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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Entries in bulb planting (2)


A Special Species Tulip

During the spring season, garden bloggers rarely write about planting tulip bulbs. That topic is reserved for late summer and early fall to coincide with the upcoming autumn, when such bulbs are planted. In the spring, those that grow tulips usually restrict their activities to posting images of bulbs in bloom. This season, I must make an exception to these unwritten rules. A species tulip has just bloomed in my garden and I need to share information about it while it is still inspiring.

The frustration of having to replace spent tulip bulbs after several years of boom, had sent me back to the books to investigate varieties that naturalize i.e. that will grow back year after year, just as reliable perennial plants do. There is a consensus among experienced bulb gardeners and botanists to plant species tulips that return annually to re bloom with reliability.

One of the species tulips that I found in a mail order catalogue is called Praestans Unicum. It bloomed this past week and caused quite a sensation in spite of the fact that the picture in the catalogue had not been very impressive. It showed a short scarlet tulip with a white margined green leaf. Because scarlet is one of my least favorite colors, I was not immediately drawn to this bulb. Unfortunately, it was the only species tulip in this merchant’s catalogue, and I had no other choice but to order it. I asked for one packet of 6 bulbs. Big mistake!  Now that I see it in bloom, I wish that I had ordered several packages, that’s how impressed I am with its performance in my garden.

The tulip is only 12 inches in height but since it blooms before taller tulips do, its size is not an issue. It is quite prominent in my flower bed in early spring when very few other bulbs are in bloom. However, what impresses me most is its color. One cannot exactly call it one shade or another as it is a mélange of red, orange, scarlet and cayenne, all depending on the nature of the daylight. When it is back lit by the afternoon sun, as it is in my garden, the almost translucent flower petals are luminous with a fiery, intense, neon quality as if they were light bulbs screwed into a marquee.

The most appreciated aspect about growing Praestans Unicum is that it will grow exponentially over time. Every early spring, for years and years to come, before most of my daffodils and narcissus have bloomed, each of the six solitary tulips now growing in my garden will transform itself into a glowing clump of red/scarlet tulips.

It’s never too early to add this bulb to the autumn shopping list. Planning next year’s spring flowering bulb garden should begin now while bulbs are still in bloom. This is the time to identify bare spots and omissions in the flower beds, to find appropriate locations for planting additional varieties of bulbs, and to determine the quantity of bulbs needed for next season. Few gardeners will be able to remember, by next August, what pleased or disappointed them the previous April and May unless they keep records. This sort of “book keeping” is an integral part of successful garden design because spring flowering bulbs are a welcome kick - start to the color display of our flower beds.

P.S. Michael King, who blogs at, is a tulip specialist who suggested that Tulipa praestans Fusilier is a more robust variety to grow. I am indebted to Michael for fine tuning this piece. Please click on to comments below to read his full opinion.


Unorthodox Opinions About Bulb Planting or a New Use for Ski Underwear.

Spring flowering bulbs are planted in autumn when being outdoors, in some parts of the Northern hemisphere, is not always pleasant. Gardeners that are prone to quickly getting chilled, and who feel dampness in their bones more readily than others, should consider wearing a layer of ski underwear [top and bottom] underneath their gardening clothes. It does make a difference - a very big difference. The old fashioned variety that has a bit of wool blended into its fibers is the best- if it is still available. The underwear traps natural body heat to keep the gardener warm.

The most important tool for planting bulbs is a flat kneeling pad made of foam. Do not purchase one that is a cheap promotional quality; a rigid, thick product is best. Its primary purpose is to cushion the knee caps during the planting process but it has another important benefit as well. When two such pads are placed side by side, the gardener can slide over from one work station to the next and from one knee pad to the other, without lifting the body. This helps to avoid the repetitive movement of standing up and kneeling down, an aerobic exercise that can tire out gardeners who are not in good shape. Progressing sideways  from one pad to another is similar to playing leap-frog:  For example, - after the gardener slides from left to right, i.e. from pad No 1 to pad No 2, pad No 1 is then lifted and placed to the right of pad No 2, thereby becoming pad No. 3.

Planting bulbs efficiently requires a set of trowels: - one with an oversized blade and the other, a narrower version of the first. In order to plant tulip or daffodil bulbs, a hole 8 to 10 inches deep must be dug. The larger trowel can only create a hole 6 inches deep on the first try. A second plunge with such a large trowel is unnecessary work. It is easier to switch over to a smaller trowel, whose narrow point can efficiently deepen the first hole by 2 or 4 inches.

Before planting, prepare the trowels so that they can also serve as measuring guides to determine the depth of the holes. Items needed for this task are a ruler, a red permanent marker and pre cut strips of metallic duct tap, cut ¼ inch wide. On the concave side of the blade of the larger trowel and beginning at its tapered point, measure off spots for 2, 3, 4, and 6 inch depths and identify them with the red marker. Each variety of spring flowering bulb needs to be planted at its specifically recommended depth and these markings make it easier to gauge those measurements while digging.

Then, continuing along the handle, mark off the 8 and 10 inch spots. Highlight these last two measurements by wrapping the duct tape strips around the handle at these two spots to create metallic bands. Repeat the handle markings on the narrow trowel as well; its blade portion may already be factory engraved with measurements, depending on the brand purchased.

The 8 inch markings help to gauge the depth of the planting hole for tulips, daffodils and narcissus. The 10 inch spot is used to convert Darwin tulips into perennial bulbs. By planting at 10 instead of the recommended 8 inch depth, the Darwin tulip will work harder to generate growth and that work encourages it to behave like a perennial. However, Species tulips, such as Greigeii, Kaufmanniana and Fosteriana, will perform as perennials when planted at their recommended depths.

Lastly, avoid purchasing tools that are sold as bulb planters, no matter how attractive or clever they appear. They are not user-friendly nor are they efficient. Many such tools are made with a tubular blade that creates a circular hole. However, compacted earth will get stuck inside the tube and removing it is time consuming and arduous work. In addition, avoid drilling holes with an auger bit. Some gardeners report disappointing results with this method.