Spring Contained

– Posted in: Bulbs

Tulipa vvedenskyi 'Tangerine Beauty'

It was a serious fumble. In bulb-planting terms, it was as close as I ever want to totter on the brink of disaster. Are we all in agreement that autumn bulb planting is akin to gambling? You continue ordering bulbs until suddenly the game shuts down. In a good year, the stakes aren’t shut down until mid-December. Last year, snow pulled the plug early. I was caught with a superfluity of bulbs and an embarrassing lack of open ground. Time to regroup.

Just to give you the back story here — Let me remind you about last autumn’s weather. Has anyone else noticed that gardeners have selective amnesia weatherwise? We complain a mean streak about what’s going on today, but erase long term memory. In last winter’s case, it was best left forgotten. But you might recall that, in fall — when we should have been burying bulbs with squirrel-like speed — we were flummoxed by early frosts and equally precocious snow.

T. 'Sensual Touch'

So Plan B. With umpteen bags of bulbs and zero chance of open ground, I took the only course of action still available — I stuffed the bulbs into containers. It was such a raving success that the botch might become a tradition. Now we’re basking in the bounty.

The potted bulb recoup turned out to be just the ticket. One of my best friends is a renown gardener, but he’s now confined to a wheelchair which puts a crimp in his garden access. Especially in early spring, getting into the garden is pretty much impossible until the mud subsides and the wheelchair can maneuver without skidding. The potted bulbs saved the day.

T. 'Mickey Mouse'

So here’s how it worked: In autumn, when it seemed that all was lost, we (“we” being his gardener and I) planted the bulbs in my friend’s collection of outrageously handsome hand-thrown terra cotta containers. Then we threw them all into the cold frame (Did I say throw? You don’t toss around this caliber of terra cotta). The cold frames are cement-sided with tightly fitted glass lids. In other words, rodents had no access. And the contained bulbs were entombed by snow for the next four months solid. (I’m hoping that the snow load is not a deal maker/breaker because hopefully a perma-solid white blanket of that magnitude and depth is unlikely to happen again.) No watering was necessary. I confess that I worried about the pots cracking, but because they didn’t freeze and thaw, they fared just fine. (Anybody else have thoughts/experience on this?) It wasn’t really forcing because the bulbs didn’t open any earlier than their brethren in the garden. But they delivered spring in a different package.

T. clusiana 'Cynthia'

What could have been a tragedy turned into a victory of proportions that I would never dare predict. My friend is (figuratively) carrying me on his shoulders. The season was delivered to his back porch where he can bask in its brilliance. In practical terms, this is a frugal means of getting a bulb rush. With just 10 bulbs of each variety, these containers look like a million. And they’re conveniently portable. When that inevitable spring thunderstorm whips up, they can be whisked inside (okay, the massive pot with 50 Tulipa clusiana ‘Cynthia’ might take two strong men to do the whisking, but still…). When the sun starts to bake, they can be rushed into the shade to extend the show. The only caveat being that the flowers don’t fully open except when the sun is shining. But really, ‘Mickey Mouse’ (which was everyone’s favorite, hands down) looks just as good when the buds aren’t flared.

No rodent bulb pillage. No deer damage. Just poetry delivered to your back porch. What’s not to like?

T. 'Mickey Mouse'

Tovah

Tovah

Tovah

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Chookie May 15, 2011, 6:35 am

Lovely! Might try a bit of that myself this year, as I am indulging my gardening itch almost entirely with containers. We are renting while our house is renovated, after which I will have almost an entire garden to redo. It’s a terrible mess!

What a good idea, Chookie. Contain your enthusiasm while in transition. You know, I’ve got to report = ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘Sensual Touch’ have been in blossom for 3 weeks now! Got them both thanks to Brent Heath’s recommendation from Brent & Becky’s (http://www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com). Good call, Brent! — Tovah

Darla May 16, 2011, 5:18 am

How wonderful these containers tulips look! I too have considered some container gardening for bulbs….

You know, just chilling them in a cold frame (or barn, garage, whatever) is so easy. I’m surprised more gardeners don’t go for it. —Tovah

Christiane May 16, 2011, 11:52 am

Congratulations to a gamble that was successful. I don’t have any experience with this – as I am learning about heat- and drought tolerant plants, spring bulbs have so far not been on my horizon – this riot of tulips bulbs is beautiful but most likely not replicable here in SoCal. So congratulations to a beautiful payoff for your “fumble”.

Okay, Christiane, I’ve got the scoop on this from the “bulb guru” Brent Heath of Brenty & Becky’s Bulbs. Listen up everyone! Because you might be able to do this in SoCal. What you need is to keep the bulbs at 50-60 degrees F for 2-3 weeks immediately after planting so that they can make roots. Then, they just need to be kept uniformly cool (like refrigerator temps) for 12 weeks (you can do it in a shady spot with 6-8 inches of mulch on top). It’s worth a try. Brent knows folks who have done it in San Francisco, but he’d love to know if you can do the trick in SoCal. — Tovah

Cathy May 17, 2011, 8:24 am

What a fabulous idea! Wish I’d thought of it. We were in the same boat… er SLED… left with several dozen unplanted bulbs, and opted to try and plant them after some snow melt in February with very disappointing results.

Given that we we’d planted other spring bulbs for winter forcing indoors, I’m not sure why we just didn’t plant the rest indoors as well. Hindsight is often even better than 20/20, but I love your idea of planting them in pots, which means a lovely display can pop up at any number of unexpected places — another fabulous “Tovah Idea” I plan to try!

Thank you, Cathy. It sure adds another dimension and more flexibility to spring, doesn’t it? Brent gave me further advice for cold climate gardeners. If you don’t have a cold frame, he suggested burying the containers beneath 6-8 inches of mulch. I would take the empty mesh bags that the bulbs came in and slip them around the pots for rodent protection before burying them. — Tovah

Alistair May 17, 2011, 11:57 am

I thought it was common place to plant Tulips in containers, perhaps more so in the UK. I have done this for years, plant the bulbs deeply in pots in mid October just leaving them outdoors in situation where they can be seen from the house. Great results, and yes I prefer them when not fully open.

Interesting, Alistair. No it’s not so commonplace here. But I’m going to share another bit of advice from Brent — he’s done research on this and claims that the bulbs need not be planted deep in the pot. Instead, it’s more important to have ample room for the roots below. After the bulb makes roots, it becomes more elastic and can expand and contract with freezing. So heavy frost doesn’t harm it. — Tovah

Byddi Lee - We didn't come here for the grass... May 18, 2011, 12:56 pm

I’m jealous of your tulips! I love them, but they are so much work here in California where the winter does not chill them sufficiently, and I have to dig them up and put them in my fridge for 8 weeks. A lots of bother for a bloom that lasts about 2 weeks!

You know Byddi, you’ve got a point. Plus, you’re not as flower-starved as we are here in New England. Sometimes I forget that in my rush to show everyone how they can achieve these stupendous blossoms anywhere in the country. Tell me, how do you do with the tuberous alliums? Very curious to know. — Tovah