WRITTEN BY VALERIE EASTON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY RICHARD HARTLAGE
Tip To The Tulips
For color and variety galore, pack your pots now
Planted in generous quantities, Tulipa ‘Concerto’ is a symphony of subtle shades.
AS TULIPS COME into their fringed and blowsy glory, it's easy to understand why they intoxicated the 17th-century Dutch into a frenzy of speculation. Tulips were a sign of wealth and status, and a single prized bulb could bankrupt a man. But it wasn't just the Europeans. In Turkey, the early 1700s were known as the "Tulip Era," their motif embroidered on cloth and etched in tiles as the symbol of the Ottoman Empire. What inspired such passion for a flower?
In part, it was the practical fact that the dried bulbs were easily traded and shipped, but it was also for the same reasons we love tulips today. Because they tend to "break" into streaks and flecks of color, tulips are especially showy and variable. This patterning was so sought after perhaps because it was tantalizingly unpredictable, as well as startlingly lovely. Tulip fanciers were never quite sure what they were getting. It was only in 1928, when microscopes became more powerful and viruses better understood, that a London scientist discovered the unromantic truth: An aphid-transmitted virus causes all that beautiful petal patterning.
If tulips aren't the style-setters they were in centuries past, growing them in pots looks fresh and fashionable, and is rewarding because tulips have the greatest color range of any of the spring-blooming bulbs. From the palest gossamer 'White Dream' to the dramatically tousled 'Black Parrot' there's a tulip for every color scheme. A massed container planting of a single kind of tulip is just about the prettiest garden picture possible, oozing springtime from every glossy petal.
Planting tulips in pots is the best way I've found to ignore the truth it took me years to admit — most are not truly perennial. After the first year in the ground, tulips tend to decline in vigor and size. This isn't true for the smaller species tulips, which are long-lived and ideal for rockeries or front of the border. But the tall, stately and flamboyant parrots, lily-flowered and late doubles, such as the popular 'Angelique' and 'Mount Tacoma,' are realistically more annual than perennial. When planting tulips in the ground, you need a spot in the sun with sharp drainage. Plant them as deep as a foot to encourage them to be as perennial as possible.
In many gardens, heavy soil, overcrowded borders or too much shade can make it difficult if not impossible to plant enough tulips to put on any kind of show. So why not avoid dissipating their beauty and choose instead to find a sunny porch, steps or patio to put in a pot or two? Here tulips will have maximum impact, seen elevated and up close.
How to use bulbs best
Use as large a pot as you can drag into a sunny spot; you want to fill it with tulips because nothing is more discouraging than a skimpy display. Crowd in as many bulbs as you can, planting them twice the depth of the bulb and very close together but not quite touching. For some reason, an uneven number of tulips always looks better than an even number.
Buy good-quality potting soil that has plenty of amendments to help it drain quickly, and toss a couple of handfuls of bulb food deep in the pot and mix well with the soil before adding the bulbs.
For maximum impact stick to just tulips. Pansies, primroses or wallflowers are good companions planted in separate pots you can rearrange as the flowers peak and fade, or tone tulip colors to nearby plantings.
If you didn't get around to planting up pots last fall, nurseries accommodate all us procrastinators by selling flats of tulips this time of year. Look as if you planned ahead by crowding already sprouted bulbs into a pot for an instant tulip extravaganza.
When the tulips are through flowering, you can transfer them to the ground if you have room and want to try coaxing them back next year. Presto — an empty pot all ready to pot up summer annuals, just when coleus, abutilons and basil are ready to go outside.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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