Tulip Heartbreak

How to avoid a common fate. Plus: a beginner’s garden.

Click here for the first installment of Slate’s guide to planting a beginner’s garden.

“Little Beauty” tulips might not break your heart

Like a lot of beautiful things, tulips inspire malfeasance, and they take a lot of work to maintain. Careless people pick them. Mice, rats, voles, skunks, squirrels, and deer eat them. Even in Holland, they need a lot of human intervention to thrive, because they’d rather be on a rocky mountainside in Turkey, where they come from. 

My favorite tulip story comes from The Year of Reading Proust, a memoir by Wesleyan University professor Phyllis Rose. A few years ago, Rose looked out the window of her on-campus house and saw an undergraduate picking a bouquet of tulips from her yard and carrying the flowers uphill toward the dorms. By the time she tracked the tulip thief down, she’d attracted a small crowd. 

“You don’t own them,” one student said to her, “they’re nature. God made them.”

“God made them?” said Rose. “You think God made them? Did God call White Flower Farm and order the bulbs? Did God put it on his credit card? Did God dig holes for the bulbs in the fall and mix bone meal in the dirt to feed them and cover them with mulch in the winter? If you think God did that, you’re an idiot!”

The student told Rose to “chill.” Then, she writes, they spent “several vivacious minutes, engaging in what the Wesleyan Bulletin calls education outside the classroom.”

In the past five years, I’ve spent day after October day planting thousands of tulip bulbs in New York City parks. (I’m not complaining. It’s fun, in a masochistic sort of way.) I’ve watched every spring as the tulips bloomed and an astonishing number of park-goers reached through the fence and picked a bunch. No one argued that God made them, but a couple of people forcefully stated that as city taxpayers they’d already paid for their flowers.   

Home gardeners, even when their yards are theft-free, experience tulip heartbreak. You buy 48 bulbs for $1 or so apiece. You plant them in the cold autumn soil and wait seven months, and they look fabulous the first spring (if they haven’t been eaten). But then they don’t come back the next year, or if they do, it’s with no flowers or pathetically small ones.

Tulips are supposed to come back because they’re bulbs, which are essentially nice, fat packages of food stored for the future plant. It’s not that tulips are finicky, it’s that they need the conditions in which they evolved. Being a bulb was a good strategy in a place like eastern Turkey, where the winters are cold and wet and the summers are hot and dry. For thousands and thousands of years, before they became the most sought-after flower in Western Europe and then in North America, tulip bulbs farther east spent summer in dry ground. They didn’t mind the lack of water, and they waited for cold to get them going again. 

But the warm, wet summers of much of North America are hostile to tulip bulbs. Many rot. This is in contrast to their rustic Mediterranean cousins, the daffodils, which usually come back uncomplainingly and long ago developed alkaloids in bulb and stem to avoid being eaten.

A daffodil bulb plugs away year after year, casting off baby bulbs that break away like garlic cloves and are ready to flower come spring. A tulip bulb, by contrast, goes through the underground drama of matricide. After flowering is over, the mother tulip bulb—the plump one that was planted in the fall and produced a nice big flower—disintegrates. Her stuffing is sucked out to create a bunch of smaller daughter bulbs. Tulips’ basic principle is that small bulbs make small flowers or no flowers. Very few, if any, of the daughter bulbs are up to the job of making big flowers; thus the gardener’s disappointment.

In Holland, when the fabled and gigantic Dutch tulip fields are done blooming, mechanical diggers pull up the bulbs for storage in boxes with forced air ventilation to replicate a windy summer drought. In early fall, a conveyor belt sorts out the ones big enough to sell. The smaller ones are replanted for harvest another year.  

In New York City parks, the tulip display beds must be turned over to summer annuals. So, I pulled up my tulips in late May when they were done blooming. Half went into compost piles. The other half went to community gardeners willing to take a chance on small bulbs and small flowers.

Home gardeners who want to take the same chance can increase their odds of getting a repeat bloom. Plant your bulbs deep—between 8 and 12 inches below the surface—in soil that stays relatively dry. Do not make the common mistake of planting annuals over them and watering the annuals through the summer.

Given the right conditions, a few types of the big, showy tulips are likely to come back the following year. These include Apeldoorn, the tall, red Darwin hybrid tulip that is the Dutch industry’s biggest U.S. seller. A good alternative, if you can appreciate less statuesque flowers and shorter stems, would be the smaller tulips that almost always come back, provided you give them a real winter, sun, and relatively dry soil. Tulipa Greigii, or “Red Riding Hood,” and Tulipa Hageri, or “Little Beauty,” are charming and reliable.

Here’s a simpler piece of advice. Go to the park. Go to the botanical garden. Go to Phyllis Rose’s front yard. Notice those bravura beds of big tulips. Sure, in some sense they are nature, and God or the Great Spirit or evolution made them. But appreciate the more recent work of the human being who did the selecting, planting, and mulching last fall. Value the tulips all the more because they’re almost certainly a one-shot deal.