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Buying, planting bulbs now is worth springtime beauty

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 11:52 p.m. MDT

Tulip blossoms at the Kukenhouf Garden in the Netherlands. (Larry Sagers) Tulip blossoms at the Kukenhouf Garden in the Netherlands. (Larry Sagers)

A previous column extolled the romance and the history of flowering tulips. However, romance and intrigue do not a good garden make. It is time to learn the steps to make a resplendent spring garden by planting this fall.

Fortunately, the growers have done a great job in providing you with the tools to make a beautiful garden. Although the tulip bulbs might resemble shriveled onions, they include everything they need to produce a beautiful blossom next spring.

As a gardener, you have to provide very little to bring forth these beautiful blossoms. Following a few simple steps will help you create a magical spring wonderland.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked is, "How do you get such big tulip flowers?" It is easy to have your breath almost taken away as you see gigantic, fist-sized blossoms on top of long, slender stems.

Tulip blossoms at the Kukenhouf Garden in the Netherlands. (Larry Sagers) Tulip blossoms at the Kukenhouf Garden in the Netherlands. (Larry Sagers)

People want to know how they should fertilize, how they should water and what else they should do to make these gigantic blossoms. The answer is, "None of the above." If you want gigantic blossoms, buy big bulbs. The huge bulbs produce huge blossoms. The correlation is unmistakable — you don't get king-size blossoms out of bargain-basement bulbs.

You have to plant the bulbs at the right time. All tulips require a cold treatment to bloom the next spring. Buying bulbs and then waiting to plant them in the spring is a sure way to have few if any flowers. The bulbs do not need to be frozen but they do need to stay cold.

Some gardeners like to play tulip roulette, but I don't recommend it. When playing tulip roulette, you wait as late as you possibly can before you tear out your summer flowers, then you come in and plant your bulbs.

Tulip blossoms at the Kukenhouf Garden in the Netherlands. (Larry Sagers) Tulip blossoms at the Kukenhouf Garden in the Netherlands. (Larry Sagers)

The danger? Who wants to shovel snow off their garden to plant their bulbs and their other spring flowers? They do best if they are planted in relatively warm soil in the fall. Even more important, pansies and other flowers planted over the top of the bulbs need about six weeks of good growing weather in the fall to establish a good root system.

Tulips tolerate a wide range of soil types, but they do not tolerate waterlogged soils. If your soil drains poorly during the winter season, add coarse organic matter to improve the drainage, create raised growing beds or grow your bulbs in containers using soil-free growing mixes.

The bulbs do not need any fertilizer to bloom the first season. Everything the flower needs is safely stored inside the bulb, and the bloom size is determined by how the bulb grew the previous season. Soil fertility comes into play the second season if the bulbs are left in place.

Tulip blossoms at the Kukenhouf Garden in the Netherlands. (Larry Sagers) Tulip blossoms at the Kukenhouf Garden in the Netherlands. (Larry Sagers)

While the concept might be difficult to understand, it is possible to bloom most spring flowering bulbs without ever planting them in soil if the chilling, light other requirements are met.

The bulbs are happiest in the soil. Plant them with the pointed end up. Plant them at a depth of at least three times the diameter of the bulb. If the bulbs are not planted deep enough, the freezing and thawing of the soil move the bulb to the soil surface, where it dries out and dies.

Another common complaint when growing tulips is, "Why don't my tulips look as good this year as they did last year?" Most tulips are decreasers, meaning that they have their largest blooms the year after they are planted.

The follow-up question is. "What can I do to make bigger blossoms the next year?" Give the bulb the year off. Instead of letting it bloom, cut off the flower bud. Most gardeners don't want to do that, so plan on buying some new bulbs each season to mix with your existing collection.

Tulip blossoms at the Kukenhouf Garden in the Netherlands. (Larry Sagers) Tulip blossoms at the Kukenhouf Garden in the Netherlands. (Larry Sagers)

Tulips are quite pest-free as long as you plant good, quality bulbs in well-drained soil. Few insects are active when the tulips are growing and most diseases are rots that become a problem when the soil is kept too wet.

The big devastators of tulips are the four-legged creatures. Deer, rabbits, squirrels, mice, voles and almost any other rodent love the nutrient-rich bulbs. These creatures can destroy hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tulip bulbs in one season.

Keeping the creatures under control is easier said than done. Keep deer away by fencing or by mesh over the top of the beds. Burrowing rodents are hard to discourage — some gardeners have success by planting daffodil, allium or fritillaria bulbs in their beds.

That method is not foolproof, so for some the only solution is to let others grow the bulbs in their gardens and make periodic visits there.

The springtime beauty is worth the effort. Buy your bulbs and get them planted to create magical and wonderful spring flowers in your landscape.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.

Garden Tips

The Utah Giant Pumpkin Growers weigh-off is Saturday, Sept. 29, at Thanksgiving Point from noon-3 p.m. For information on entering pumpkins and other giant vegetables, go to www.utahpumpkin growers.com/index.html.

Red Butte Garden Bulb and Native Plant Sale is Friday, Sept. 28, from 3 p.m.-7:30 p.m. and on the 29th from 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. in the courtyard behind the Visitor's Center. Find a great selection of native and waterwise perennials, trees and shrubs, as well as a variety of ornamental grasses and flowering perennials. Staff and volunteers will answer questions and assist with plant selection. Cost is the regular garden admission and is free for members.

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