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Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Spring Forward With Tulips

Sunday, October 08, 2017


Dull indeed is a space without tulips. No bloom claims more attention from late April long into May. We know them as cut flowers. Yet spring emergent is a trumpet, a clarion call for new life. Tulips are there, shrug off winter with ease. Colors are bold among tulips, their waxy thick petals elegant. Favor red? You’ve found the best. Ivory white above a single strong stem your game? Got it. How about parrot bright medley? Aha! 

Are you formal? Tulips assemble in rank. Alternate colors, red and white for example, measure a geometric shape, plant reliable tulip bulbs and salute. Or does whimsy move the spirit? Scatter bulbs, give each breathing room, and presto, a happy throng. Gaze from a distance for colorful pronunciation. Approach and peer downward into the petals. A dark center and golden pistols and stamen bewitch bees and gardeners alike. 

How about shape? Succumb to wonder. Sample fleur de lies or plump rotund cups that run over the heart. Our love for tulips transcends cultures. Their universal appeal attests humanity has much more in common than not. Their native habitat is Asia Minor and the Middle Eastern highlands. Countless oriental carpets contain woven tulips. Always desirable objects, European merchants brought carpets from Istanbul long before the tulip bulbs. Once the province of exotic spices and silks, enterprising 17th century Dutch merchants brought the bulbs, as Italians had silk cocoons, back to Holland. Tulips shape and color entered the gardener’s lexicon and remains. The world is now their sphere.

Most of a tulip’s life span is as a hardy bulb. Autumn is the ideal time to plant tulips. Their cultivation is simple. Choose a sunny space. Rich loams guarantee thick lush growth. Tulips tolerate dry summers and cold wet winters. Many gardeners treat them as annuals, others discover tulips return, happy beneath permanent mulches. Cultivation is hazardous for the summer dormant bulbs. Most gardeners tend to plant a succession of warm weather plants within their domain. If accidentally uncovered, separate smaller bulb lets and replant at the same depth as found. 

 Loosen a space a little larger than the bulb, mix in bone meal and plant 5-7 inches deep, bottoms downward. Garden trowels often are inscribed with inch measures, as a rule of thumb a trowel blade depth is fine. Firm up the soil. Tulips can be low, close to the surface blooms or reach 18”. Plant lower types closer to pathways, taller into the middle of borders. 

Invite friends over for tulip views. There are early, middle and late bloom types for 5 or 6 weeks of continuous display. Deadhead blooms and leave the foliage alone. Latter, when other spring plants need the space, cut the faded foliage, don’t pull. Plant tulips each Fall and establish a resident population. Lift and divide clumps with lots of foliage and fewer blooms. Frustrate predatory squirrels and associate tulips with unpalatable members of the Narcissus family such as daffodils. 

Autumn is a fine time to create garden nursery beds. Plant tulips in deep pots and bury pot and bulbs into the nursery, pot rims level with the soil, mark with recognizable stakes, wooden paint mixers are perfect. Cover in mulch. Clear away snow and mulch and bring a pot indoors, keep moist and “force” blooms on sunny window sills. Or, remove pots and put in sunny spaces for distinctive potted plants. Keep moist throughout the blooming period, replant into the garden for another spring. 

Tulips keep well in refrigerator vegetable bins. There are bulb pots with holes for each bulb and a growing media of small pebbles. Tulips kept in the refrigerator are ready for forcing after a couple months. Teach amateur cooks the differences between onions and tulips. Tulips are a visual pleasure, not a gustatory delight. 

Floral pleasure gardens were once the province of wealthy landowners who could afford plants grown for beauty’s sake instead of survival. For many Northwestern Europeans, the tulip was first known as a decorative Oriental rug element, an abstraction. Colonists brought precious “Turkey” rugs to New England. The precious bulbs soon followed in their wake. Dour pilgrims appreciated tulips robust colors in a world short on colorful dyes. We have more colors in our lives today yet the tulips ability to delight eye persists. Don’t regard the tulip as commonplace. A garden without tulips is a species of purgatory. 

Turf has more acreage in America than agricultural land. October is an ideal time to coddle turf. Grasses grow any day the temperature rises above 45 degrees F. There is a role for turf as the ultimate ground cover within gardens. Evolved from sheep pastures, grasses were in short supply in New England for the colonists. Their first grazing animals survived upon salt marshes, the trenches dug by colonists to encourage native Spartina grass remain evident hundreds of years later. 

Grass seeds were imported from England and planted upon clearings in the dense forest lands. The early colonists often settled upon the garden lands once cultivated in corn, squashes and beans by indigenous peoples. Disease and later, warfare, decimated populations vulnerable to common but unknown European diseases. The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth by mistake, they stayed for open fertile grounds left vacant by disease. When Samoset greeted John Alden in English, he was the sole survivor of the native inhabitants near Plymouth Rock. Samoset taught the English to grow “corn” after Robert Bradford’s so called “starving year” when the Pilgrims’ rations failed. Grasses were necessary for fiber, such as wool, transportation, the horse, and cattle, for leather, milk and cheese. 

The best turf grows upon good thick loam. In October, I top dress the grassy lawns between growing beds with a cover of compost and peat. A thin layer of compost over short mown grass, the mower being more common presently than sheep, replaces and adds to the organic matter within loam. Grass clippings are removed from turf, unlike the past, the turf is no longer fertilized by grazing animals’ urine and manure. Eventually, grass removes nutrients and fails. A large industry has grown up to replace the lost nutrients or adds them to soils naturally more suited to trees. Culture and industry has removed memory from turf maintenance, good pasture land requires constant attention. A thin layer of compost or loam spread over October and March turf is the way to keep grasses thick and green throughout the growing season. 

Spread dolomite limestone on the underside of recommended doses, this technique is done semi-annually. The limestone brings our naturally acidic soils closer to the near neutral soil ph suitable for the best turf growth and slowly dissolves to percolate into the grass root zone. Re-seed and water. In 7-10 days the older grass will emerge from under the compost layer. The newly sprouted grass seeds will fill vacancies inevitably left from sprawling plants, foot traffic and pests. After a few years of this practice, a thick weed free turf rewards the constant gardener. The compost cover remains beneath the new growth. Rain is absorbed into the organic matter. Despite a very dry summer in 2016, grassy lanes within the garden remained green and required weekly mowing without irrigation. 

Healthy turf is naturally resistant to opportunistic “weeds”. Dandelions fail or become rare specimen plants easily removed with a sharp edged trowel slice into their tap root. Crabgrass, another opportunist, does best upon disturbed soils, a persistent healthy turf naturally overcomes this arch nemesis of lawn purists. 

Bright green turf is the perfect groundcover for walking around the garden. Enjoy the fresh green grass as you view tulips. Time, money and labor saved from lawn services is better invested in lovely spring bulbs. Walk assured no fertilizer run off seeps from your garden into fresh waterways and ultimately, aquifers and salt water. 

Squirrels are their chief predator. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence, Rhode Island. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


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