It’s tulip time

Judith Adam

Updated on:

'Yellow Apeldoorn' tulips are reliable rebloomers.
'Yellow Apeldoorn' tulips are reliable rebloomers.
‘Yellow Apeldoorn’ tulips are reliable rebloomers.

Tulip season starts in April with smaller species tulips, such as yellow-and-white Tulipa tarda and violet T. pulchella, and ends in early June with parrot tulips, late double and peony-flowered tulips. May is prime time for tulips, and perhaps you have some thick stands of stems with buds beginning to turn colour. What I have is a lot of wide, fleshy tulip leaves and not so many buds.Apeldoo

In my garden, tulips reliably send up a flower for two years after planting, but in the third year, buds grow fewer and smaller. There are tulip leaves all over the garden, but no buds. Should we expect more from a tulip bulb? Thinking back to a tulip’s first season of bloom, the amount of green tissue (foliage, stem and flower) emerging from the relatively small bulb is quite disproportionate. The bulb arrives pre-packed with energy to produce this first impressive display, and then uses the leaves to manufacture energy (through the process of photosynthesis) for the following year’s display.

Clearly, many tulips can’t manufacture enough energy in the light and moisture in my garden to make big floral display the second or third years. Growers in Holland know this can happen and fertilize the bulbs we purchase to ensure a robust performance the first year, but after that, it’s up to us to continue feeding tulips just as we would any other plant we expect to produce flowers. When the tulips have finished blooming, allow the petals to fall and snap off the entire head to prevent energy going into seed production. Scatter a handful (about one cup/250 mL) of granular perennial plant fertilizer (such as 5-10-5 or 9-9-6) around clumps of tulips, trowelling it into the surrounding soil. Keep the tulips watered as the leaves continue making energy for next season’s display. In four to six weeks, the bulb foliage will begin to die back and can be removed when the leaves are half brown. Treat clumps of narcissus in the same way. Attempting to tie or braid strappy narcissus leaves together for a neater appearance prevents sunlight from reaching the leaves, hindering energy production.

Darwin tulips are the best at keeping up a good show, often returning for five years or longer, even without fertilizer (although they will benefit from feeding). Darwins are a cross between Fosteriana tulips and the Single Late category. They’re 18 to 24 inches (45 to 60 cm) tall with large-petaled flowers six inches (15 cm) wide when open, and a tight pyramid form when closed. There are many colour selections, including brilliant red ‘Apeldoorn’, yellow ‘Golden Parade’, light pink ‘Menton’, dark pink ‘Elizabeth Arden’, and white ‘Ivory Floradale’. Some are scented, including yellow-apricot ‘Daydream’, red-orange ‘Ad Rem’, scarlet ‘Holland’s Glory’ and red ‘Oxford’.

My current favourite is ‘Daydream’, and I have a large clump of them by my driveway. They start out soft yellow and slowly turn to apricot as the flowers age. I haven’t fertilized them, and they have been returning for several years with good-size flowers.

Keeping a bloom chart

The earliest perennials, such as hellebores, Pulsatilla vulgaris, Epimedium rubra, Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla) and cowslip primulas (Primula veris), are now in bloom. This is the time to begin keeping a record of what blooms each week, so that shopping lists can be adjusted to fill in the flowerless sections. Planning for a full succession of bloom, one plant after another, is just a matter of organization and record keeping. The Garden Making website has a downloadable bloom chart that can be put to use right away, and provides a valuable record of what blooms in your garden through the seasons. If you also take photographs of plants in bloom, you’ll have a full record that’s rewarding to review next winter, when summer memories will be treasured.

Snakehead fritillary (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)
Snakehead fritillary (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)

Have you seen the red lily beetle?

Some years ago, I was introduced to the little checkered Fritillaria meleagris, or snakeshead fritillaries, through writings of the renowned British gardener Christopher Lloyd. In the early 20th century, his mother planted masses of snakeshead fritillaries in the garden at Great Dixter, which he continued to enjoy through his long life. I found it challenging to get them started here in Ontario, possibly because we receive the bulbs too late for them to be entirely viable. But I did have two nice clumps going—that is, until the red lily beetle came along.

This is a most effective beetle, capable of quick reproduction to build up its numbers, and able to chomp big holes in gorgeous lilies of every type. Growing lilies in my garden is nothing more than spreading out an expensive lunch for these pests, and I’ve stopped planting bulbous lilies altogether. But even worse, over the past two years, the red lily beetles have turned their appetite to fritillarias. I collected these red menaces by hand, dispatching them to a soapy water death, but they’re devilishly quick and I simply couldn’t keep up the pace. The sweet little snakeshead fritillaries’ leaves and blooms were decimated.

Now I’m holding my breath and turning blue — one little snakeshead fritillary has risen, standing alone and, so far, unmolested. I haven’t seen a red lily beetle this spring. Has the long winter suppressed them? Or perhaps their emergence is only delayed by the cool spring. Whatever the case, I’m stepping out to visit this little fritillary several times a day. I live in hope!

Thanks so much for stopping by Making a Garden, and I’ll look for you next week.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

8 thoughts on “It’s tulip time”

  1. Hi Beverley (May 20),
    The insecticide you mention is probably rotenone. It’s an organic compound that is unfortunately linked to serious health issues in humans. I wish someone would think of a trap device for these red lily beetles, similar to the trap (baited with pheromone) used for Japanese beetles. That’s what we need. Until then, I guess your flat stone is going to see a lot of action!

  2. Hi there,

    I share the same disgust with these red beetles. I started a fair-sized bed with Asiatic and Oriental lilies, only to learn I would be battling with these red devils every year!! I did initally find an amazing powder, that to date have been unable to find. I think it was called Retonole or something along that line… Tried a liquid spray last year, that was useless, with the bugs eating all the leaves and flowers not doing great. This year, bought the Neem oil but have had so much rain, haven’t been able to get out and spray. Always keep one flat stone and a rock to kill the little beasts, have so many, can no longer endure “squishing” them between my fingers!!! Besides, killing them with a stone gives me more pleasure!! They seem to survive the winter somehow, and are out quite early, compared to other pests!!

    I really enjoy my lilies and am determined to not let these red beasts ruin my pleasure!! Good luck to everyone out there, battling these red devils!!

  3. Sanwin (May 12)

    My goodness, but you have been thorough in going after the red lily beetles. And successful! Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m sure it will inspire other gardeners.

  4. The Coach (May 12)

    Yes, they are clever and quick to run or flip themselves over. They’re too fast for me, and I’m trying to think of a sticky-type trap. Anyone with ideas to develop that concept has a big market waiting!

  5. Ann Boyd (May 12)

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with red lily beetles. There is a growing community of gardeners dreaming up innovative methods of dispatching these red beasts. But, of course, the tried-and-true “satisfying squish” is always at hand! And thanks for your kind words about our magazine — we love it, too!

  6. I have tons of Asiatic lily plants in my front yard garden.

    The first year I had a beautiful display of lilies.

    Last year I noticed these cute red beetles and didn’t think much of them, mistaking them for ladybugs.

    I got nothing last year, other than plants that had been decimated by the beetle.

    This year, in March I dug up all the soil / mulch around the plants and got rid of it. I did find some overwintering beetles moving around.

    Since then I look at my plants every day and kill the few that still appear once in a while. I also liberally spray down the plants with a neem oil / detergent solution once a week. It doesn’t kill the adult but it eliminates the eggs/larvae.

    This year my plants are looking great once again.

  7. Oh, yes, here in Aurora, the beetles start on the Fritillaria Imperialis.
    When you go to grab them, they fall on their backs and you can’t see them because of their black belly. Real survivors!
    They feast on the frits waiting for the real lilies to appear-and will also put in time on the Solomon’s Seal.
    And they are handsome. But I’m relentless.
    I put in a “killing stone” to squash time. And I’m such a bleeding heart.

  8. I haven’t noticed as many of the beetles as usual either. I agree with you, I didn’t mind not planting anymore lilies but leave my Frittilaria meleagris alone. A satisfying squish between thumb and forefinger is my favourite way of dispatching them. Ann
    P.S. By the way the magazine just keeps surpassing itself.


Leave a Comment