Tulips: To Chill, Or Not To Chill
The fall catalogues have arrived, so it’s time for my annual ritual: obsessing over tulips.
Why I bother is a very good question. As any southerner can tell you, tulips are basically annuals here. Some varieties won’t perennialize, and others will if and only if you provide optimal growing conditions. After reading what “optimal growing conditions” entailed (perfect drainage, perfect balance of nutrients, perfect light, and perfect moisture levels), I concluded that it would be far easier to start from scratch each year. So every fall, right before Thanksgiving, I grab the pickaxe and start digging, all so I can have two weeks of oohs and aahs in the spring.
Back to the fall catalogues. My first hurdle is deciding what tulips to order, since I generally want them all and I have limited myself to 100 bulbs (see pickaxe, above). The decision process can take weeks. The White Flower Farm catalogue and Beauty from Bulbs (the John Scheepers catalogue) in particular afford hours of entertainment; however, since both are based in Connecticut, I must maintain a level head. What looks spectacular there often looks pretty pathetic in North Carolina. Furthermore, I must not take the stated bloom times literally. Remember: May means April, April means March.
Of course, all of the local garden centers have lots of tulips to choose from and, theoretically at least, offer ones that are better adapted to the area. If the weather cooperates, that is. One of my [many] notable tulip failures was, in fact, a local purchase, a mixed pack containing Queen of the Night (dark purple, single, late) and a pale pink number whose name escapes me. The claim was that they bloomed simultaneously. In reality, the pale pink tulip bloomed first and was almost entirely done when the Queen finally showed up in mid-April, by which time it was already so hot that she lost all her petals in just a few days.
Now I aim for tulips that bloom before April. And much as I love the White Flower Farm and John Scheepers catalogues, I will concede that the anonymous Big Bag of Bulbs from Home Depot or Lowes does just as well, as long as the bulbs are early to mid-season and you stick them in the refrigerator for about 8 weeks before planting (and don’t forget to keep them away from the apples). Experts will tell you that chilling is not required in zone 7B. However, I have chilled and I have not chilled and, believe me, chilling is better. Just last fall, I opted not to monopolize valuable refrigerator space with the 100 mid-season red tulips I had ordered from John Scheepers, instead gambling that the winter would be cold enough to get one good display out of them. Of course the winter turned out to be one of the warmest on record, and the tulips looked it: short, stubby stems (some were almost stem-less) and short-lived flowers. The moral of the story: chill your bulbs, especially if you were foolish enough to pay a lot of money for them.
Coming soon: The Big Bulb Purchase
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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