Are you a planner? Then what I am about to tell you is right down your alley and in your garden. Each spring we are greeted with the reliable and spectacular colour of tulips in our gardens. I try to get to the annual Ottawa Tulip Festival, during the second and third week of May, where they plant over a million tulip bulbs to create a show worth booking a special trip for.
Alas, there is the rub: you can’t have tulips in your own garden without planting the bulbs now. You can plant successfully within the next eight weeks. The supply of tulips is what you need to worry about. The boat that brings them over from the Netherlands only arrives once per year. When they are sold out, they are sold out.
The humble tulip has much to recommend it.
a. It is cold hardy. Given a long cold Canadian winter, they thrive.
b. They last. Our long, cool spring season extends the blooming time vs. our southern neighbours. The Ottawa Tulip Festival runs for 10 days officially and the colour lasts much longer at both ends of the festival dates.
c. Cut them. Bring them indoors and enjoy them in a vase for up to five days. Brilliant!
d. No disease. I have not experienced disease or insect problems in my tulips in more than 30 years of planting them. I plant about 1,000 tulips a year in my 10 acre garden.
There is another reason to plant tulip bulbs this year: to celebrate. A new tulip has been developed by the Dutch to help Canadians celebrate our 150th anniversary next year: the Canada 150. And it is amazing.
I visited a patch of several thousand of these while at the Ottawa Tulip Festival this past May and I have ordered several hundred to plant in my own garden. A classic Triumph, this tulip features vertical red and white markings that are reminiscent of the Eternal Flame on Parliament Hill. Home Hardware, the exclusive supplier of Canada 150, offers top-sized, 12 cm bulbs in boxes of 25.
I am donating some of these bulbs to my home town, the City of Markham, to plant at City Hall. Can you think of other uses for the Canada 150?
When you shop for tulip bulbs you may be overwhelmed by the selection. This can be more complicated than shopping for cough medicine or disposable diapers: so much to choose from. Where to start?
Here is my tulip bulb primer:
Lily Flowered. This is a simple flower, with elegant, gently curved flower petals. Fluted, like a small flower vase. One of my favourites is “China Pink.”
Darwin hybrid: the classic Dutch tulip. Large flowers born on strong stems are perfect for cutting and producing a show in your garden.
Parrot. Think of a parrot with its feathers fluffed up. Bingo. They are exotic looking, with fringed petals and sometimes outrageous colours. For the outgoing, vivacious gardener.
Double late: you cannot see into the middle of the flower for layers of colourful petals. “Late” as in they flower from mid to late May.
Triumph: a beauty to behold! Known for their tenacity in the face of severe weather, Triumph tulips provide reliable colour, variety and diversity. This family is dominated by pastel coloured flowers. Their appearance can be confused with Darwin hybrids.
Fosteriana: very large flowers that feature green lacerations of colour on top of their primary colour. They definitely are stand-outs in the garden.
Botanical tulips. Amazing, multi-flowering tulips that show best at the front of a garden bed.
I am often asked how to keep squirrels out of the tulip garden. It is a good question as many squirrels (though, not all) are attracted to them. Here are some tactics that can work:
• After you plant a group of tulip bulbs, place chicken wire over the top of the bulbs as a physical deterrent.
• While planting, apply Wilson Predator Animal Barrier directly to the bulb. One shot will provide a shocking taste that repels squirrels and other rodents.
• Plant deep. All bulbs perform best in well-drained soil. If yours is sufficiently well drained, you can plant tulips deeper than the recommended “three times as deep as the bulb is thick.” Squirrels can just get tired of digging for them.
The alternative is to plant daffodils or narcissus, which are bitter tasting and mildly toxic. I have planted over 20,000 on my property where they naturalize and multiply each year. They bloom early, many have fragrance and deer don’t like them either.
You plant narcissus and daffodils in the fall also.
I love them.
But they aren’t tulips.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller “The New Canadian Garden” published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.