The head of the Horticulture Department at North Carolina State University when I was a student there was one of the world’s foremost authorities on bulbs. My other professors included national and international leaders in floriculture. It was my classmate Clara Allen, however, who taught me the most about tulips.
“Look at that,” she said pointing out a tulip during one of our lab exercises. “So simple, so elegant.” The tulip was her favorite flower, and when she got married she was going to have tulips and heather in her bouquet.
At the time I had pretty much written off tulips, dismissing them as carnival confections that didn’t grow well in our Southern soils or climate. People who asked for tulips were the same ones who asked for roses and daisies – they didn’t know anything else.
Clara wasn’t the snob I was. Just because tulips are well-known and well-liked is no reason to disparage them. And her observation about tulips was right on target. There is something simple, something elegant, about the basic tulip form.
Thanks to Clara I started looking more closely at tulips. I started to appreciate them, and I started planting them. And I’ve been pleased with the results. While tulips are not the reliable perennials in the South that daffodils and some other bulbs are, gardeners here can get several years of bloom if they improve soil drainage, select the right varieties and fertilize properly.
Our heavy clay is one of the biggest detriments to getting tulips to live and provide several years worth of blooms. It holds too much water and not enough air. Mix in organic matter such as compost, and prepare the planting area to a depth of 12 to 14 inches. Coarse sand can also be added to help lighten clay soil. Planting in a raised bed is also an option.
Plant the bulbs at least six inches deep to help protect them from wide temperature shifts in winter and premature warming in the spring. Early spring warming can lead to poor performance next year. Feeding with a bulb fertilizer such as Bulb Booster is beneficial at planting and when the leaves emerge in spring.
I have had excellent repeat performances from the yellow lady tulip (Tulipa clusiana var. chrysantha) and from ‘Come-Back,’ a red Darwin Hybrid named because of its ability to keep blooming for several years. A friend in Birmingham reports having a clump of yellow ‘Mrs. John T. Scheepers’ blooming for 15 years at the top of a rock retaining wall, good drainage being the key to her long-term success. There are hundreds of tulip varieties. I don’t have space to try even a fraction of all the ones I’d like, so my recommendations are severely limited. My opinion is if you see a color or variety you like, give it a try.
I caught up with my old college friend recently. She is now Clara Curtis and Associate Director for Design at The North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville.
Clara stressed the importance of well-drained soil for tulips, and said that gardeners should try interplanting them with other things. She suggested creating “bulb pockets” amid groundcovers such as pachysandra or liriope. Planting tulips or other bulbs in these pockets of amended soil will add splashes of welcome color in the spring.
“I don’t have to tell you to plant them in clumps rather than in rows,” she said. (Remember she is the Associate Director for Design.)
Clara recommended Southerners try the Emperor and Triumph classes of tulips. She also told me that some tulip varieties may not be available every year due to production schedules in the Netherlands. Although someone may be disappointed not to see a specific variety listed in a catalog or at a garden center, it is an opportunity to try something else instead.
For anyone concerned about the price of tulips, Clara was quick to point out that they are much more economical in packs of 25, 50 or 100…
So many years away from those college days, it is wonderful to hear Clara still promoting the simple, elegant tulip.
-- Arty Schronce
Arty Schronce lives and gardens in the historic Cabbagetown neighborhood of Atlanta. He encourages everyone to discover the pleasures of plants and gardening.