– Posted in: Bulbs, Garden Design

Written by Tovah Martin

Turning heads isn’t a cakewalk in my little New England town. Take the tulips, for example. Less than 200, and you’re whistling in the dark. Sure, I get the occasional glad hand. But it takes numbers to raise the eyebrows. I claim that I don’t care, but when the first Schnauzer came down the driveway to pay his compliments, that was big. You’re wondering why I’m seemingly such a slave to neighborhood recognition, aren’t you? Well, whether they love it or hate it is not important. What’s critical is that they notice it. I’m just like Lady Gaga in that  way.



One day, I want those little brats rolling by on their skateboards to grow up and remember that somewhere in their youth there was this woman who went out into her yard every day and made love to her garden. Actually stroked her hakonechloa in public. And the hakonechloa responded. She fondled the soil on a regular basis, and the result was this huge voluptuous lushness. In fact, the whole thing was like one big massive botanical orgy. That’s the buzz I want going down about my place.

So really, it takes numbers. Those 200-plus tulips (why scrimp?) that I mentioned earlier are all clustered into a few hi-octane feet in front of the house. I like to start off that way, with a bang. It focuses the attention where I want the spotlight. The tulips start passersby craning their necks to look down the driveway and toward the front of my house. This is the flipside of your typical foundation planting that puts up such a boring barricade that it stymies rubberneckers in their shoes. My plan is to encourage Peeping Toms. Bring your binoculars, is what I say.


 Forget the joggers. Clearly, the scenery isn’t their focus. Besides a “gasp, gasp, gasp, good garden, gasp, gasp” once every ten years, that’s the full extent of the response from the jogging contingent. No standing ovations there. Still, for the normal citizens in town who take life at a reasonable pace, the tulips are a step in the right direction.


  The tulips stem back to more conventional times. I plant the chubby hybrids. Each year they’re different, each year the show is a carnival of big brazen colors with names like Stop the Car, Stare Masters, The Rainbow Coalition, Hot Hot Hot and that sort of thing (thanks to the folks at Colorblends  who specialize in eyebenders synchronized to boggy in unison). And the tulips sit right below my kitchen windows where I can keep tabs. Before I really want to penetrate the garden and get down and dirty, I can watch the tulips emerge. It’s very gratifying. Other more discrete species tulips will happen later where the lawn once squatted, but I need a shout out in spring. And so does the rest of the town. Think of it as a public service.


Truth to tell, there’s an ulterior motive to massing all the tulips together. I am besieged by voles. Chipmunks also spend their evenings planning diabolical attack strategies that would make your average despicable rotten villain seem tame (see my last blog with more gory details). And squirrels probably get into the act as well (when they’re not busy running in front of cars). So my defense plan entails corralling all the goodies into one easily protected place. Plus I’m lazy. No way that I’m going to dig 200-plus separate holes. In one large 8 inch deep excavation, I sprinkle crushed oyster shells (you know = the kind you get for a song as chicken grit at the grain store) as a bed below the bulbs, then I lay out my tulips, cover them with some soil and then toss in another layer of oyster shells. Like a reverse Oreo. It works for me. Tasha Tudor shared this trick with me. Anyone else tried this?


 Those are the buxom tulips replanted annually in front of the house for shock appeal (like I said, Gaga and I = cut from the same mold, I figure.). But just in case someone is too polite to crane their neck, I also put a planting of less brazen, perennializing tulips beside the road. The spot is sunny, dry, with impoverished soil, and not an otherwise “look at me” location, so the tulip foliage can die back discretely while everyone (but the joggers) is diverted by other aspects of the scene. Jacqueline van der Kloet suggested ‘Flaming Purissima’ as a perennializer and color-wise (blush red against cream, but each flower is different, keeping the intrigue kindled), it seemed to be just my speed. ‘Flaming Purissima’ is underplanted with Scilla siberica ‘Spring Beauty’, Puschkinia scilliodes var. libanotica and Chionodoxa ‘Blue Giant’ beside a planting of Actaea ‘Brunette’. The result is a nice touch in spring.


All this is conjecture, of course. As I write this, the tulips are all snug in their beds, planted immediately after Halloween and peacefully (I type that word with a prayer and incantation) slumbering through their dormant cycle. Sometimes, when I look out the window now, the whole scene seems like a pipedream. It isn’t exactly Bleak House here right now – there’s a tuft here and a skeleton there – but it sure isn’t lush and wonderful. Passersby and their Schnauzers are so bundled up and braced against the wind that they scarcely look right or left. And I’m certainly not out there front and center (for skateboarders or anyone else) displaying my affection for the frozen ground. But what keeps me going – I assume what is keeping you waking up in the morning as well – is hope. Oh. And also all the bulbs that are beginning to show promise inside the house. Did I mention my refrigerator yet? I mean, the frig with umpteen pots of forced bulbs jammed inside? Did I tell you about the look of sheer bewilderment on my unsuspecting nephew’s face when he came to visit for the holidays and went in search of some butter for a morning bagel? Priceless. I should have warned him. But more about that later…

**All tulips in photos are Tulip ‘Godushnik’ except for the pink and white Tulip ‘Flaming Purissima’

For more information on Tovah, visit her website.

Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

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6 Comments… add one

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Susan aka Miss R January 20, 2011, 9:14 am

Oh to live in a deer free world where tulips in all their brazen glory would turn heads before being eaten! Alas, I have to celebrate other bulbs outside while a vase full of tulips frequently (like now) sits on my worktable–safe and sound from the marauding herds.

Brazen glory, you betcha. But a bouquet for the nostrils – not! Susan, did I mention that I spray the bejeevers out of the tulips from the moment they emerge onward? Liquid Fence is my weapon-of-choice. And it works. Anyone tried Deer Stopper? It reportedly smells better, but does it do the trick? In the meantime, I’m hot on your heels headed out to get some vase tulips. Have you tried forcing tulips, though? Safe, sound and indoors at your elbow. More about that insanity in a future blog…

lani January 20, 2011, 11:27 am

beautiful I’m hooked to this site now…..
Guess we’re all hooked in, Lani. And the more, the merrier.

Pam/Digging January 20, 2011, 11:46 am

My temperature’s rising just reading this post, Tovah. I don’t bother with tulips here in the deep South, but I would sure be craning my neck to look at yours if I were walking my schnauzer down the street.

We’ve had years when the tulips weren’t worth diddly here too, Pam. Some years the Schnauzer comes, some seasons he doesn’t. But God willing, I’ll give you tulips vicariously, how’s that?

Lisa at Greenbow January 20, 2011, 2:25 pm

I am sure my neighbors think “something” is happening “again” in my garden often. Numbers is a good game when planting bulbs.

It’s envy. You know that it’s envy, Lisa. Deep inside, they want your aching back, your bruised knees, your split nails…I grew up on a steady diet of park ribbon borders with tulips spaced 6 inches apart and strictly segregated from the muscari, etc. Integration feels so darn good.

professorroush January 22, 2011, 12:43 pm

Was a little worried about where you might be going with that second paragraph Tovah….but, as you point out, what strikes the “non-gardening” public is most often color, BRIGHT color, and lots of it.

Forgive me if my metaphor was too hot, Prof. But you obviously get the point. My garden is not a riot, by any means (okay = it gets a little fervent in spring – but we NEED to be woken up in spring). Most of the time, the color is hedged with plenty of green and blue-green, etc. I feel that gardeners can handle a little heat. I used to think that the neighborhood was far too conservative for anything but pastels. Now I show my true colors.

Layanee January 22, 2011, 6:54 pm

Drifts and masses have been in my dreams since the trenches were dug. It won’t be long.

Isn’t it interesting that we dream in drifts? Close your eyes in winter, Layanee, what do you see? Masses, I bet. Sometimes that one juicy tomato dances across my mind, I admit, but usually, I’m thinking crowd scene.

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