By: Heather Rhoades
A great many people love to grow tulips in their garden, and for good reason. They are very lovely flowers. While many people grow them, not many people can keep their tulips blooming for more than a few years, especially when they become overcrowded. Read on to learn about dividing tulips.
Once in awhile a person may find that they just so happened to plant their tulips in ideal conditions and that their tulips flourish year after year. If you are one of these rare and lucky people, you may find yourself in the unusual circumstances of needing to divide the tulip bulbs in your tulip bed.
Tulip bulbs are much like any other kind of bulb. They are a self-contained plant organism. This means that they must work very hard during the spring months to store enough energy to survive the rest of the year. Moving a plant can also take some of the energy out of a plant. For this reason, you should try to divide your tulip bulbs in midsummer to mid-fall, after all of the energy storing foliage has died back and the tulip has the best chances of having enough energy stored to survive both the move and the winter.
In order to lift your tulip bulbs out of the ground, you will probably need to dig fairly deep. Most long surviving tulip beds tend to be planted a bit deeper than normal. It may be a good idea to dig carefully on the edges of your bed until you determine how deep the bulbs are planted. Once you have determined this, you can go ahead and lift the rest out of the ground.
Once all of the tulip bulbs have been lifted, you can replant them where you would like. Be warned, though, it really is difficult to be able to give your tulips conditions that they not only survive, but thrive and flourish as well. You may want to consider putting at least some tulips back in the same spot.
Wherever you decide to plant your divided tulip bulbs, there are a few things you will need to do to get your tulips to grow as best they can.
Hopefully, after you have divided your tulip bulbs, they will return bigger and better than ever!
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Oklahoma, with its USDA hardiness zones ranging from 6a to 7b, has winter temperatures that fall below freezing in all parts of the state. Hardy bulbs such as crocus, daffodil and tulips can be planted in the late summer or early fall. Tender bulbs such dahlia, gladiola and amaryllis will need to be planted in the late spring after the last frost has passed and the ground soil has warmed. Tender bulbs will need to be lifted from the soil and overwintered indoors in preparation for re-planting the following spring.
Select a planting site with a full sun exposure or just very light, filtered shade. Provide protection from heavy winds that can damage and dehydrate the bulbs and plants and choose a site that is well drained where neither water nor frosty air will pool.
Prepare a well-tilled planting bed rich in organic material. Amend poor or average soil with generous amounts of compost, peat moss and well-aged manure. Till in and mix the soil and amendments to a depth of a foot.
Add a dose of slow release bulb fertilizer with a guaranteed analysis of 5-10-10. Apply according to the product label directions and distribute evenly into the top 6 inches of soil.
Plant the bulbs at the package-recommended depth and interval for the specific species and your site soil conditions. Group bulbs in odd numbers and in large drifts for a naturalized appearance when in bloom. Smooth the soil over and around the bulb and tamp down lightly.
Water the bulbs and surrounding soil well until the soil is drenched, but not soupy wet.
Lay down a 3- to 5-inch thick blanket of organic mulch to protect the bulbs from winter drought and cold temperatures. Straw, leaf mold or grass clippings will all work. You will pull the mulch away in spring after the last hard frost has passed and the soil is thawing.
Repeat the same process for spring-planted bulbs, but do not mulch heavily (as this is not required).
Divide overcrowded bulbs for more bloom and healthier plants.
Hardy bulbs sometimes need to be divided. After a number of years in the garden, some daffodils and other bulbs produce offsets that cluster around the base of the parent bulb. Crowded foliage and diminished flowering are signs that the bulb clumps need to be divided. After the leaves die back, dig up the bulbs and carefully separate the offsets from the parents. Replant the bulbs immediately or store them in a cool, dry place until bulb-planting time in the fall. Plant the offsets twice as deep as their height don't plant them as deep as mature bulbs. Small offsets will take a few years to reach blooming size.
Some corms, such as gladiolus, crocus, and freesia, produce small structures called cormels around their base, similar to the offsets of bulbs. These can be removed and replanted to increase your supply. When plants are dormant, remove the cormels. Immediately replant cormels of hardy plants like crocus and colchicum. For tender plants like gladiolus, store the corms and cormels in a cool, dry place over winter and plant in spring.
For scaly bulbs like lilies, you can dig the bulbs in spring and remove the small scales that form around the outside. Replant immediately.
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If you want tulips, the gardening wisdom goes, you have to plant new ones every fall.
Most tulips make a big spring splash and then peter out. They might not return at all, or they'll send up some puny leaves for a couple of years and maybe a few mediocre flowers before dying out completely.
If you're tired of planting tulips every year, you can choose types and use planting strategies that are more likely to encourage a return appearance. You won't get the same dazzling display as you would by planting yearly, but you'll save yourself some work.
First, though, a little explanation on why tulips don't rebound readily.
Most of the tulip bulbs we buy have been bred, coddled and specially selected so they're plump and likely to produce a good-size flower. But after that first blooming, the mother bulb breaks into smaller bulbs as a means of reproduction, explained Becky Heath, one of the owners of the Virginia mail-order business Brent and Becky's Bulbs. Those bulblets can't store the energy needed to push out a big flower the next year.
Some types of tulips, however, do a better job of producing vigorous offspring. And all tulips fare better if they're planted in the right spot and given the proper care.
So if you want your tulips to perennialize, here's what you can do.
Giant Darwin hybrid tulips, bred by crossing Fosteriana and the old Darwin tulips, are renowned as good repeat performers. In fact, they're often marketed as perennial tulips.
Their bulbs don't break up as readily, allowing them to make a strong return, Heath said.
"They're kind of like a tulip powerhouse. . They're just incredibly strong from a genetic perspective," said Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms of the Connecticut mail-order retailer John Scheepers Inc. She is the great-niece of Scheepers, who introduced giant Darwin hybrids to the United States in the 1950s.
This type of tulip produces large flowers on strong stems. They're available in a fairly wide range of colors, including some striped varieties.
Another group that tends to come back well is Fosteriana tulips, also called Emperor tulips, said Tim Schipper of Colorblends, a Connecticut company that sells tulip bulbs in bulk. Fosteriana tulips do fine in Northeast Ohio but not as well in more temperate areas, he said.
The perennializing success of Fosterianas is partly genetic, Schipper said, but it also has to do with their earlier bloom time. Provided the weather conditions are favorable, Fosteriana tulips have a long growing season that gives them plenty of time to recharge their energy stores for the next year, he said.
They're a little shorter than the Darwin hybrids, with large, elongated flowers.
Another option for encouraging tulips to keep coming back is to plant species tulips, also called botanical tulips. They're smaller, more delicate plants that are closer in appearance to their wild ancestors than the big tulips that have been developed through hybridizing.
Species tulips not only return year after year, but they multiply and form clumps that grow bigger each year, a process called naturalizing. That process happens when bulblets formed by the mother bulb get big enough and split off to produce their own flowers, van den Berg-Ohms explained.
Species tulips range from about 5 to 12 inches in height, depending on the type. They include species such as Tulipa biflora, a diminutive white flower with a yellow center, and T. praestans fuselier, a multiflowering tulip with a vibrant orange-red color.
These petite plants provide a little spark of color rather than a big splash, Schipper said. They're well suited for rock gardens, the edges of walkways and along the drip lines of trees, where they'll get enough sun to thrive.
Schipper thinks one of the most important keys to perennializing tulips is to change your thinking. Instead of being guided by where you want your tulips to grow, you have to consider where the flowers have the best chance for long-term survival.
"You have to think like a bulb," he said.
Tulips like soil with a neutral pH, good drainage and plenty of sun at least six hours a day. They're native to mountainous areas of central Asia where winters are brutally cold and summers are dry, so the closer you can come to approximating those conditions, the more luck you'll have, Schipper said.
Heath said well-drained soil is especially important in summer. The bulbs are dormant then, and "they want to sleep in a dry bed just like I do," she said.
Avoid planting too early in the season, Schipper said. Wait till daytime temperatures are in the 70s and nighttime temperatures are in the 40s, he said about the time the fall leaf color is at its peak.
Planting tulips deeper in the soil than other bulbs can help keep them coming back. That protects them better from temperature spikes and exposes them to more of the nutrients and other beneficial elements in the soil, van den Berg-Ohms said.
Heath recommends planting at a depth that's four times the height of the bulb. The ground pressure is higher at that depth, which tends to keep the bulbs from breaking apart, she said.
If the fall has been dry, water the plants immediately after planting to get the roots started, she said.
Tulips don't need fertilizer when they're planted, van den Berg-Ohms said. They already have what they need stored in the bulb.
After the first year, though, fertilizing can improve their vigor, she said. She recommends sprinkling an organic fertilizer three times a year: in fall, in early spring when the sprouts first appear, and later in spring when the flowers start dying back. Choose a fertilizer that's higher in phosphorus than nitrogen or potassium, she said.
Or forget about fertilizer and just apply compost. That's Heath's preference.
Make sure the bulbs don't get too much moisture in summer, when they're dormant. Schipper said excess moisture is often the problem when water-loving annual flowers are planted in the same space after tulips finish blooming. As gardeners water the annuals through the summer, they drench the tulip bulbs and can cause them to rot.
Van den Berg-Ohms also recommended against cutting the larger types of tulips to bring into the house. Removing their stems depletes their energy-storing ability, she said. Instead, wait until the flowers finish blooming and start dying back, and then cut off the flower heads about 1 inch below their base so the plant doesn't put its energy into seed production.
The smaller species tulips don't need deadheading. In fact, Heath said leaving the flower heads in place allows the seeds to drop and possibly produce more plants.
(You don't want to do that with the larger tulips, because it takes years for a seed to produce a flower. Better to preserve the energy of the existing plant than try to grow new ones.)
Let the foliage die back before removing it, which can take as much as eight weeks. It's not all that attractive at that stage, but don't braid it to make it look neater, the experts said. You want to leave as much of the foliage exposed to the sun as possible, so the plants can use photosynthesis to recharge the bulbs.
Trouble with deer and voles? Heath recommends Plantskydd, a repellent made from dried blood.
In the end, nature has the final say on whether your tulips will return.
A hot spell in spring can cut short the growing season by causing the flower bud to open before the plant reaches full height, Schipper and van den Berg-Ohms said. That reduces the plant mass left to produce next year's food through photosynthesis.
And some sites just have more favorable conditions than others. Tulips might return year after year in one part of your yard but not another, Schipper said. He's always getting calls from people who want to plant the kind of tulips that bloomed every year in their grandmothers' yards, but it's probably the microclimate that was responsible, not the type of tulip.
With the larger tulips, the first year's bloom will be the best, he said. Subsequent years will never be as striking, but "it's still respectable," he said.