Gardening with Galligan: The lipstick of the garden

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | A bed of bright pink tulips welcoming spring.
CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | A bed of bright pink tulips welcoming spring.

They’re called that for a reason ­— if you’re into color, tulips are the bang for the buck!

Their range is beyond extensive and their bloom time is as well. They’re simple to grow, a child could do it easily. Is there any problem? If you live on Shelter Island, you bet there is. Tulips are not just deer food; they are deer caviar. So don’t even think about them unless you have some protected space.

If you don’t have beds available, do you have a balcony or deck? If you added a planter or two, could deer just amble on up and help themselves, or is there a railing, gates or stairs that would deter them? I’m lucky to have several protected beds, but I love the two 18-inch planters on my balcony because I know they’re secure. Deer don’t use ladders. Yet.

Let’s start with basics. Tulips are bulbs; like all bulbs, their foliage, at least to some degree, has to ripen for the bulb to bloom again. So, unless you’re game for a whole bed of spent flowers going to tan or brown, the best plan is to treat tulips as annuals, to pull the bulbs up after bloom and throw them away.

Even if you put up with the ripening, when they bloom again, they will be half the size. The tulips you see in all the corner grocery stores in the city, with flowers about an inch and a half tall, are, basically, tulip ghosts. Or as Monty Python would say, “former tulips.”

One of the myriad things I like about tulips is their nomenclature. None of this Cenozoic, Paleozoic stuff. Tulips are early, middle and late. Don’t you like it when things are straightforward? Like plant diseases.

What are those black spots all over my roses? That’s Black Spot disease. What’s this stuff on my house plant that looks like baby powder? That’s Powdery Mildew.

I am leaving out all of the more complicated stuff, saving that for next week. There is really so much to say about tulips, it would be nice to spend one whole column on their history. Did you know that in the mid-17th century in Holland, there was a period when tulip bulbs were actually used as currency? But more about that later.

Aside of the week: I had occasion this week to visit a bed I planted more than 15 years ago. It’s not that I hadn’t been there, it’s that I hadn’t been there at exactly this time of year. And I was blown away. As well as eaten to the core with envy. Mertensia, otherwise known as Virginia bluebells, had spread in all directions and was glorious.

This is a plant with pink buds that  opens to bright blue, mid-height, native to woodlands since they enjoy some shade, and deer resistant. It goes dormant in early summer, so should be placed near ferns or hosta that will follow along and “green up” the spaces.

I was going to tell you that this plant has only one drawback. It’s expensive. But going through all my catalogs, I find another drawback. It’s hard to find. White Flower Farm sells them for $17.45 each. My best recollection when I planted that bed is that they were $6 apiece wholesale, which put them at the top of the market then. But go online and see what you think. Maybe try some?