Life

FORTE: Not too late for container-grown tulips

Theresa Forte

By Theresa Forte, special to Postmedia News

Shirley triumph tulips start out white with simple purple edges, the colours blend as the tulips mature. They are fragrant and easy to grow in containers or garden beds. (Theresa Forte/Special to Postmedia News)

Shirley triumph tulips start out white with simple purple edges, the colours blend as the tulips mature. They are fragrant and easy to grow in containers or garden beds. (Theresa Forte/Special to Postmedia News)

A display of discounted tulips and other spring bulbs at a local box store proved irresistible this week.

A pretty mix of crocus, tulips and allium in a shades of lavender, purple and white came home and were added to the poet’s narcissus and species tulips I found earlier this week. Bringing spring bulbs home is a bit like carrying coal to Newcastle, I’ve planted thousands of bulbs in our gardens over the past 30 years, but I can’t resist adding a few more.

Here’s the rub, our resident bunny along with a parade of squirrels have developed a sweet tooth when it comes to tulips — they’ve even taken to digging up the bulbs for a midnight snack and leaving the scraps for me to tidy up the next morning. Rather than plant a fresh tulip buffet, I’ve decided that a fresh planting strategy is in order.

Over the years, I’ve had mixed success planting tulips in containers and overwintering them in the garage or greenhouse, so I asked Anne Van Nest, seasonal grower at Niagara Parks Commission’s Floral Showhouse, how they plant bulbs in their large urns. She explained that they plant the bulbs in smaller containers and then bury the containers in the garden for the winter. “If squirrels are a problem, cover the tops of the pots with chicken wire,” she suggested. In the spring, the urns are planted with the potted bulbs.

Containers have a few advantages, particularly in established gardens. When bulb planting time rolls around in the fall, I can barely find an empty spot in the garden. Come spring, there’s plenty of room for a splash of colour here or there, and it will be simple enough to dig in a few pots of bulbs when the time is right.

Another advantage of container plantings is that you can work at table height, set up a workstation on a your picnic table, or in the garage or basement (if it’s cold and wet outside). Find a comfortable spot, set up your pots, potting soil, bulbs, permanent marker and plastic for labels the pots. No fertilizer is required, the bulbs have everything they need for success built in. Finally, I’ve read that waiting until later in the season is said to promote healthier bulbs — less chance for disease. Homegrown potted bulbs also make welcome hostess gifts.

Container designs are fun. Be brave, experiment with a different colour scheme — I’m going to try purple and white this year, and to that end I’ve chosen deep purple Flower Record crocus and violet and silver-lilac striped Pickwick crocus for starters. Crocuses are among the first flowers to bloom in the spring, I’ll tuck the potted bulbs in the large planter on the front porch as soon as the snow disappears.

Next, I’ve chosen a selection of purple and white tulips. Triumph tulips are easy to grow and reliable, they reach heights of 40 to 50 centimetres, bloom in mid-spring and make great cut flowers (if you can bear to cut them.) I’ve decided on four Triumph tulips for this project: dramatic Negrita (deep purple/pink) along with one of my favourite tulips, Shirley, a white tulip with delicate purple edges. The colours evolve as the flowers mature, it’s an interesting process to follow. I couldn’t resist adding a pure white tulip to the mix, Pays Bas, a creamy white, will fit the bill. Finally, I found Rem’s Favourite, reminiscent of a classic Rembrandt tulip, with painterly purple and green veining over a white base, each flower is unique and worthy of being showcased.

For this project, plant each tulip variety in its own pot. I can mix and match the colours when they are planted out in the spring. Fill plastic pots (recycled nursery containers are perfect) with potting soil and plant the bulbs at the recommended depth, usually twice the depth of the bulb. Don’t worry about spacing the bulbs according to the package directions. Fill the pots. Top up the soil and give the pots a little drink of water.

Set the pots in a trench, or dig single holes if you only have a few pots, in a quiet spot in the garden. There may be empty space in the vegetable garden or in a spot where you usually feature annuals. Firm the soil around the containers, top with layer of chicken wire if squirrels or rodents are a problem in your garden, then top the nursery bed with a layer of mulch or chopped dry leaves mixed with soil.

Mark the area with a few stakes or twigs, so that you can find it in the spring. This may sound frivolous, but last year I overwintered several containers including a young Japanese maple and several small hydrangeas in the back garden. By the time spring rolled around, I had quite the job to find them, things never look quite the same in the spring.

While tulips and crocuses are delectable snacks for the local wildlife, other bulbs are less palatable. Allium, narcissus, grape hyacinth and other minor bulbs are safe bets for spring colour. To this end, I’m adding Allium Neapolitanum, a pretty white heirloom variety also known as the Naples allium, and planted since 1823. Several bags of Poet’s narcissus Geranium were also calling out to me. Geranium blooms mid-spring and will reach heights of 35 cm, the stems are very strong and support multiple, fragrant blooms per stem; this is a great cut flower. Finally, I found a few packs of botanical tulips, Tulip Praestans Shogun. The bulbs are much smaller than standard tulips, and the foliage is more strap like (less obtrusive as it fades), but the flowers pack a big punch. Shogun is a pumpkin colour, with streaks of red and orange and dramatic black stamens. Several flowers appear on each stem.

Offer the allium, narcissus and species tulips a spot with good drainage, in sun or part shade, under deciduous trees or shrubs or in a raised bed — they will naturalize and come back for many years to come.

— Theresa Forte is a local garden writer, photographer and speaker. You can reach her by calling 905-351-7540 or by email at theresa_forte@sympatico.ca.

 



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