Here’s how to grow a tulip garden and keep squirrels away

Here’s how to grow a tulip garden and keep squirrels away

Seeing spring flowering bulbs moving through the snow means winter is on the way out. It also indicates that the new outdoor gardening season has arrived.

But that’s next year – several months away. How do you make sure that the bulbs you plant now, this fall, will do a great job of bringing spring into your garden?

Once the tulips and other bulbs have bloomed and been cut for indoor vases and shared, they will be extracted and composted. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

Here’s a primer on growing your own personal bulb garden that can serve you in two ways: as a visual spring delight (of course) and as a cutting garden to bring the bulb indoors.

Why Plant a Custom Bulb Garden?

Tulips are part of a beautiful collective of a zillion diverse shapes, sizes, colors and fragrances of spring and summer bulbs. It has been difficult for me to grow because the darn squirrels find and eat them regardless of my good intentions and farming practices designed to prevent the enjoyment of digging, eating and scurrying.

Squirrels love to eat tulip bulbs; It should be just the right flavor and texture for a fall treat, like candy after a cheek full of peanuts and tree nuts.

My new, “squirrel-tested” system for growing a spring garden of clipping tulips has worked well over recent seasons. Feel free to experiment and adjust as needed in your landscape.

This creative idea goes to a couple I know who have a productive alley garden and often have extra room for other plants after the garlic is planted in the fall and other summer-growing vegetables are harvested. One year, they had some spring blooming bulbs left over, so they decided to give them a home in the same bed the garlic had been planted in.

It makes perfect sense to use all or part of the cleaned bed which generally falls in the fall, winter and early spring anyway. The soil is fragile, and since the bed is in a sunny location, the spring bulbs will shine, literally!

Custom loft bed with tulip lamp.  Treat them like annuals.  (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)
Custom loft bed with tulip lamp. Treat them like annuals. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

I took their idea and location – in my case, a completely unused raised vegetable bed. I decided to plant less expensive bulbs on sale that were left on garden center shelves and through mail order. (It’s practically free if you wait long enough.) I don’t mean to keep the bulbs in this raised bed season after season because I’ll need the bed for vegetables in the next outdoor growing cycle. My ultimate goal is that once the tulips and other bulbs bloom and are cut for indoor vases and shared, they will be dug up and composted. Basically, I treat fall-planted bulbs as spring-only annuals.

I choose and buy generic tulip bulbs to plant, the ones that are unreliable anyway. These bulbs bloom at their best the first year after planting in the fall. Commercial landscapers often treat tulips and other bulbs as annuals for the same reason. If that’s not your (one and done) deal, select and plant in areas of your garden where the bulbs will remain, then come back year to year and propagate (naturalize) from the hardier variety of tulips including the species, Kaufmania, Gregory, and the hybrid Darwin and Fosteriana, also called Emperor tulips. Additionally, there are many other types of bulbs to choose from.

More is better, so buy several or dozens of bulbs or packs if you can. You will need several bulbs to cut over several weeks to make arrangements.

Tulip Tips

Shopping local is the best and first choice; The Internet is a close second, especially when stores sell everything. Bulbs are often discounted in late October and November (not indoor bulbs, such as amaryllis in the holiday season).

The same rules always apply to all planting of bulbs. Choose the largest, healthiest bulbs, even those on sale. Mail-order bulbs, unlike bulbs found on shelves at local stores, are kept cool and generally in ideal conditions before shipping—at least from reputable companies. I cannot guarantee that this is true for all online lamp purchasing companies.

Bulbs, including tulips, are classified by bloom time, so consider purchasing based on early, mid- and late spring bloom if that works for your planting schedule. When planted in warmer parts of the landscape, they may bloom earlier depending on the weather.

Preparing the planting area

The planting bed or spot chosen for planting should be free of any plants and roots from the previous growing season. It’s okay to work in some well-composted soil amendments if necessary to improve drainage and add some fertility.

Adding fertilizer to the planting area is optional as the bulbs are treated as annual plants and have all the nutrients they need gathered in themselves for next season’s flowering.

Outrun the squirrels

Use insect repellent in your garden to deter hungry squirrels.  (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)
Use insect repellent in your garden to deter hungry squirrels. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

Remove enough soil so the bulbs are planted at the correct depth listed on the package. Save the removed soil to cover later, or plant at a depth that depends on the size of the bulb. The rule of thumb is three to four times the length of the bulb.

When touching and placing tulip bulbs, always pick up any dropped jackets from the bulbs that act as a scented “come and get it” dinner bell for the squirrels.

Place the bulbs in the bed spaced apart as directed on the package or closer together. As additional insurance against tulip odor, spray the area with pest repellent granules, which will not harm the bulbs.

Use the removed soil and cover the bulbs with a light layer. Then place a wire or plastic mesh fence over the soil so squirrels can’t get to the bulbs.

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