Thursday, April 28, 2016

Til Death Do Us Part: The Tulip Tragedies

In the garden as in life, some relationships come with an expiration date. This harsh reality rarely comes without signs, those small warnings that tell you your favorite plant is either a spineless wimp unsuited to life outside a greenhouse or simply not the choice find you imagined it to be. Either way, you can always start over.


For the past several years I have successfully killed my tulips. Not the ones in the ground, mind you. Those are just fine. But the poor suckers stuffed in a pot every fall are doomed to a slow mushy death caused by soggy potting soil. Like many relationships, the beginning was glorious. Old, cheap soil was filled with bulbs, they grew and blossomed and all was well. There was no confusion, frustration, or disappointment: just happy bulbs and bright flowers. A huge pot of bright blooms greeted me before work and I felt smug in my success.

But the soil loved by the tulips was loathed by my summer annuals and I spent too many afternoons in the heat and humidity lugging a hose around trying to keep everything moist. It was time for an upgrade to premium, moisture retentive soil. But the soil that kept my annuals happy caused my tulips to rot.


I was really hoping I'd be able to design, build, engineer or at least quote my favorite Martian astronaut by yelling from my patio steps, "I'm going to have to science the shit out of this!" but, alas, the problem  was solved in less than five minutes. Sigh....

Problem: Moisture-retentive potting soil used to help keep summer annuals moist caused the tulips to rot.

Solution: Amend the soil with rocks to improve drainage.

Problem: My soil is now full of rocks

Solution: Create a basket out of cheap, flexible screening that will allow water to flow through the rocks while also allowing me to easily lift and remove the rocks/soil.



I removed about half the soil and lined the pot with super cheapo screening mesh.


I added rocks, soil, and some bulb fertilizer.


I threw in some bargain basement bulbs, covered them with soil, and waited for a pot full of glorious tulips to greet me in the morning before work. 


A few rotted, a few were too lazy to bloom, and a few were just fine. But true to my nature, I refuse to give up. Identify problem - solve problem - move forward. It is simply how I am wired. I'll try again next year with more rocks, less soil, and high quality early blooming bulbs.

Clematis 'Fair Rosamond'

Or maybe I'll just throw in the trowel and say 'To hell with all those damn tulips! Who needs fussy bulbs when there are clematis!'


Or I might not.....

58 comments:

  1. Loved that quote by MY favorite Martian. ;-) I'm the same way, but I've given up on Tulips because of the rabbits (which is funny because several Tulips are surprisingly blooming again this year). Sometimes having low expectations pays off, too. LOL.

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    1. Even though I think the idea of traveling to Mars is absurd, I loved that movie. I have no expectations for the few tulips in my garden beds, but expect big things out of my pots. I'll try again this fall!

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  2. I've not planted tulips in pots. I am quite happy to leave them in the ground. I have a lot of trouble with porch pots, beautiful a they are, because they dry out so fast in our dry heat and I forget to water. Fair Rosamond is gorgeous. I'd say both, too.

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  3. I love your approach to life! I don't bother with tulips. They are so short lived with the heat here that I just enjoy everyone's photos of them.

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    1. Thanks! They're an expensive annual for me, although the ones in the ground have been chugging along year after year.

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  4. What about getting a bag of sand and mixing some with your potting soil? From the picture, you seem to be already doing very well.

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    1. I think I need to add another layer of rocks under the mesh to aid in drainage. Plus, the bulbs were poor quality. :(

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  5. Casa, I have been completely unsuccessful in forcing bulbs for two winters now, for just the same reason as you: rotting bulbs. I'm thinking of trying it once more next winter by planting them in leaf mold, not soil, to see if it helps. I haven't even written a post about it, since I'm so embarrassed. The only bulbs I've been able to force are paperwhites, set atop decorative stones instead of in soil. BTW, I've read that putting gravel under soil doesn't actually aid drainage, as water doesn't like to travel from fine-pored soil to large spaces between gravel -- something to do with Science.... But we'll see if my new idea works and I'll post next spring if it does.... -Beth

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    1. I've read that bit about the gravel, too, and completely disagree. It only prevents drainage if the rocks used are too large, the pot has a small drainage hole, and is routinely overwatered. I think some of the tulips rotted because they weren't in top condition to begin with, more rocks need to be added to the pot, and we had three feet of snow in Feb that kept everything really wet. I hope your idea works! Tulips need excellent drainage.

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  6. Some relationships are hard work in and outside the garden! I hope the tulips flower for you next year. The clematis is lovely.

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    1. That is the truth! I hope they flower for me next year, too. It's a wonderful way to greet the morning. :o)

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  7. I'm on the side of clematis...

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    1. Rosamond is a stunner! Such a beauty. :o)

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  8. You sound like me with Iris.... the odds are overwhelming against success (because voles) but I keep banging my head against the wall. I have one more trick up my sleeve, one that I should have tried a long time ago (setting the iris on metal mesh that is fastened down so the voles can't get under it). If that doesn't work I'm done.

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    1. Your plan sounds excellent! Voles are jerks. Fortunately, I have a dog who loves to hunt the small furry mammals that mistakenly enter my garden. She used to kill voles all the time but it's been a few years since I've found any dead or seen any damage. You could plant them in wire cages, too. Rusty Duck (blog) does that to deter the mice that destroy her garden.

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  9. That's one of the great pleasures of gardening - you can plant, rip out, sow, move, etc., with abandon - there is no need to fear mistakes (something that I sometimes forget!). In fact, mistakes are part of the fun - I mean, if everything we planted worked out perfectly, there would be nothing left to do (and what would be the fun in that?)

    Now I have a question - I planted dozens of tulips in one of our front borders a couple of years ago and some of them haven't flowered after the first year - should I just dig those up or do they have a chance of flowering again at some point?

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    1. I do love the constant opportunity for a do-over that gardening provides. I've read that many tulips are only good for the first year and then unreliable after that unless you get the species tulips. But I have a few in my garden that chug away year after year. They're just not in spots where I can see them first thing in the morning.

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  10. The tulips are so varied and add wonderful colour during such a grey cold spring. I vote for tulips.

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  11. I can't claim much success with tulips at all - like peonies, they don't like it here. Which is not to say that I don't periodically fall prey to their siren call but, after mandatory chilling in the refrigerator, they get their very own single purpose container and, as there's absolutely no point in trying to keep them another year, they get dumped at the end of the season and the pot can be planted with something else. Simple (but expensive)!

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    1. I treat my container tulips like an annual, too. I love the excitement of knowing I have a pot of bulbs waiting for me and love seeing them poke their heads out so early in the new year. I think if I just tweak my current system, I'll have better luck.

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  12. I have a pot of Nerines, which have taken years, and years, to get crowded enough, to bloom for me this year.

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    1. It's funny how we pamper our plants but sometimes they just need a good squeeze. :o)

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  13. Our tulips bloom fine in the ground- too cold here for pots- but the deer chomp the blooms off Grrrrrrr. The Clematis is beautiful!!! Love your problem solving!

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    1. Thanks! If I had deer probs I wouldn't plant any tulips at all. They're deer candy! I do love that clematis, too. :o)

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  14. My tulips are in the ground, not pots. Why pots? Is it I love that they have created tulips that are more perennial --I have some groups now that have survived for 7 or so years!

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    1. The pot is right outside my kitchen door and I wanted a big burst of color to brighten up the mornings before work.

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  15. Last year when visiting a National Trust garden noted for its wonderful displays of tulips I noticed that after they had finished flowering they were all dug up and sold off cheaply to visitors. In the actual garden itself new bulbs were going to be planted again in the coming Autumn ready for the next Spring. Tulips of course originate from Turkey where it is dry and arid.

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    1. What I find ironic is that tulips thrive in soggy Holland but are from Turkey. So odd... I think planting early blooming bulbs and using more rocks but less soil to improve the drainage might work. I treat my tulips as annuals, too which is why I used the cheapest ones I could. But in retrospect, I should have just splurged on better bulbs.

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  16. I can't successfully grow tulips because of rodents but I can grow clematis, and I'm pretty happy with that choice. :-)

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    1. I recently had a clematis collapse on me due to wilt but they do seem to be more reliable than these damn tulips!

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  17. You did get some pretty nice tulip blooms this year. Is it possible to drill more holes in the containers to increase the amount of drainage? I also had some damage from poor drainage (I think) in a couple of my pots this year.

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    1. The container is ceramic. I might use Permatill instead of rocks and just add another layer of screening to make it easy to remove so I can reuse it. Must keep trying.....

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  18. Haha...LOVE this because it is so universal for us gardeners! I can relate to your dilemma. I love tulips so much that I just put up with the fact that they are divas. After years of experiments, I now put in fresh bulbs each fall because March is damn gloomy here in Portland without early tulips. This year I planted all French tulips (those super tall ones with a flower like a wine glass), and a couple of stunner "Parrot" tulips. It was well worth the trouble. I do take the previous years bulbs and plant them around the garden here and there and if I get tulips, it's a gift. But for me, there is nothing quite like a big pot filled tight with a mass of tulips growing up and through winter pansies. Takes my breath away. May you always have a big supply of tulips Tammy!! (Loved the quote from The Martian-:)

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    1. Thanks! The bulbs in my garden have been chugging along for years. It's the ones in pots that are so variable. But they're the ones right by the back door that give me the burst of color I need in the morning.

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  19. I think your tulips looked good anyway! They are such a fabulous flower that they are worth any extra demands that they make. I have an irritating red one in my pot of pink ones, but I can't quite bring myself to pull it up ...

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    1. Gotta love the red one! We can't all be the same... Sometimes you have just to be red instead of pink. :o)

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  20. I'll never give up on tulips--I'm a tulipaholic! This is the first year I've had any success with growing them in a pot, however. The first year I kept them warm all winter with bubble wrap, but didn't realize there weren't enough drainage holes in the large pot, so they drowned and rotted in the spring rains. The second year I wasn't so attentive, and they froze to death. This year I finally had a pot of blooms after taking Jason's advice about burying the pots in the ground all winter. Now I may try your suggestion on the rocks--and the early varieties. One thing about gardeners--we don't give up!

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    1. Jason does have amazing tulips! Gardeners are the most hopeful people I've ever known. We're always trying again, just one more time...

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  21. I love that Martian quote! I tried to grow tulips in a pot once, and ended up with very strange looking (probably grotesquely diseased) flowers. I don't grow a lot of things in pots as I know they will be neglected, so I now try to keep my pot plants to very hardy and drought-tolerant ones!

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    1. I love that quote, too. :o) I have loads of pots and don't mind the watering. I am determined to figure out the tulip problem!

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  22. Do you have an out of the way spot in your garden where you can stash pots for a time? Since tulips like to be dry in the summer, you could plant them in a large plastic pot that would fit inside of your larger pot. When they're done blooming, lift the pot and stash it in your special place and then bring in a new plastic pot to fill with soil and annuals. You could also just lift the bulbs before planting your annuals, store them dry in the summer and replant them in the fall when you pull the annuals out. On the other hand, if you just want a burst of color in the morning before work, you could hang a cool fluorescent poster inside your door and dig out that black light you still have kicking around from the groovy 70's.

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    1. Excellent idea but I treat mine as annuals and compost them after they bloom. I was born in 1969 and was never cool enough to have a black light....

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  23. Hello Tammy, I can write a similar post about clematis, which I routinely kill. I'm hoping that by having so many, there should be at least one that survives! The picture of C "Fair Rosamund" looks like C "Miss Bateman". Alas, we had two of those, only one survives.

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    1. I am dying to figure out how you kill all your clematis! Maybe when I visit instead of helping you dig a rain garden I'll rescue your clem-a-tis and bring them home with me as cle-mat-is. Maybe yours just need an American accent! ;o)

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  24. Best of luck in growing your tulips in pots next year. My problem with tulips is deers love tulips!!

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    1. Fortunately, I don't have to worry about deer. :o)

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  25. What a great problem solver you are! I really hope your adjustments work for next spring. I would so love to have spring bulbs but it is way too warm here...I have to put them in the fridge to force them. There is something lovely about working outside in autumn and planting bulbs -I miss that.
    - Kate x

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    1. I love the expectation of waiting for tulips to bloom. They give me that jolt of early color I love. :o)

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  26. Tammy, you could lift the tulip bulbs and let them die back, in a place your dogs cant get at them - the bulbs are poisonous to dogs, then replant in November. Or be frivolous and treat them like annuals or have daffodils instead which will tolerate wetter potting medium. Good luck with your liners they may well do the job and you could copyright your solution!

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    1. I treat them like annuals. :o) I think using a light porous material called Permatill might work better then the rocks. I'll just try again this fall....

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  27. Tulips...they're so beautiful in the Spring, such a happy hello but oy! so much trouble sometimes. I have to fight off hordes of bloom-snipping squirrels and sometimes wonder why I bother. But, like your last photo, one look at their beauty keeps me coming back to try again.

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    1. The squirrels in my garden tend to leave them alone, lucky me!

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  28. It's funny how we all have problems with different plants isn't it, just love how you solve your problems though, I throw the trowel and a hissy fit! I hope you've sorted them this time, a gal can never have too many tulips!xxx

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    1. I will admit to have cussed at my plants before but refuse to give up on a problem. I love the challenge of solving them!

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  29. It is hard to not want tulips...deer and cold keep mine from growing but I am trying again too with a cutting bed that will be protected. Good luck!

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  30. I like your approach to problem solving. I spent other people's money to plant 1200 Blue Parrot tulips at work, only to have 20 of them bloom. It was just way too wet this winter.

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