GARDENING : How You Can Make Tulips Show Their True Colors


Few flowers announce the coming of spring more colorfully than eye-catching tulips. To get a good burst of these cup-shaped bloomers and other fall-planted bulbs next spring, now is the time for action. You can plant tulip bulbs until early January, but they should be bought now while the selection is best.

Although tulips are native to Holland, which has cold winters, it is possible to grow tulips in temperate Orange County. The secret is to chill the bulbs before planting them.

Without chilling, the flowers will be short and small, said Dan Davids of Davids and Royston Bulb Company Inc. in Gardena, which supplies bulbs to nurseries throughout Orange County.

Chilling tulip bulbs in the refrigerator mimics the cold nights found in cooler areas where tulips grow naturally.

Place the bulbs in a paper or plastic bag punched with holes and store them in the refrigerator for at least six weeks.

Don't place bulbs near apples; they give off ethylene gas, which causes bulbs to rot.

Plant the bulbs soon after removing them from the refrigerator; otherwise they tend to mold and will lose their strength.

Tulips bloom from March through May, depending on the variety. The tulip bloom is generally short-lived, so experts such as Davids recommend planting a combination of early, midseason and late varieties for a long season of color.

Staggering planting times of the same variety of tulips usually won't mean a longer display, said Davids, because each variety is bred to bloom at a specific time despite when it's planted.

Tulips and other bulb flowers do especially well in containers, according to the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center in New York. Yardless gardeners can place a colorful container of tulips in a sunny entryway or on a patio, deck or balcony.

It's possible to plant many tulips in a container. Every year, Davids fills several 16-inch terra-cotta pots with 40 to 50 tulip bulbs each. Or you can fill a small container with a handful of tulip bulbs. You also can combine bulb types in pots and cover the bulbs with annuals after planting.

To successfully plant and grow tulips, keep the following suggestions in mind.

* Provide excellent drainage. Like other bulbs, tulips can't swim. It's important that they aren't water-logged and don't have to struggle through compacted earth.

* Before planting bulbs, generously amend soil with compost. Bone meal or a pre-plant fertilizer made for bulbs should also be added as directed. If soil is heavy clay, adding gypsum is suggested.

* In the ground, plant tulip bulbs about five to six inches deep and five inches apart, with the pointy ends facing up.

* Plant tulips in a natural fashion, rather than in a straight line, by scattering the bulbs and planting them where they land.

* Tulip bulbs can be planted shallower and closer together in containers. In a pot, they can be planted just an inch deep and can touch each other. For the best container displays, Davids suggested planting tulip bulbs so their flat sides face the outside of the pot. This will create an outward explosion of flowers.

* Plant bulbs against the outside of the pot and move inward until you hit the center.

* Because of our mild winters, tulips rarely come back more than a year or two. Although some experts suggest digging the bulbs up and re-chilling them, Davids said this generally doesn't work well. He recommends buying and chilling new bulbs each season.

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