Triage Your Tulips

Wildflower Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

Late Spring is a busy time in the garden. We’re trying to keep up with weeding and get the tomatoes growing and we often procrastinate the task of dealing with the old foliage of tulips and other spring blooms. A half an hour’s attention now will make next year’s Spring garden even more luscious.

The old adage is that you have to lift and divide tulips and daffodils every three years. Frankly, I rarely get around to doing that. By the time early Fall is here I don’t remember where the tulips are. When I try to dig them they are either gone or I slice right through them so I don’t do anything. My laziness has led to two discoveries: Dividing and replanting isn’t always necessary. If I have a patch that’s looking good, I leave it alone. If the tulip foliage is strong and just not blooming, I’ll do something about that group. If the tulip foliage is weak, it’s not likely to get better. So here’s how to triage your tulips.

Mark your tulips now while you still see them.

Get some plant markers or ice cream sticks and mark right now where the bulbs are, about how many of them and what color they were. You’ll want to be able to find them in the lush foliage next September.

Eliminate stragglers

Every year in Spring there’s some sad foliage from one or two tulips remaining from an old planting that half-heartedly grows but never blooms. I used to think these just needed sun or food or something but now I dig them up in a scientific inquiry to find the problem. I usually find that there are almost no roots on the bulb or they are half rotten. These bulbs will NOT recover. Thank them for their years of beauty, then dig them out and send them to the big compost heap in the sky.


No lone wolves

Tulips almost always look better in a grouping or en masse. Tulips are not all reliably perennial and sometimes all you have left are single tulips here and there that have survived and even thrived when all their buddies have passed on. You can either mark these for moving in the Fall or I risk digging them now and planting in my nursery bed of plants that have no regular home but I can’t figure out what to do with. Mark them for future transplanting.

Most people say you have to leave the foliage of tulip bulbs on till it completely dies. It certainly doesn’t hurt to do that, but a wise elder gardener told me he found that once the leaves started to wilt, they were no longer reliably photosynthesizing and he could cut them back without hurting future blooms. Another wise gardener says she just keeps giving them a tug until they pull off on their own. If you can’t stand to cut the foliage down, cut it down by half so that growing plants will cover and hide the foliage. Tulip flowers are beautiful. Their foliage often isn’t and shouldn’t get to dominate the garden for the next two months.
Now you’re done with tulips until fall when you can lift and transplant those that need it and fertilize the good performers. And invest in new bulbs every year. We need more of the joyful hope tulips give us each year as winter ebbs.

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