You may think it is too early to think about spring gardens, but think of it as the holiday season for gardens and that might make it a little easier.
We complain when we see Christmas decorations in the stores even as the shelves are filled right next to plastic Halloween pumpkins and scary-faced costumes. Many tired backyard gardeners get that same feeling when visiting local garden centers and stores with outdoor departments, and seeing bins of bulbs that have been out now for several weeks.
Between now and mid-November, we will need to get those bulbs into the ground in order to have blooming plants in spring. Yes, I know. I barely have the dead stalks cut off my beebalm too, and the sedum and chrysanthemums are just peaking, so how can we be rushed to think of spring?
In that vein, I have to admit that I was aghast when I first heard that someone actually plants hybrid tulips in October, watches them bloom through the end of May and then, while they were still looking pretty good, ripped those plants out of the earth and tossed on the compost heap. Who would do this? Botanical and public gardens have been doing it for years and recently home gardeners have picked up on this idea of treating tulips like annuals.
I was raised to believe that tulips are perennials. I spent a good bit of money on new hybrid varieties, including parrot tulips, tulips with candy striped petals and others in amazing colors that are too exotic and vibrant that even the glossy color photos in the catalog don't do them justice. So you can imagine my disappointment when I noticed the second season after planting, my tulips grew and bloomed sporadically. As few as two years later, most of them never returned at all.
This is the reason we discard them every year, the caretaker and gardener at Kingwood Center and Estate in Mansfield told me several years ago. Kingwood Center is 47 acres making up a former private estate that has been open to the public since 1953. The gardens are home to several pieces of sculpture, fountains and collections of plants and each spring, the tulips are pulled out and the beds are replanted with summer annuals.
The caretaker also told me that hybrid tulips not only return sporadically, but when they do, they are not uniform in size as they are that first season.
Locally, this same method of planting is used at the McKinley Memorial in Niles and I suspect many other public gardens in the area. And I have come across some backyard gardeners who have no qualms about treating hybrid tulip bulbs the same way.
It hurts me to pull up perfectly good plants, but what good are they if they don't return? It also hurts me to shell out my hard-earned dollars for one season of bloom, but I do it for annuals and don't bat an eye. In addition, most garden catalogs offer discounted prices on bulbs purchased in bulk. From one catalog I just received this week, 100 giant hybrid tulip bulbs average between $35 and $45. That's less than 50 cents per bulb. I find more fault with digging 100 holes to plant all those bulbs, but think of the display come springtime.
So what about those tulips that do come back from year to year? Before you get on the phone to call and let me know that the tulips in your yard have been blooming every year for the past half century, let me explain that those bulbs are probably not hybrids, but are from another type of tulip called ''botanical tulips'' or ''species tulips.''
Species tulips are different from hybrids. Some would say they aren't as common as hybrids but they have been around since the 1500s and are likely the tulips that grew in our grandparents' gardens.
Species tulips once grew wild, especially around the Mediterranean region and parts of Russia and China. They are the parent plants of the hybrids and although they are smaller and appear more delicate, when you compare the uncommon growth of hybrids to the reliable growth of species, you can see who is the stronger. They also bloom earlier than hybrids and although they were once only available from older collections, more and more are turning up in garden centers and catalogs this time of year.
Like the hybrids, species tulips should be planted in the fall. Since they are shorter (about eight-inches tall), they should be planted in clusters of several plants to get a good effect.
Don't be afraid to plant them deep. A rule of thumb for most bulbs is to plant them four times the height of the bulb. Some flowering bulbs have been known to grow up all the way through bales of straw and mounds of mulch that happened to be in the way. They like full sun and good drainage. You don't need to add a lot of soil amendments or fertilizer to the planting hole, although after their first season of bloom, you may want to top dress with bulb fertilizer the following fall.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.