'The Tulip Lady' Has Advice On Bulbs In Pots

November 26, 2009|By SUSAN REIMER

I once spent a fall weekend planting 150 tulip bulbs, and not a single one emerged in the spring.

Talk tulips with gardeners, and you will hear this kind of tale often. Plant them, and the dinner bell rings for deer, squirrels and chipmunks, rabbits, mice, moles and voles.

There are ways to confound the critters that dig up tulip bulbs, or tunnel to them, and consume them for the winter energy they need, and those methods include everything from guns and poison to wire cages and stinky sprays.

It is no wonder that many American gardeners consider bulbs too much trouble, an attitude that horrifies Anna Pavord, the English garden writer who has just published a sumptuous new book, "Bulb," with 600 vivid portraits of her favorites photographed by Andrew Lawson.

"I can't think why they should have gotten that impression," said Pavord by phone during the U.S. leg of her book tour, "unless they have been unlucky."

I don't know, I said: 150 missing tulip bulbs is more than a little bad luck.

In 40 years of gardening in Dorset, Pavord has had run-ins with creatures as well. The answer, she says, is to plant the ones they don't like - daffodils and alliums - in the ground and the rest in pots.

I've tried that before, too, without any success. The bulbs rotted in the pots.

But with advice from "the tulip lady," as she became known after her book, "The Tulip," was published, I am trying again.

The problem with my previous attempt was undoubtedly drainage. The winter rain and snow stayed in the pots and made the bulbs as soggy as overcooked potatoes.

At Pavord's suggestion, I filled each pot with at least 3 inches of stone and gravel in the bottom. Then I mixed two parts soil with one part soil conditioning gravel (I used Espoma's Soil Perfector), planted the bulbs, fertilized them and covered the top of the pot with more gravel.

"Make the pots as big as you possibly can," she said, suggesting the black plastic pots that plant material comes in. "Nothing less than 12 inches [in diameter], and I like 18 inches."

The gravel, she said, is necessary not only to discourage creatures from digging in the pots, but will also whisk away any rain or melting snow.

The pots will winter on my deck. "The rain can come as much as it likes. Leave them out to their own devices," she said.

In spring, when my garden begins to emerge, I will put the pots of blooming tulips in the bare spots. I hope to, anyway.

I picked up about 50 tulip bulbs - they are all on sale at garden centers now - and planted them in pots loaded with gravel last weekend, hoping the magic words of "the tulip lady" would protect them and cause them to bloom months from now.

"There is nothing quite like bulbs to mark the progression of the season," she said. "Iris, crocuses, daffodils, tulips, lilies. It does provide that absolute sense of a series of jewels in the garden. A way to remind yourself of the extraordinary extravagance of nature."

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