Shut Up And Dig

The tulip graveyard

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Some nice, mottled foliage still comes up from these Oratorio.

It’s nice, as graveyards go. Colorful bulbs—species tulips, grape hyacinth, narcissus, erythronium—flourish in it throughout the later spring, followed by lush plantings of shade perennials—Solomon’s seal, ghost fern, bugbane (actea), brunnera, hellebores, and, of course, plenty of hosta.

It’s unlikely that the casual passer-by could begin to imagine the failure, demise, and decay that lies underneath this respectable-looking front garden—respectable-looking, given that it is handicapped by continual summer shade and an intrusive surface framework of maple and cherry tree roots. Raised beds? Oh, they’ve been tried; the new roots love them.

This year’s model–‘Mary Ann’

The only one who knows the extent to which this space is a botanical killing field is the resident gardener. I remember exactly what has perished here—often after only one or two seasons—because I have a digital record that stretches back over a decade: long and expensive lists of bulbs ordered from reputable bulb houses throughout the US. Where are the Tulipa praestans ‘Unicum’  and acuminata ordered 8/28/13, for example? Haven’t seen the unicum since 2014 and I don’t think the acuminata ever came up, through another expensive batch of it purchased in fall, 2014 did emerge in spring, 2015. What about the Tuilpa greigii ‘Oratoria purchased in 2011 and 2014? Yes, I see the ‘Mary Anns.’ I should see them; I bought and planted 50 last fall. As for the ‘Oratorio,’ a few variegataed leaves are coming up here and there.

These sturdy greigii and species varieties are supposed to naturalize very well, unlike, say,  single lates and other, more commonly seen types. But even these stalwarts of the bulb world find it difficult to contend with minimal sun after bloom and the complicated network of tree root interference that cross crosses the property. Ah, well. I keep planting, enjoy what does come up (the most recently planted, usually, with some exceptions) and spare a few moments each spring to remember the dead.

Posted by

Elizabeth Licata
on April 26, 2016 at 7:59 am, in the category It’s the Plants, Darling, Shut Up and Dig.


  1. I plant some tulips under trees – walnut, pecan, hazelnut and ornamental cherries. They come back because I don’t water them much at all during the summer. I have had some come back for over 10 years. The others get eaten by gophers. If you water that area, the bulbs will rot. The tree roots keep the gophers out.

  2. This makes me feel better. I thought this only happened to me. After years of failure, I have given up on tulips completely. Our suburban upstate NY yard is home to too many squirrels, voles, and chipmunks who enjoy dining on tulip bulbs. Last year, I tried planting tulips in pots. In our unheated garage, I carefully tended the pots through the winter, checking for moisture and such. When they were ready to pop, I moved the beautifully budded tulip pots to the front porch. Two hours later, not one pot was in tact. Chipmunks had raided and dug up every single one. I now only plant daffodils and a few minor bulbs like Siberian squill. The critters leave those alone.

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