One person's tulip problem may be another gardener's
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Dear Janet & Steven,
I have a tulip problem.
By spring I can never remember what I planted on my last
bulb binge. So in 2003 when tulips came up where I thought I had
removed all the tulips in previous years, I figured maybe I had
forgotten my plan during the bulb frenzy of fall 2002 and planted
new ones there. Also, sometimes one year blurs with another when it
comes to the garden so I had to allow that maybe digging out the
offending tulips was really a memory from many years
So last spring I dug them out again. Now I think I see
them back again. I am almost sure I didn't plant tulips there last
fall! And now it occurs to me that this has happened more than once
How does this happen? Does spontaneous generation apply
to tulips? - D.G. -
They can't wink into existence from another dimension but can
leave pieces of themselves behind after they were once established
in a bed. Let's say you dug around a clump of tulip foliage and
lifted it out. If it's a big bunch you might leave behind bulblets
without even noticing they broke away from the cluster of bulbs at
the base. A vigorous tulip of a type that perennializes well, in a
warm, well drained sunny bed can come back from a bulblet. It might
even resume flowering the next year if you attempted to remove its
parent clump in June or later, because its foliage had sunlight for
all of April and May.
Tiny piece left behind, remarkable staying power
A very small bulblet can escape your notice for a year or two
because it may be just one leaf among many. That's especially
likely if it's among replacement tulips or perennials with leaves
shaped or colored like tulip foliage. Every year it produces
foliage, doggedly regaining size until it can bloom again. That's
when you finally see it and wonder where it came from.
In our own garden, two groups of 'Emperor' tulips have shown
remarkable powers of escape and rejuvenation. When we changed color
scheme in the overall garden, we banished them for being red and
yellow -- or thought we did. Over ten years we dug out three or
four red or yellow recurrences. It's been years now since any of
them returned. We think they our will may finally have
Below: We've noted that the classic cup-shaped tulips are
more reliably perennial in the Great Lakes region than
lily-flowered and ruffled parrot varieties.
Where are such bulbs when we want them?!
Some people plants tulips only to have them wane or disappear
after just a year. They may want to know which bulbs you and we
have that are so tenacious.
In trials to test the staying power of tulips, North Carolina
State University determined that some are better perennials than
others. Some types that proved themselves likely to last three
years or more are the yellow-, red-, white-, or orange 'Emperor'
and the various colors of Appeldoorn. Watching tulips for
30 years in Michigan gardens, we agree but also see a more general
rule in effect, that the earlier the tulip's bloom time, the more
likely it will be back. We rely on:
- 'Emperor' types
- 'Appeldoorn' types
- 'Darwin' varieties
- species tulips T. Greigii and T. Kaufmaniana (below,
Conversely, we have learned to treat parrot-, lily-flowered
(below, right), streaked or "broken" varieties as annuals.
We enjoy them but remove them after bloom.
Below, left: Kaufman tulips are sometimes called water lily
tulips for their flower shape. We recognize them and the
equally-reliably perennials, Tulipa Greigii, by the maroon
ribbing on their leaves.
Below, right: We treat lily-flowered tulips as annuals. They
rarely bloom more than a year or two where the soil is cool and
conditions moist in summer. It may be that the species that
dominate in these hybrids evolved for summer-desert, winter-cold
One last thought. Animals can transplant bulbs. Squirrels are
most likely to do this, but chipmunks can, too. I've also known
dogs to redesign bulb beds.
Short reports: Clip rabbit damage, cut voles
Rabbits stripped the burning bushes...
...says R.S., snipping buds and small branches then chewing bark
until the main limbs were left blazing white. It was a bad rabbit
winter, R.S., so many of us are feeling your pain.
If there is good wood below the damage, use loppers and saw to
cut the shrubs back to that point. Remove all the chewed wood, even
if it leaves the plants just three inches tall. An established
dwarf burning bush that's otherwise healthy and in good light can
go from stubs to three feet tall in one year after being stumped
back. Cut now. If allowed to try and leaf out from above the damage
the same shrub will limp and even die.
It's vole-trapping time...
...if you see meandering troughs on the soil surface, tunnels
just below ground and burrow entrances the size of a fifty cent
piece, as reported by R.N. of Mt. Pleasant. Standard mouse traps
and poison baits (see Growing
Concerns 462) work but use them soon, since two voles can
reproduce repeatedly in one summer and see their offspring
reproduce, too, so that spring's two become August's one
hundred root- and crown-eating diggers. No exaggeration.
Farmers call it a "mouse year" when the vole numbers spike this
Green thumbs up
to fellow gardeners making you feel good. When I moaned about
forgetting people's names after just moments but recalling plant
names for decades, they gave me an out. "That's the way it should
be," Said Shirley Sandner. "You can always ask a person their name
but you can't ask the plant!"
Green thumbs down
to fighting the inevitable. If snow repeatedly crushes your
azaleas, daphne or holly, replace those spring blooming evergreens
with shrubs that will still flower this year even if cut back hard.
Try white snowball hydrangea, panicle hydrangea, or Ural false
spirea which can go from stumps in April to blooms in July, even in
Originally published 3/27/04.
Updated and illustrated 4/13/13, 4/11/14
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