I am not much for getting dressed up, but some occasions call for that.  I oblige as best I can.  Some great vintage costume jewelry, and a little lipstick can do wonders when I need to go out after work.  Lipstick in the garden-the tulips take first prize.  Their large, goblet shaped and brilliantly colored blooms dress up a spring garden like a new lipstick.  Even the pastel colors glow.  Who knows what the real science is, but here is my theory.  The petals are very large, and thin.  This makes them transluscent.  Spring sun shines through the petals-they glow.  This tulip?  American Dream. 


A truly beautiful photograph of a flower or a garden is so dependent on a circumstance of light that endows a flat surface with four edges with depth, and great color saturation.  I understand nothing of the science of photography-I just take lots of pictures.  But I do know my favorite experience of the tulips is not only their gorgeous shapes and juicy leaves and stems- that saturated, glowing color relieves my winter headache in an instant. 

Glowing color is so welcome in my zone-after an interminable and invariably gray winter.  Michigan is known for its long run of sunless days.  By the time spring comes, I feel like I have lived my whole life in blah and white.  No flower comes with packed with more vitamin D than the tulip. 

Tulips come in no end of species and hybrids.  Anna Pavord’s book on tulips-excellent and thorough.  My classification of tulips-much more simple.  There are those that are reliably perennial, and there are those that are half-heartedly perennial at best.  The species tulips, the early tulips-most of them are quite perennial.  They are modest in size, and exotic looking.  Why would they not be?  This species tulip-tulipa humilis hybrid is aptly named Persian Pearl.  I am sure the name refers to its native habitat.     

Tulips comprise a group of 109 species-native to Southern Europe, North Africa, Asia, Anatolia, and Iran.  These are exotic places, given that I live in Michigan.  They have that look-from another world.  The very early species can be crushed by late frosts, but they are stubborn about coming back.  Tulip Oratorio-a greigii tulip, is quite persistent and tolerates planting in a pot that winters in the garage quite well.  

The later blooming hybrid tulips- heart stopping.  I have had Temple of Beauty grow in excess of 40 inches tall.  I have had Blushing Beauty flowers fully seven inches across.  Some years for tulips are better than others-they like a long cool spring.  They hate being frozen through and through.  In very severely cold winters, if they are not planted deep enough, they freeze solid, and rot when the soil warms. 

It is no wonder the long stemmed so called French tulips are a spring staple for florists.  The flowers grow after they are cut, and age.  Extraordinary, this.  They are the devil to arrange-they have their own ideas about placement.   

Tulips are a bloody nuisance-the brown orb shaped bulbs want to be planted in the fall after the soil cools.  As committed a gardener as I am, I have an aversion to putting my hands in cold soil.  Warm soil is one of the great pleasures of gardening.  This is by way of saying it is fairly big work to have tulips to celebrate your spring. Not only do they ask for planting late in the year, they want you to wait many months before you can savor the fruits of your work.  Do not be so discouraged that you do not plant any.

Even one giant blob of tulips will will lift your winter weary spirits.  There are no end of tulips varieties and colors from which to choose from. 

If you have no tulips coming on, stop by.  I planted 2300 tulips in the front garden at the shop last fall.  I am guessing they will begin to show color within a week, and be in full bloom shortly therafter.  I have a client who went for the spring tour at Keukenhof-can you hear me sighing?  My business precludes a spring trip anywhere except to the shop.  That’s exactly why I plant my own version of Keukenhof.  You are welcome to stop by to see this year’s shades of lipstick.


This past November, I planted a slew of spring flowering bulbs in containers.  My crumbly compost based soil came from the most mature of Steve’s compost hills.  Friable, this soil.  I knew my bulbs would be happy.  True bulbs are extraordinary, in that they house the leaves and flowers intact, and ready to grow, in an embryonic state.  An entire blooming plant exists inside, ready to grow when the conditions are right.  Wow.  Though I have been curious, I have never had the heart to slice a tulip bulb in half to see what was inside-it always seemed like such a waste of a life.  So I believe what I read about this.  

My bulbs were planted in November; they need time to root before the ground freezes hard.  Planting them too late can be a problem, should winter arrive unexpectedly early.  I have been told that bulbs do not freeze hard through and through when planted in the ground.  Should they freeze too hard, they will rot when they thaw.  I find this hard to believe, as we routinely have frost that penetrates the ground of a depth of 42 inches, but perhaps a solid freeze is different than deeply penetrating frost.  This means container planted bulbs need some winter protection, as their roots are actually above ground.  But should they be wintered in too warm a location, they will not get the chilling they need. 

We moved the pots into the garage in late December; I did worry I had left them outside too long.  The shop garage is much larger than a car garage, so space was available.  We placed them as close to the adjacent heated space as possible, although we only heat that space to 45 degrees in January and February.  Bulbs require a period of chilling.  Cold temperatures induce a biochemical response that triggers the growth of that embryonic flower.  Gardeners in frost free zones have a tough time growing bulbs unless they provide a proper chilling period. A refrigerator dedicated to chilling bulbs-I love that idea.

Different bulbs have different requirements for chilling.  Tulips need 14-20 weeks.  Chionodoxa need 15.  Once a bulb has experienced the cold it needs, it can take 2-3 weeks from breaking ground to bloom.  My bulbs in containers-I am not forcing them.  By this I mean I am not engineering a chilling time that would allow me to have flowers ahead of the normal spring season.  I like them to bloom at exactly the same time as they would were they planted in the ground.  I just like the idea of bulbs blooming in boxes, or terra cotta pots.  I can move them around, or group them on my front porch.  I could use a pot of tulips as a centerpiece, or a gift for a friend who is under the weather.   

I do not heat my garage space; the extremely cold temperatures we had in February made me worry that the bulbs had frozen too hard.  I checked a few pots by knocking the root ball out of some pots-they all seemed well rooted and fine.  I cannot account for why this completely unheated space works.  Though it is unheated, it probably is not nearly as cold as the out of doors.  Perhaps geothermal heat plays a part in keeping the bulb pots just warm enough.  No matter the science, I am seeing my bulbs beginning to break ground.  You may wonder why I have covered my pots with landscape fabric, as well you should.  Our resident cat, MCat, loves nothing better than digging into the dirt, or sharpening his claws on the trunks of old boxwood topairies we store here over the winter.   

The landscape fabric and some low tech readily available weights keeps him out of these pots.  Like countless other people, we accomodate the local wildlife.  As you can see, the bulbs are stirring.  I know that many plants go dormant in response to a season that cannot support growth.  I know that low temperatures slow the chemical activity in plants as a survival strategy. But I cannot decide if these bulbs have been truly dormant.  I think there has been a small fire burning here, all winter.   

These pictures of pots of dirts with an occasional green or red shoot hardly seem exciting at first glance-you are right about that.  But what is happening below the surface, and barely poking through the surface means spring is not far off-I find that incredibly exciting.


By no means have I left the dirt in my dust-my gardening season is not yet over.  I still have projects in process.  But one of my fall gardening projects did come to a close today.  We’re all potted up.  I was determined to pot spring bulbs in containers this year-I ordered scads of them.  Even Steve started to complain about the sheer numbers.  OK, he and his crews are tired-it has been a busy season, and the holidays are yet to come.  But he did oblige-and he obliged in a significant way with his home-composted and sand-leavened bulb soil-does it not look scrumptious? 

Bags full of that precious and special compost found its way to the shop.  There was much discussion about what bulbs would seem good together, what bulbs asked for a simple mass, what mixes of the same type bulb might make for interesting spring color.

The tulipa are the Sarah Bernhardts of the spring garden. Lush leaves, dramatically thin stalks and large showy flowers-what gardener is not longing for them come spring?  It is indeed a natural miracle that a flowering plant that can top out at better than 30 inches is programmed and ready to go inside these 2″ diameter brown orbs.   

These World Expression tulips in my window boxes were drop dead gorgeous for weeks.  Potting bulbs in window boxes that put the roots above ground is a dicey move-in a bitterly cold winter they could have frozen solid, and rotted by spring.  But why not try?  That effort paid off; my spring at the shop was beautiful. 

It is not so easy to keep that picture of those tulips in mind, when the fall is cold, and the planting circumstances less than charming.  Putting little brown bits into the soil is just about the most unsatisfying garden chore of all-there will be nothing to show for all of that effort for the next six months. 

But when April comes around, I will be happy for today’s effort.  The daffodils blooming set every gardening heart to beating a little faster; spring is on the way.     

I chose a variety of  standard containers.  Fiber pots, made from recycled cardboard, are a good choice. Though they will degrade, they degrade slowly. Kept from any contact with a hard surface, you might get three years out of them. The trick to getting long life from a fiber pot is to elevate it off the hard surface.  This allows the bottom to dry out, and stay intact.  Unlike a cardboard box, a fiber pot that dries out is just as strong as it was originally.  In the spring, they can be dropped into a more dressy container with ease.  When the bulbs bloom, the news will be all about what is inside-not the container.

Bulbs are beautiful in containers.  Diminuitive bulbs show and grow best in shallow containers.  The low large classic terra cotta shape is known as a bulb pan.  Too large a pot for any plant can encourage rot; the larger the soil mass, the slower it will drain and dry out.  These concrete faux bois planters are no more than 8 inches deep. 

These grape hyacinths were planted in very small pots-3″ containers.  That made transplanting them into a larger planter of lettuce and violas easy.  Muscari bloom a long time in the spring, especially should the night temperatures stay chilly.

I am sure this is the third time I have talked about bulbs in containers this fall-why am I still talking about it?  The chances are good that there are still bulbs available; at this time of year, they are priced to go.  If you are like me, you have a stack or a stash of pots available to you.  So why not fill them with bulbs?

I have not counted how many pots there are here, but my instinct says I will have a very good show come April. Even if you did not plant one bulb in ground this fall, no need to do without them.  What are you doing Sunday?  Rumor has it that nature has decided to do 60 degrees that day-perfect for a little spring gardening.