Friday, August 19, 2016

Choosing Tulip Bulbs for Your Garden

Tulips may be a sign of spring, but they are actually planted in the fall in anticipation of spring. The bulbs require several weeks of chilly weather in order to grow and bloom. Now is the best time to shop for tulip bulbs. The local nursery and garden centers have the best selection, and you can take your time picking the best of the bunch for your garden.

Tulip bulbs actually hail from Turkey and cooler Asian climates. Traders brought them to Holland, where they seemed to flourish in the cool, moist climate. By around 1637, tulips were all the rage, with new colors like the "Rembrandt" striped and striated flowers causing a run on the market, with prices soaring in a short while. Fortunes were made and lost as speculators bid their wealth on the precious bulbs. Sound familiar? People never change!

Today, we are fortunate to live in an era when hybridizers and growers have selected the best among each of the categories of tulips and bred them for specific characteristics such as color, resistance to wind and weather, repeat blooming and so on.

Most tulips should be treated as annual flowers, or at best, short-lived perennials. Although I have some Darwin hybrids (above) that return in the garden, with each year they do diminish, and eventually the flowers are much smaller than in their original years. The plant puts energy into the bulb to reproduce, and eventually, unless you dig up the bulbs, split them, and lovingly tend them for a few years, they won't bloom again.

Gardeners, myself included, rarely have the time, patience or space for this, so I simply plant more and enjoy the show.

If you're interested in naturalizing with tulips, or finding tulips that might return for repeat blooms, choose from among the Tulipa kaufmaniana, Tulipa fosteriana, and Tulipa gregii hybrids. Like species tulips, these tend to bloom earlier and are less showy than the cottage, Darwin, parrot and lily-flowered tulips that add so much variety to the garden.

As you shop for your tulip bulbs, read the package label. Consider the estimated blooming times, and add a few species that bloom as early as March and as late as May so that you have a continual show in the garden. You can plant different species in the same planting hole. The tulips don't mind.

Choose the biggest bulbs you can find. The larger the bulb, the bigger the flower - or at least that is what a Dutch bulb grower once told me when I worked in a garden center! And after your tulips are finished blooming in the spring, let the leaves die back naturally. Don't cut them back or hack them down to the ground. The leaves are the food factories of the plant. Through the process of photosynthesis, they produce carbohydrates in the leaf cells which act as nourishment for the plant. Cut the leaves off of the plant and it dies.

Lastly, as you're planting tulip bulbs, remember to plant them with the pointy-side up, like a Hershey's chocolate kiss. Dig the hole as deeply as the package directions tell you to do, for the plant needs it, and the deeper holes discourage squirrels from digging the bulbs up entirely. Make sure you place a plant label or a marker on the spot so that you remember what you've planted there. It's easy to forget during the long winter months and dig up your precious bulbs in your haste to plant spring annuals later.

Although I don't think we'll see "Tulipamania" the way the Dutch did during the Dutch Golden Era, I sometimes feel a kinship with the burgermeisters of times past who gambled fortunes on flower bulbs. As I empty my wallet on the store counter, packing bag after bag of tulips away as if they were treasures of gold, I understand how one humble flower could inspire a mania. I share the passion!

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Friday, August 12, 2016

Hydrangea Care

I love hydrangea. This praying mantis in my garden seems to love them, too. But I find it challenging to grow hydrangea here in south central Virginia. Too much heat, not enough rain...sometimes they seem fussier than roses.

For those looking for a quick primer on hydrangea care, I've included tips derived from a great Cooperative Extension publication. Virginia Tech offers a free download called Hydrangea Selection, Pruning and Care that was very helpful to me as I struggled to figure out why the leaves on my hydrangea are turning black (probably over-eagerness to fertilize on my part) and why the color changed on one plant. It's definitely worth downloading if you love hydrangeas.

A few notes on hydrangea care from our friends over at Virginia Tech: (These tips apply to Big Leaf Hydrangea, which is what you normally see blooming in people's front yards at this time of year or so.)

  • No flowers? Don't prune your shrubs late in the season. Hydrangeas bloom on last year's woody stems. Prune older stems in late June or early July and don't prune too much away. You can also prune in late winter if you missed your opportunity in the summertime.
  • You can influence the color of the blossoms by changing the soil pH. A drench with an aluminum sulfate mixture (see the link above) changes the color to blue. Hydrated lime mixed with water changes it to pink. Please be sure to read the Virginia Teach pamphlet for the correct proportions of solution to water.
  • Hydrangea thrive in rich, moist and well-drained soil. If they are struggling, have your soil checked. It could be too dense to allow for drainage. Our local clay soils may need amendments before hydrangea find them acceptable.
Hydrangea are beautiful landscape plants and a treasure in the garden. Here's to a beautiful bloom this year and more!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Cracks in Tomatoes

There's nothing quite like the taste of a fresh garden tomato. I love growing tomatoes, and am still learning the best ways of growing them. Virginia Tech has a great free tip sheet on growing tomatoes that can help beginners improve their cultural practices and grow gorgeous tomatoes all summer long.

Let's talk about one problem that I'm seeing frequently in my garden this year: cracks, specifically cracks that radiate longitudinally from the stem of the tomato and radiate down into the fruit. These are called growth cracks, and they can be common among large, beefsteak varieties of tomatoes.

According to the Cooperative Extension, these cracks appear when environmental conditions cause rapid growth of the tomato. A drought, followed by a heavy downpour, is an example of natural conditions that can cause these cracks.

Think of it this way: a tomato's skin is like a plastic grocery bag. If you fill a grocery bag too full of cans or boxes, cracks appear and the bag breaks. It can only expand so far to fit your purchases inside. A tomato is like that. The exterior skin can only grow so fast, but when a rush of water hits the garden, the greedy roots drink deeply, pushing water to the growing tomatoes. The skin can't expand fast enough, so what does it do? It cracks.

You can prevent growth cracks to some extent by watering your plants on a regular basis. Of course, you can't control nature. A downpour after a thunderstorm, a welcome rain storm after a drought - that's life in Virginia in the summertime. Into every life a little rain must fall.

Tomatoes with cracks are fine to eat. Just cut away the cracked part, and keep an eye on the area where the cracks appear. Microorganisms can enter and start rot, which of course ruins the tomato.

But in the meantime, you can still enjoy those fine summer tomatoes. Rain or shine, nothing beats a fresh garden tomato on a hot August day.