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How to Tip-Toe Your Tulips To Spring Bulb Success

Q. This past Spring (during the Plague Year of 2020), Barry in Voorhees, NJ wrote: "It's great to listen to your podcast, especially when I exercise. Thanks! I'm hoping you can help me with a Spring bulb problem. About 15 months ago, I planted 50 tulip bulbs in my front lawn. I added an organic bulb fertilizer and waited patiently, but not one shoot came up, and nothing has come up since. There is plenty of sun. I even made sure I planted them correct side up this time! Do I try to give them more time or should I just give up and plant new ones?

A. You should definitely plant new ones Barry, because in the words of Star Trek's Dr. McCoy, "they're dead, Jim."

Tulips were never meant to be grown in a lawn. In the God-forsaken mountains of Turkey and Afghanistan where they and other Spring bulbs were originally found growing wild, the winters are bitter cold and the summers blazingly hot and dry. And so Spring bulbs like tulips, daffodils and the rest evolved to emerge right after winter disappeared, thrive in the short-but-perfect climate of Spring and then hide deep underground when the sandstorms struck.

Planting them in a lawn meant that there would be a lot of root competition. Plus too much moisture, especially if you watered the lawn. As noted bulb specialist Brent Heath has famously noted, "Dormant bulbs like to sleep in a dry bed, just like us." It's entirely possible that your tulip bulbs died from excessive moisture or were smothered by competition from the lawn.

However, tulip bulbs are also THE most edible members of the Spring bulb family. Evil Squirrels dig them up like we harvest potatoes. Deer browse on them after they emerge in the Spring. Rabbits are always ready to feed on the flowers. But the Number One enemy of tulips is/are VOLES. That's VOLES with a "V", not moles with an "M". Voles are about the same size as mice but have shorter tails, smaller ears, and their beady little eyes are beadier than the beady little eyes of mice.

Voles feed on the underground roots of plants and are famous for devouring Spring bulbs. One source suggests that they can burrow down a foot into the soil to reach your tulips never-to-be. Even though they do travel above ground, you rarely see them; but you can often see their distinctive trails of tramped-down grass.

The easiest response to voracious voles is to plant non-edible bulbs like daffodils, fritillaria and ornamental alliums. If tulips you MUST plant, follow this plan:
  • When you plant your bulbs in the Fall (between Halloween and Thanksgiving for most of us), plant them in their own bed.

  • Surround each bulb with a lot of small sharp stones or something similar, like the commercial product 'Vole Bloc'.

  • When you're done planting, remove all of the 'tulip trash' like browned-out wrappers and such from the surface of the bed.

  • Then cover up the scent by spraying the bed with a castor oil-based repellant designed for mole and vole control; or even better, mulch the bed with several inches of dog fur, which repels Evil Squirrels as well as voracious voles.

  • Don't feed the bulbs when you plant. The Spring flower is already formed inside the bulb when you plant it. The time to feed Spring bulbs is right after their flowers fade in the Spring, when they're actively growing the following year's flower.

  • Remove any wood mulch from the area. Never a good idea horticulturally, this ridiculous trend of covering everything a foot deep in trash wood that has been chipped and painted some God-awful color never seen in nature makes a perfect home for voles. You might as well build little condos for them.

  • When the bulb greenery emerges in the Spring, spray more castor oil or freshen up the dog fur mulch (this will also deter Dastardly Deer).

  • When the flowers fade, clip off the little seedhead that forms at the top of the stalk, but don't cut the stalk down low or molest the green leaves in any way. They're absorbing the solar energy that will grow next year's flowers.

  • And once again, this is the time to give them a gentle feeding with an organic/natural food designed for bulbs.

  • When the greenery turns brown, you can clip it off. If you're not going to use that spot for anything else, you can leave the bulbs in the ground. Otherwise, dig up the bulbs and store them in onion bags in a cool, dry spot indoors until Fall. Then the bulbs won't rot from watering when you grow something else overtop of them.

  • Or just grow daffodils.
What we have said so far about planting, feeding and leaving alone greenery applies to all Spring bulbs, but I'd like to address Barry's planting in a lawn, which was only a bad idea because of the type of bulb he chose. It has long been the fashion in Europe to plant Spring bulbs in lawns, but only the small, early-flowering ones (which used to be called 'minor bulbs' but are now called 'special bulbs') like Snowdrops and Glory-of Snow. These bulbs emerge in winter, often justifying the 'Snow' in their names, and produce greenery that fades by the time the lawn needs its first cutting.

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