Passing the bulb department at the nursery, a young shopper asked me, “How do I grow tulips with long, strong necks and big sturdy flowers”.
Being the expert that I am and full of endless gardening wisdom, I asked “Have you grown tulips before?” “No”, she said, but they just seemed like the obvious bulb to her, since they are so widely promoted, readily available and seem to be the poster child of the bulb world.
She was eager. I was poised. Here was an inexperienced, impressionable young gardening student, ready to submit to my vast tulip growing teachings. In my mind I began organizing my tulip dissertation to this helpless horticultural pupil. First will be my introductory comments, followed by specific cultural details, a few personal tips and tricks, and, if time permitted, I would finish with a brief question and answer period. I was ready to give her a proper schooling on the details of tulip culture here in coastal Southern California. Where was her pencil and paper? Perhaps an easel and pad would help me with my lesson. No time, the bell has rung; class is in session.
I took a deep breath, looked her straight in the eye and began . . . first I detailed the chilling process for the tulip bulbs in her hands, with lots of precautions about too much time in the refrigerator, the ethylene gas problem, the paper vs. plastic bag debate, frostless vs. frosting refrigerators, 45Ù’ F, etc., etc. The instruction progressed as I moved to Lesson Two, the precise moment of planting; mid to late November, no sooner, no later. And they must go directly from refrigerator to soil, with little delay, for their false-winter treatment to be effective.
Lesson Three was about the all important planting depth; up to 9 inches for most varieties in our climate, unless in clay soil, or with undersized bulbs, or multiflora varieties, etc. etc. By now I was on a roll, my personal seminar well underway. I was quite impressed with myself and felt as if my tulip growing symphony, now well into its fourth movement, was perfectly orchestrated and moving toward a final crescendo. Perhaps an encore would be requested.
But not too quick! I had to tell her to take care of which tulip varieties to select. Not the Darwin tulips, Rembrandt tulips or Fosteriana tulips. Stay away from the Kaufmanniana, Greigii and Triumph tulips too. I warned to not be swayed by pretty pictures, but to look carefully for the term “single-late” somewhere in the fine print of the package.
Gardeners Note: Hippeastrum is the true name of the common garden bulb that many of us know as Amaryllis.
I spewed more instructions about other processes and treatments; bone Meal, soil amendments, gypsum, and pH all were mentioned, whatever was necessary for the greatest likelihood of big, long-stemmed tulip success.
As I neared the end of my tulip growing symphony I struggled to convey my final point. Even with all this careful tulip planning, there was no guarantee of glorious flowers on tall, sturdy, straight stems. “Sometimes, for unknown reasons, tulips just don’t cooperate”, I said.
My student’s eyelids had grown heavy by now and she wobbled slightly in her stance. Her tulip eagerness had turned to despair, drowned in crushing details. She was discouraged.
To make things worse, my epilogue was still not delivered. “Of course, tulips are a one use bulb”, I said. “After they bloom, they’re done”. “Throw them out; they won’t come back next year”, I explained.
That did it. Now, after my flawless tulip class, she asked “Is there anything a little easier”? Well yes . . .
“There are amaryllis bulbs”, I stated.
“Amaryllis are sometimes called “The tulip of the South” because they’re so easy here”. I explained that all they need are a little sun and they bloom every year with lots of flowers, sometimes twice a year. The flowers are huge, the foliage beautiful, the clumps multiply freely and you don’t ever need to dig them up. They come in a variety of colors, they don’t need chilling, can be planted anytime and you only need to dig a shallow hole.
“That’s fine” she said. “I’ll take some Amaryllis bulbs instead”. “Good choice”, I said.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar.
Questions from Readers November 7.
Question: Last week you mentioned a new book by Past Welsh coming out in late November of 2010. Did you mean 2009?
Answer: My mistake. Pat Welsh’s new book, Pat Welsh's Southern California Organic Gardening, should hit the shelves of local garden centers in another three weeks, not next year – just in time for your Christmas shopping or for the new gardening year.