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Sunday, September 19, 2021

How to grow next year’s tulips | Alys Fowler

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As anyone who has planted tulips knows, the first year is big and bold, the second year less so. There’s the myth that most bedding types of tulips won’t reflower in their second year. I’ve found this largely untrue; it’s just that the blooms get much, much smaller.

This is because the tulips that you buy today have been fed, and fed again, to produce huge blooms. Think of them like muscle boys on protein shakes: take away the gym and the shake, and you quickly get something smaller.

There are several solutions: do what the industry wants and buy new bulbs. Or lift and dry them, to stop them splitting, and store at 18-20C, in a dark, well-ventilated spot. Unless you feed them post-flowering, they still might be small.

The other option is just to let them be – this, after all, is their true size. Call it rewilding your tulips. The subsequent flowers are often more numerous, as the single bulb you first planted will multiply as a way of propagating itself, again as nature intended. These flowers may be more diminutive, but perhaps more graceful, too. In my mind, they sit better with other spring flowers as they share the space more fairly.

The dark blooms of Queen of the Night tulips
Dark stars: ‘Queen of the Night’ tulips. Photograph: Marek Kasula/Alamy

Still, these thoughts are for spring, which is a long way away. Now is the time to plant for that future. Recommending tulip varieties is like going through the pick and mix – that is, there is a variety out there for everyone, from milky pure white ‘Purissima’and the crazy pink and green striped ‘Greenland’ to the darkest ‘Queen of the Night’.

There are only two more things to consider. First, please shop ethically: cheap bulbs often represent cheap labour and excessive chemical use, particularly of phosphate fertilisers, insecticide and fungicide, all of which wreck the ecosystem, groundwater and the soil food web, and are heavy on fossil fuel use. Bees, in particular, love tulips and those drenched in neonicotinoids harm them and persist in your soil for years to come. No pretty bloom is worth this.

Don’t be fooled by the pollinator-friendly sign: if they don’t specifically say they are grown insecticide-free, then assume they are not. Peter Nyssen, the Organic Gardening catalogue, Natural Bulbs and Organic Bulbs offer chemical-free bulbs.

The second thing to note is that squirrels love tulips, particularly in containers, which is their equivalent of Pot Noodles. Chilli powder on the surface of the soil sometimes works but if they are really persistent, plant the bulbs in pond baskets or bulb trays, cover in chicken wire, then bury in the ground or in large containers so the basket is hidden. It acts like Fort Knox, and I’ve yet to find a squirrel that can crack it.

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