Tulips flourish on their own schedule

By Lee Reich, The Associated Press
Friday May 10, 2002

Tulips often disappoint after their first show of blooms. That first show reflects the skill of the commercial bulb grower because the flower buds form the season before blooms open. 

After that first season, you have to provide conditions for good repeat bloom. The healthier the leaves and the longer they can do their work, the better the blossoms will be the following season. 

Tulip leaves have a relatively short time in which to do their job. Anything that prolongs the time they remain green will help pump more energy into the bulbs. This is why so many bulbs are grown in Holland, where springs are long, cool, and moist. Over on this side of the Atlantic, a good site will keep the leaves healthy and productive. The best site is sunny, with soil that is well-drained and reasonably fertile. 

Following bloom, allow the foliage to naturally yellow and wither. The leaves will look unsightly, so some gardeners plant annuals to hide the aging bulb foliage from sight, or bind the bulbs’ leaves into a compact, unobtrusive bundle with rubber bands. However, both these techniques sacrifice to some degree next spring’s blooms because the leaves no longer are bathed in maximum sunlight. The only way to avoid the sight of the yellowing leaves without harming next year’s blossoms is to dig up each bulb with a good ball of earth and replant temporarily in an out-of-the-way, sunny spot. 

Even under the best of conditions, tulip flowers still will diminish with time as daughter bulbs that form around each mother bulb begin to crowd each other. Garden tulips are so prone to fizzling out after a season that many gardeners grow them as annuals, replanting new ones each autumn. (This also solves the problem of unsightly foliage — just cut off the leaves after the bulbs finish flowering.) 

Overcrowded bulbs can be revitalized by dividing them. When the foliage has just about disappeared, dig up the bulbs, separate them and store them dry for replanting in autumn. Undersized bulbs will not flower for a couple of years growth, so are best planted in a nursery row. 

An alternative is to plant tulips that more reliably bloom year after year without fuss. “Species” tulips are famous for their capacity to bloom year after year. Even among “garden” tulips, certain varieties, such as Clara Butt, William Copeland, and Reverend Ewbank, bloom for many years without division — if growing conditions are good.