I am late with this again. Although not as late as last year, when I planted my bulbs around New Year, a true record and not to be repeated. Why do I insist on running so late on this particular garden task, time and again? It’s not as if I didn’t buy all these cute packages with pictures of beautiful flowers and thick and healthy bulbs rolling inside back in early September. I just left them sitting on a shelf in the hallway – which you should never, ever do. Every gardening source worth its salt would tell you to plant them within a week of acquiring. And it’s not as if we didn’t have nice enough weather since, to get out and get on with it. Instead, I admired the beautiful display in my hallway every time I went in and out of the door, for weeks.
Somehow, I just can’t bring myself to do it early. I seem to need to be in a proper winter mood for that. Until early November, many plants are still going strong – dahlias, geraniums, roses. It’s only when our viburnum comes up with its clusters of pale pink flowers, when the buds of my Christmas camellia sasanqua are about to burst open that I finally admit it’s time to surrender. Time to withdraw and hibernate and reflect. And so then, before the winter sleep starts in earnest, I finally plant those bulbs. I ignore the spacing guidelines and pack them in tight, both in flower beds and in pots. The latter ones will need protection if serious frosts strike. I create my own personal Keukenhof. I roll their names on my tongue – Tom Pouce, Angelique, Sweetheart – so full of promise. I bury the treasure, I put dreams into the ground, 15 cm deep, for the magic to happen in the dark, moist, cold soil, for new things to spring forth when the time comes. It feels like an act of defiance.
And then I reflect on the wondrous quality of it all. On the nearly flawless symmetry of the tulip petals. On no need for fertilising because everything the plant needs is already in the bulb. What a perfectly self-contained little snob! On how it knows to develop its root system first, very quickly, to bury itself into its new home before going dormant for many long weeks. How fascinating it is that the tulip can reproduce both from seed and from growing little baby bulbs around the main one. For sure, it may take seven years for a seed to develop into a viable bulb but the possibility is there! As if nature wanted to make sure this flower will definitely proliferate, because humans are in such desperate need to see beauty after all the cold and darkness. On its being a symbol of hope and optimism for the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. On the big Liliaceae family that unites all these plants – hyacinths, onions, garlic, asparagus (another Dutch favourite). The association with an onion is unfortunate though. I often remember, with horror, that poor country bumpkin in Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, getting drunk and eating up the precious bulb, equal in price to a mansion house on Herengracht at the time. So many ruined lives on the tulip’s account!
And then I ponder, needlessly yet, my most agonising question: what shall I do with the spent bulbs next year? Should I store or should I compost? Throwing away those “baby bulbs” is particularly painful. It seems a sacrilege. Even if now they will be going into my new compost bin, destined to metamorphose into the “black gold”. Last year I did throw them away. Garden centres and online sellers claim last year’s bulbs will come back small and weak or not at all. “Do you want to risk your garden display?!”. But then they would say that, wouldn’t they? I just discovered I had done a sloppy job removing last year’s tulips from the ground. A good number of them stayed behind, roots now strong, bulbs looking plump and healthy. I had to plant my new acquisitions all around them, completely messing up my carefully thought-out “2019 planting scheme”. We will see in the spring but this time I may just leave them be. The foliage and the main stem need to die away a slow, natural death in order to fill up the “storage container” with all the essential nutrients, for it to feed the new flower again when the time comes. And that of course would mess up my planting scheme even further. Oh well, I may just have to bear the yellowing unsightliness as the price for my hopeless sentimentality.
And then I reflect on the ostensible Dutchness of it all. What can be more Dutch than a tulip bulb, right? Possibly the clog and windmill but it’s up there in the top three. “Tulips and Windmills” is a popular cruise, apparently. But foreigners have been involved I am afraid. Carolus Clusius’, the Flemish (!) head of Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, got some bulbs in the late 16th century from his friend, the ambassador to Suleyman the Magnificent. Over a hundred bulbs were reportedly stolen from Clusius’ garden by 1598 and the mania launched. The rest is history. Its Turkish origins now almost forgotten, no one thinks of the tulip as an allochtoon anymore.
I long to put down roots. I try, by planting lots of bulbs in tight rows. I learn from the tulip.