Skip to main content

Tulipa humilis ‘Alba Coerulea Oculata’Botanus

As we sag into the dog days of summer, plants start to look a little dusty – which makes it the perfect time to fast-forward into spring. Bulbs, of course, are the harbingers of new life, but consider them carefully. They are not cheap, even though, in value for dollar, they are among our best investments.

I have given up buying squirrel food: all those delicious, large tulips the bushy-tailed rodents love to dig up and whose blooms are so tasty in spring. I am adjusting my demands to small bulbs, especially mini tulips. I hate to be without them. I have some "species tulips" – also known as wild or botanical tulips – that have been in the garden for decades. If they naturalize, they sure do it slowly. No carpets of anything here except the warm blue of scilla. But who cares? Bouquets of mini-tulips are more than enchanting.

This particular one stopped me dead. The white is so pure and the cobalt eye so intense you could cast it as a piece of ceramic sculpture. But live is better. It is small – 10 centimetres – and grows from Zone 3 on. It is supposed to naturalize, so think about pots of them, some for a rock garden and others to be placed judiciously so you can see them from every window.

I may be crackers, but I don't think the squirrels go after species tulips with the same enthusiasm as the big juicy ones. Our local squirrels have defeated all attempts to keep them at bay: rolling the bulbs in cayenne pepper, laying chicken wire on the surface of the soil and leaving the site unruffled so they don't know anything is under the mulch or leaves. You can try all those tricks, and place a fake owl with a nodding head nearby, and maybe that will work. Not here, alas.

For many years, poachers digging up species tulips in the wild to sell them was a real worry. Few are left, but these new bulbs are guaranteed to be propagated commercially.

As with any bulb, plant them in a hole three times as deep as the thickest part of the bulb. Scratch up the bottom of the hole for good drainage. You can throw stuff in the hole such as bonemeal, but usually I don't bother. These are nature's perfect seeds: Everything they need is in their small bodies. Make sure the soil has no air pockets and cover with leaves to create a useful blanket that maybe will baffle the squirrels.

Since little bulbs are so near the surface, be careful about watering, especially in spring if it is very dry. The topsoil dries out quickly and your little bulbs will suffer. A deep watering once a week should do the job.

The next-best technique with spring bulbs is to buy a lot of them for a good display and then just add more each spring following a pattern. Make them run through the garden like a garland, or a necklace or a graceful arc. They are a pain in the neck to plant now, but they will give so much pleasure in a few months that it's definitely worth the trouble.

Find Tulipa humilis 'Alba Coerulea Oculata' at garden sites such as Botanus, where it retails for $16.75 for three bulbs plus shipping.