Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bulbs in the ground, guilt-free

The latest fever to sweep over ChezTECH, garden-wise, is bulbs.  Specifically, this year, I'm trying out bulbs in a whole new guilt-free way--bulbs purposely grown as annuals.

For not very much money (and less now that they are on sale, so late in the year) bags of bulbs can be picked up at big box stores all over town.  Of course, the top size bulbs, or the fancy ones, like giant alliums, require a trip to the garden center, but even these are sure to be on sale--at least in November in Wisconsin, where a sudden snowstorm could come any day, instantly converting any bulbs still in stock into worthless inventory.

Each bulb takes but a minute to plant.  If you can keep the squirrels away each is pretty much guaranteed to pop up a beautiful flower--at least in the first spring it sits in the ground. And that's part of the trouble, do you see.  The bulbs we get have been artificially grown--their heads popped off as soon as they flower-- in order to conserve all energy for the bulb itself.  Scientifically fertilized and grown with high culture, then carefully sorted and stored, the bulbs we get for sale are primed to pop up a big fat flower.


After this enormous and artificially delayed effort, the mother bulb will split up into a series of smaller bulbs.  Absent some care, these will never grow as big as mama.  What kind of care would it take to make the babies grow up?  Well, let's look at tulips.

Although most grown today have been extensively cultivated by generations of Dutch breeders, tulips' ancestral sensibilities hark back to their "native air--" dry Turkish hillsides, hot in summer, cold in winter.  Consequently, tulips resent summer watering and require extensive winter cold. Further, their foliage--unattractive at any time,  ghastly as it dries and yellows--has to be left on the plant for a long time--long enough to allow the photosynthesis necessary to create next year's bulb. So, if you want tulip bulbs to grow and divide naturally, no problem: just plant them on a Turkish hillside, around the back where you won't see them all summer.

If that's not your situation, though, you've got to scramble.  It's really a lot of work, too: almost exhausting to just read about.  After the flowering, cut off the tulip stem right down to the ground to prevent the plant from putting energy into seeding.  Mark each bulb with a stake.  When the foliage dies, dig, split and re-plant in soil which will stay dry all summer.  Absent sufficient summer dryness and winter cold, you've got to store these little bulbs (and they will be little) in a cold dry place--but NOT your fridge--or at least, not a fridge with fruits and veggies in it.  Tulip bulbs cannot co-exist with the gasses these give off. The stored bulbs go into the ground in fall if you have a winter, in spring if you don't.  At bloom time, cut off any blooms as cut-flowers for the house.  Again, mark the bulbs, dig the bulbs, split the bulbs, store the bulbs, plant the bulbs.  This time, you may get top-size bulbs, or it may take another round.  Or two. Or never.  The bulbs have to be stored with sufficient humidity, grown with the right amount of fertilizer, be kept from mice, voles, squirrels, your garden fork...

Being an ordinary mortal, I never could keep up with this schedule of tulip-maintenance.  Each previous time I planted tulips in the ground, I got lovely flowers the first year, less lovely flowers the next.  Finally, all that came up were mounds of broad, floppy leaves--leaves which exuded guilt for my neglect in letting things come to this pass.   So this year, I've decided to do as botanical gardens do--treat tulip bulbs like giant annual seeds and plant them for one glorious show.

Of course, I haven't got the budget of a botanical garden, and not the staff either.  So here's what I've been doing for the past several days: around the place here are several beds which were recently renovated--all the old perennials taken out and split, peat moss and leaf mulch worked in, and double dug.  (Yes, really! I even amazed myself with this burst of gardening energy.)   So, into this wonderfully prepared ground, I am putting scads of big-box store tulips bulbs, and hyacinths, and daffodils. I'll sneak a few (a few bags worth, that is) into the vegetable beds, too. After their big garden display next spring, I'll just pull them  out of the ground, return the beds to the perennials and veggies they were designed for and compost the bulbs.  And I won't feel guilty. Not a bit. No sir.  Not me.


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