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My (Mostly) Failed Tulip Experiment

May 5, 2013

tulip experimentWhen I rented the townhouse where I live in Gettysburg (11 years ago this month), I found a half-barrel full of weeds sitting in the middle of the front lawn. The day after I signed the lease, before I had even moved in, I bought some potting soil and annuals and filled the barrel with spring color. Every spring since, I have planted it with dianthus, annual geranium (Pelargonium), petunias and osteospermum, providing colorful blooms all summer long.

This past fall, as the blooms in my barrel were fading and I was dreaming about the garden season to come, I had a vision of the barrel filled with tulips in April. Since it was the season to plant bulbs and I had bulb catalogs at hand to encourage me, I purchased and planted 25 tulip bulbs of four different varieties, all in various shades of pink. All winter long, I imagined the glorious pink blooms that would overflow from my barrel in spring. Instead, I got what you see in the photo above – a total of 4 tulips from my 25 bulbs.

I’m not sure what went wrong. It’s possible that the container didn’t provide the bulbs with enough protection from winter cold. It’s also possible that the drainage wasn’t good enough and most of the bulbs rotted. I think the most likely explanation is that the squirrels got most of them.

Fortunately, by the time I realized what a disappointment my tulip experiment had turned out to be, it was time to plant annuals, and my barrel is once again providing a cheerful bounty of colorful blooms.

tulips & annuals

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40 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2013 10:39 pm

    Sorry your tulips didn’t work out better! I had a better experience, but not perfect. I think I lost about 18 of 90 tulips planted in containers. I kept the containers in the garage over winter and only watered them thoroughly once before spring. I think they could have used a bit more insulation.

    • May 11, 2013 10:30 pm

      As one of my college friends used to say, “Oh dear; oh well.” The four tulips I had were very pretty for a few days; and, in truth, the fact that not many came up left a lot more room for cramming annuals into that container.

  2. May 5, 2013 10:54 pm

    There is no such thing as a failed garden experiment; all experiences make us better teachers.

  3. May 6, 2013 3:23 am

    Jean the only reliable tulips that grow in my soil are those in a raised bed….I bet it was squirrels. The 4 you have are lovely…

  4. May 6, 2013 7:42 am

    Jean it’s nice to see the annuals mixed in with the tulips great idea. I never had any luck with tulips in pots….but lilies (Asiatic) are very easy and reliable for me. At least you tried and I would bet it was the squirrels. Sandi

    • May 11, 2013 10:33 pm

      Charlie, I’m not feeling too bad about this. As you say, it was an experiment from which I’ve learned.

      Donna and Sandi, I’m betting on the squirrels, too.

  5. May 6, 2013 8:02 am

    The same thing happened to me this year! Caught up with tulipmania when I was at Keukenhof last April I purchased some tulip bulbs and planted two pots with them. From two dozen or more only 3 paltry tulips bloomed. On the other hand, “perennial” tulips I planted four years ago are going strong.

    • May 11, 2013 10:35 pm

      Getting “caught up with tulipmania” is such a good description of what happened here — only in my case it was “tulipmania by catalogue.” 😐 I’m normally not that fond of tulips and haven’t grown them in many years. In fact, there were tulips growing in the front flower bed here when I moved in a dozen years ago, and I replaced them with perennials.

      • May 12, 2013 4:22 pm

        I think I only like tulips for about an hour each year….far too little time to devote to ordering/planting/deadheading and dealing with the ugly foliage! That being said, some perennial tulips I planted at least 4 years ago are in bloom again this year…just goes to show one never knows what will happen in the garden.

  6. May 6, 2013 10:44 am

    Hi Jean,
    You made lemonade out of tulips? We just don’t have the soil or climate for tulips, and they are delicacies for the rodentia. Great collection of color and beauty! Thanks for sharing

    • May 11, 2013 10:37 pm

      Shenandoah, I love the image of making lemonade out of tulips. (I’m very much a turning lemons into lemonade type of personality.) The funny thing was that my vision of the tulips included tucking in annuals around them once they had bloomed, but I don’t think I had a very realistic idea how much space would have been left for annuals (NOT) if all those tulip bulbs had survived. I hope the rodentia enjoyed them.

  7. May 6, 2013 11:28 am

    Sorry to hear about the no-show tulips. I understand how disappointing that can be. You are correct to assume that all or any one of the mentioned factors may have contributed to their demise. As for the squirrels, I have successfully protected my tulips from them by coating the bulbs and the earth above with chili powder and red pepper flakes. However, I am told that desperately hungry squirrels can overcome that barrier as well.

    • May 11, 2013 10:39 pm

      Allan, I hadn’t heard about red pepper flakes as a squirrel deterrent; something to remember if I decide to try tulips again in the future. Happily, even though most of my tulips didn’t make it, a colleague whose house is on my walking route to work had an amazing tulips display in his front garden — which I have been enjoying twice a day.

  8. May 6, 2013 12:08 pm

    wow! I had no idea squirrels ate bulbs. That’s good to know. Do tulips usually grow well in that area? I have heard they are picky flowers. What a sweet tradition you keep with your planting bucket, though. 🙂

    • May 11, 2013 10:40 pm

      Leilani, Squirrels definitely eat bulbs — except that they don’t like daffodils and hyacinths. Before they eat the tulips, they dig them up and rebury them in caches here and there. Sometimes they forget them and you get tulips coming up in places where you never intended them.

  9. May 6, 2013 12:45 pm

    Oh Jean, I’m so sorry! Gardening disappointments–especially ones that take months of hopeful waiting–are awful. I know I’ve had my share of them–bulbs that don’t come up, Mock Orange shrubs that never flower (and what else are they for?), Daphne’s that die no matter where I plant them, etc. I think it’s the dreaming about them all winter that’s the worst.
    Anyway, But don’t give up! I think Jason’s suggestion of keeping the barrel in the garage might work. Our winters here aren’t that bad for that long and I guess our squirrels have better things to eat. It’s just the deer you’ve got to watch for. My first season of growing tulips they bit the heads off of all of mine just before the buds opened.

    • May 11, 2013 10:44 pm

      Emily, Thanks for the commiseration. A mock orange shrub that never flowered would be a much greater disappointment than a missing tub of tulips. I have both a forsythia and a mock orange in the front yard of my house in Maine, and I find them both pretty boring shrubs except when they are in bloom. (As you say, what else are they for??)

      To follow Jason’s good suggestions, I’d first have to acquire a garage and then figure out how to move a container that probably weighs 100+ pounds. I don’t think I’m that motivated to grow tulips. 🙂

  10. May 6, 2013 5:00 pm

    Never mind Jean! The 4 pink ones are lovely, and the replanted pot now looks charming. When we moved to this house 10 years ago, it was grass, ivy and hedges. I knew, from a neighbour that at some time in the past, a previous owner had planted nearly £1,000 worth of tulips. Well….. they were not visible, but every year, a few more make a break! As we have uncovered former beds and borders, and created new ones, every so often we find a little lost soul and stick him back in. We will never have the glory of £1,000 worth of tulips, but we do buy a few more each year. They obviously like the soil here, and we are not haunted by squirrels, so at this time of the year it’s lovely and bright, and just what you need.
    I was fascinated by your vernal ponds – how lovely to have them near you.

    • May 11, 2013 10:47 pm

      Susan, OMG, the idea of spending that kind of money on bulbs (or on any plants) boggles my mind. I, too, have some stray tulips from a long ago planting that pop up every so often. Mostly, I just get tulip foliage; but then, every five years or so, one of them will put up a lone flower.

      The vernal pools are special and I feel lucky to have them nearby.

  11. May 7, 2013 5:46 am

    I would love to succeed with tulips, but I’ve given up on all traditional spring bulbs, let alone difficult ones… between our often excessively hot springs and our eager rodents… 😦

    • May 11, 2013 10:49 pm

      Jack, My climate isn’t even that hot in spring and my four tulips still only lasted a few days. I don’t think I’m sufficiently enamored of tulips to try this again; I’m perfectly happy with my usual tub of annuals.

  12. May 7, 2013 8:56 am

    Oh Jean! I don’t plant tulips anymore – too many predators. I plant lots of daffodils. Nothing eats daffodils. This year the big, fat rabbit ate all my crocus. I will be planting more animal resistant bulbs and native wildflowers for next spring. I will say those four tulips are beautiful! A wonderful shade of pink!

    • May 11, 2013 10:52 pm

      Kathy, I haven’t planted tulips in more than 20 years. I don’t know what got into me this year; the Brent and Becky’s catalog cast some kind of spell over me! Like you, I grow lots of daffodils. I also find hyacinths pretty pest-proof. Although I do sometimes have rabbits in the garden here in Gettysburg, they don’t usually show up until after the crocuses bloom.

  13. May 8, 2013 4:06 pm

    Oh how disappointing Jean but the survivors are beauties. I imagine that it’s those pesky squirrels. I grow tulips in containers and always cover them with chicken wire until the bulbs are well established. Seems to do the trick and mine are just coming into flower now.

    • May 11, 2013 10:55 pm

      Anna, I remember having some vague concerns about squirrels when I was planting the tulip bulbs, but I didn’t have any chicken wire or other squirrel deterrents at hand and a small window of time in a busy work week to get the bulbs planted — so I just decided to ignore that little voice of warning. If I ever decide to try this again, I’ll be wiser.

  14. May 8, 2013 10:16 pm

    Oh at least you have four! And the outcome with your annuals is looking great too. We don’t have squirrels here, but we have native chickens, some goat kids that jump on our plants when they are just out to be tethered somewhere. They eat whatever they see. My father once joked that if you are always with goats, they will also eat you!

    • May 11, 2013 10:56 pm

      Andrea, Any garden damage done by squirrels pales into insignificance compared to what goats can accomplish!

  15. May 9, 2013 11:53 am

    Sorry to read this Jean, I can sympathise as I am in the same position. Tulips are my favourite flower so it’s even more gutting. I bought several different brands at varying prices and have achieved a puzzling variety of results. I put full squirrel protection in place with chicken wire but still a lot have not sprouted. Had two coordinating colours from one supplier sold as a single pack and only one colour has come out.

    • May 11, 2013 11:00 pm

      Claire, I think one of the reasons I’m not usually particularly fond of tulips is that the first time I planted them, I bought a package of coordinating colors (red, yellow, and red-yellow bicolor) from a big (and cheap! — you get what you pay for) mail order company. Most of them didn’t come up, and the ones that did were all a particularly unattractive muddy red. Ugh. The funny thing is that I’ve tried for more than 20 years now to get all those tulips bulbs out of the ground, and they are still sending up an occasional muddy red flower.

  16. May 9, 2013 1:47 pm

    Hi Jean, that’s so disappointing, I sympathise with you as we have a tub of tulips that are pretty much a no-show so I’m going to do the same as you have and replace the failure (or “temporary set-back”) with either cheap annuals from the Garden Centre or some left-over young plants that I raised from seed.

    • May 11, 2013 11:02 pm

      Sunil, I hope you can enjoy your annuals. Gardening is all about how to turn disappointments into opportunities. Those who can’t tolerate disappointment should never become gardeners!

  17. May 9, 2013 8:08 pm

    way to turn that into a positive! the tulips look great mixed in with the other flowers.

    • May 11, 2013 11:03 pm

      Yes, and now that the tulips have all shattered and left behind nothing but ugly foliage, the annuals are just hitting their stride.

  18. May 11, 2013 2:09 am

    I have the same problem with the squirrels eating my bulbs, but your annuals look so pretty mingling with the tulips in your pot.

  19. May 12, 2013 10:31 am

    Hi Jean, the Tulips in containers work a treat over here, I guess the frosts aren’t so severe and there are fewer squirrels. Look at your barrel now though, another four weeks before we see anything similar.

    • May 15, 2013 11:33 pm

      Alistair, I’m glad to know they’re working well for someone! Mine looked really great in my imagination — in reality, not so much. 😐

  20. May 14, 2013 11:16 am

    Jean, I understand that sense of disappointment having waited all winter – and of wondering what came over you, planting them in the first place!

    Like you I was never a great fan of tulips (despite many snooty gardeners in the UK seeing them as the queen of flowers) – all that ugly foliage and ungainly shape. But now we are in India we never see them – it just gets too hot too soon I think – it’s already over 110 degrees F and everything is flagging. So I was looking forward on our recent trip to Kashmir to seeing what is claimed to be the second biggest tulip garden in the world, only to be told they had cut the heads off all 2 million tulips just before we arrived!!

    • May 15, 2013 11:34 pm

      OMG, Jill; I hope there were other things you were looking forward to seeing in Kashmir.

  21. February 21, 2016 6:14 pm

    So, now, it is 2016. Just now seeing the story of tulips it coming up. I have similar story with NO solution! Any tulip detectives out there?
    I plant about 300 tulips every year, and in Dallas, that means you have to refrigerate the tulips 45 days prior to planting to trick them into thinking they are in the north.
    LAst year and this year, I planted red and yellow in my front yard….50 of each. Last year I was so surprised that only about 4 yellow tulips bloomed. Just a fluke I thought so I planted 50 again this year. NOT ONE YELLOW TULIP CAME UP (yes, they are early this year), but I counted my red ones and have 39 blooming out of the 50. Do squirrels prefer yellow tulips over red? I don’t think so!
    But, what? My red/yellow come up as do the purple and orange.
    Anyone have an idea? Anyway, next year I’m planting daffodils for my yellow. No more yellow tulip attempts!

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