold for thousands of dollars.

"Tulips were the junk bonds of another era," writes Katherine Whiteside in her book "Classic Bulbs." Holland was particularly rocked by insider trading of tulips.

A similar tulip frenzy struck Turkey in the 18th century, which seems odd since the bulbs are native to the region. Turkish sultans held all-night parties in dazzling tulip gardens illuminated by lighted candles carried on the backs of huge turtles.

At the same time, in the early 1700s, Dutch colonists introduced tulips to America, where settlers routinely dug up all the bulbs in early summer, and replanted them in fall.

Few people take time for that nowadays. It's easier to buy new bulbs each fall.

Yet it is possible for gardeners to prolong the lives of their tulips by following a few basic rules:

* Plant the bulbs deeper than normal, 9 inches instead of the usual 6. This produces larger, longer-lasting flowers, and plants that may survive for several years. It also reduces the threat of bulb damage by predators.

* Try the compact, low-growing species tulips, which produce smaller blooms but which tend to return year after year.

* Order bulbs now, but wait until October or November to plant them. Unlike most other fall-planted bulbs, the tulip gets confused in warm weather and tries to come up immediately. Frost usually kills the foliage, sapping the plant's strength and shortening its life.

Coddle your tulip and the bulbs may glow for years.

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