The tulips fade, and next year's plan blooms

The great tulip show, with its six-week-long season of bloom, will soon be over. You were wise if you made note of new varieties which you'd like to try. Getting next fall's order in early often means a discount, but good tulip bulbs are never cheap.

As a result, you may want to make the most of what you have. Here is how:

Three things can happen in the best of bulbs over the summer. They can rot, rodents may get at them, or they can become overcrowded.

Tulips need a time of dryness and rest. In many locations this comes automatically with the summer, so take care not to overwater any annual plants that follow them.

Second, rodents enjoy tulip bulbs and will eat their way through them underground if they get the chance.

You can plant catnip nearby to encourage watch cats or you can put moth balls into the soil with the bulbs. Neither is foolproof. Lining the underground bed with mouseproof hardware cloth is a lot of trouble, although effective.

The third problem is that the bulbs' natural increase tends to crowd them to starvation if you leave them in place.

If your tulips have bloomed nicely in the same place for two or more years, chances are they will continue to do so. Some varieties can be left in place for 12 to 20 years.

The only after-bloom care they require is to pick off the dead heads so that seed pods will not form, and to leave the foliage to dry out naturally while it forms next year's flower.

But if your flowers were smaller or fewer, the wrong color for their surroundings, or so special that you wish to multiply them, you should dig them soon - by mid-June at the latest. Use a spade rather than a spading fork. Insert it at least 4 inches from each tulip stem and 6 inches into the ground. Gently heave the plant to the surface. Be careful not to break off the stem.

Keep varieties and colors separate as you dig. If the day is sunny, place a damp burlap bag over the pile so the bulbs won't bake.

Heel in the bulbs in a trench in an out-of-the-way, partially shaded garden spot. Keep the roots, stems, and leaves intact and cover the bulbs with 6 inches of soil. Leave them for three weeks or until the tops turn completely brown. Then dig them carefully again and spread them to dry in heavy shade for at least an hour.

Be sure to keep the colors labeled throughout the process and to retrieve even the smallest bulblet from the soil.

Here is where the increase comes in. Before bringing the bulbs inside, remove any stems and casings and put them on the compost pile, including the brown skin around the bulb. Then tear apart all the bulbs found among the layers. These will be flattened in shape and assorted in size.

Often there will be four or five bulblets besides the parent bulb, and at least one of these will be at least an inch in diameter and will bloom the next year. Most of the others, however, will grow to flowering size only if planted in the fall and grown for another year.

It is not impossible to increase one bulb to a hundred or more in only a few years' time. Meanwhile, keep the bulbs and bulblets together according to variety.

Spread your bulbs out and store them, not more than one layer thick, in paper boxes or trays in a dry mouseproof place over the summer. Don't ever expose them to the sun. The heat in an attic, however, won't hurt them and the dryness will help. Roll them back and forth periodically to prevent moisture from gathering on them, especially during the first two weeks in storage.

If rot should appear on the stored bulbs, rub it off with your thumb. The bulbs will usually heal and dry nicely in spite of the wound, whereas it would not survive if the rot should spread.

Plant tulip bulbs again in mid-October or later in soil enriched with compost and bone meal. Just make a row of the bulblets as you do with peas. Fertilize all in early spring.

Your tulips will increase and multiply for years to come.

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