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With care, potted tulips can last outdoors

Q: I received the prettiest pot of tulips in bloom for Valentine’s Day. My question: Can I plant them outdoors and expect them to live? – A.W., Albuquerque

A: There is a very good chance that your tulip bulbs can continue for years as long as you follow a few rules.

First, continue to enjoy the tulips while they are blooming. Make sure that the collection never dries out completely but make darn sure the pot doesn’t sit in a puddle of water – ever. So if the pot is wrapped with any sort of decorative paper or sleeve you need to either cut away the bottom of the paper or remove the sleeve leaving just the pot to sit on a saucer. Or be very selective when watering, making sure the water offered isn’t collecting in the paper/sleeve, but the plant is getting enough water, got it?

Next, aim to keep the collection in a fairly bright spot, but getting no direct sun, and on the cool side. Hanging out in a really warm space will cause the blooms to fade that much faster. You want to enjoy the flowers for as long as possible.

As the flowers do fade you’ll want to snip the spent flower off the Mother Plant. Left on after finishing they’ll continue to rob the plant of much-needed energy so don’t be shy about cutting them out as they fade. Eventually you’ll be left with several stands of green leaf.

Now these plants should be moved into a brighter spot so the leaves are able to re-feed the bulbs so they get ready to perform for you next year. Ideally that would be done outdoors, but I’m not sure the weather is at a place where you could as of yet plant safely outside. See, since the tulips have been growing happily in protected environments, to get plunked into the garden now could kill them.

So treat them as a sun-loving houseplant for several more weeks. I wouldn’t aim to set them out any earlier than the end of March. Even then you’ll want to be at the ready to offer overnight protection (a bucket to cover them) from any surprise frosts that could happen. Trust me, we’re nowhere near the last frost for this area.

OK, since you have the time before planting out the tulips, now is the time to search the perfect spot in your garden. The spot should be sunny for sure but not baking hot during the summer months.

A good spot would be protected from strong winds, too. Fast forward several weeks, pretend it’s the end of March and you feel confident the tulips, which are probably looking a bit haggard by now, are ready to plant. Dig the hole where you want to plant about one-and-a-half times wider, but just a bit deeper than the tulip pot and mix that soil with some fresh compost or garden soil. Using a ratio of one-third compost to two-thirds native soil is a good mix.

Next, gently un-pot the tulip collection and set it in the awaiting hole. Your goal is to bury the tulips to just cover the bulbs but leave the majority of leaf exposed above ground level.

Then backfill the amended soil around the collection being sure to tamp it down firmly as you go. Be sure to move some of the hole’s soil amongst the leaves so everything gets covered equally.

After you’ve gotten it all planted, gently water so the whole area gets dampened. Weeks later, when the leaves turn yellow and a bit crunchy, snip them off about an inch above ground to keep the bulbs healthy. Now the bulbs will rest and grow a bit of a root system through summer, fall and then next winter.

If all goes well and you’ve remembered to water the garden like a good gardener the bulbs should pop back up next spring to remind you of your valentine!

Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send your garden-related questions to Digging In, Albuquerque Journal, P.O. Drawer J, Albuquerque, NM 87103.

 

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