I’ve been thinking a lot about pots recently. As I write this, the first frost warnings are being whispered on all my fellow gardeners’ Instagram accounts. My bulbs, ordered way back in June when caution is always blown to the wind as the lessons of just having harvested 8,000 tulips are blatantly ignored, have started to trickle in. Despite not even having Halloween out of the way at the time of this writing, I’ve started to place Christmas foliage orders. All of which makes me think about pots.
The jewelry of your garden
Pots of frost-wary house plants to come inside. Garden pots to be emptied of summer annuals and planted with spring bulbs. Pots of hibernating amaryllis to be bought up from the gloom of the basement and nudged back into beauty. Pots of hundreds of spring bulbs to be forced into winter flowering action.
As the garden winds down and the clear-up of everything ground dwelling begins, the value and importance of pots becomes evident. In the summer and fall garden, they add color, height, and contrast. Think of pots as the jewelry of your garden. Perfectly fine without but outfit-transforming with. But it is over the winter inside and in those foot-dragging days of early spring when despair about when will something/anything ever appear outside is rife, that pots can become morale lifelines.
Readers who have been with me for a while now will know of my obsession with the spring bulb. Those new to this column might have got a clue from the 8,000 tulips mentioned above. What started out as a ‘let’s try this and see’ has become a sideline buisness for me and the bane of every local UPS driver come October.
Forced bulbs recap
I have written before in this magazine about forcing bulbs inside for winter displays and will give a very quick recap here. Same formula applies to pretty much all types of bulbs, but for this issue I want to focus on tulips and in particular growing tulips in pots.
November is the perfect time to plant tulips (hence me writing about this now – no point telling you about it in April when the planting boat has long since sailed!). You don’t want to plant tulips in the garden too early. When the ground and air are too warm, you risk encouraging tulip fire – a fungus which will destroy your beauties and prevent you from planting in the same area for several years. If you are forcing them, November still gives ample time for their early winter slumber and a late winter display.
I’ve been growing tulips outside for a while now, but it is only in the last three years that I got into forcing tulips inside and outside for my spring pots. I’m not entirely sure what my previous hesitation was, but I know what my inspiration for trying was, or rather who – Arthur Parkinson!
If you haven’t heard of Arthur, I beseech you to discover him. (Aside from the flowers, the story of his friendship as a small boy with the 80-year-old Duchess of Devonshire that grew from his encountering her chickens in the car park at Chatsworth is worth the dig.) Arthur is a young English gardener who is both a chicken lover and a growing-in-pots expert. He has published several books on the subject, has 120k+ Instagram followers (@arthurparkinson_) and is as knowledgeable and compassionate about our living planet as he is hilarious. He also teaches a wonderful course on Create Academy (which if I hadn’t already done it, I would be delighted to receive as a Christmas gift!). I defy you to discover him and not become obsessed with growing in pots.
Inspired by Arthur, I tried a few dozen Palmyra tulips in a pot three autumns ago. To say I was blown away by a) how easy and b) how beautiful these were when they bloomed would be an understatement. Two years ago, I tried the same in outdoor pots. Suffice it to say there is no going back to empty barren pots around here in April!
Not all tulips are the same
So, before we get going on the how-to’s. I have discovered that some varieties of tulips work better forced inside than others. A bit of time spent reading the small print in catalogues goes a long way with this. From my attempts, the doubles and peony varieties are great. I’d advise against the emperor and Darwin varieties as they just get too sky-scrapery tall and topple over. Outside, this is my opportunity to go nuts with color combinations that I might balk at on a larger scale in flower beds. I try to pick a variety of early, mid, and late flowers to keep the display going for as long as possible. However, don’t let this all get too onerous a job that you are put off from trying.
A note here as well about whether these bulbs will come back year after year. For the most part they will, but they will never put on the display they did in Year One. As we really want these to be show-stoppers, my advice would be to take these out after they flower and start again with fresh bulbs next autumn. If you do leave them in, you will need to deadhead them and then let all the foliage die back naturally, which is not always the prettiest sight. It may seem like an extravagance, but make sure you compost the spent flowers and bulbs, and you get to try a whole new technicolor fiesta next year.
It’s not rocket science!
Okay so let’s get planting! We need three ingredients – well-draining pots, as big or small as you like, quality potting soil, and bulbs. (I told you – it’s not rocket science!). Fill the pots with damp potting soil to about two thirds full and then pop in your bulbs, pointy side up. I like to cram these so they are almost but not quite touching to give the most explosive display. Cover with the remaining potting soil and give it another good water. Now leave these in a cold, dark, and rodent-free spot and wait for spring.
This last one may be tricky if your cold outdoor spot like mine is a drafty old barn that squirrels and mice consider their local convenience store. We store larger pots close together and cover them in very fine mesh wire weighted down with bricks. I corral smaller pots side by side in crates and cover with the same mesh.
Once you’ve done this, leave them alone until you start to see sprouts appear in probably early March, at which point you’ll want to remove the wire before the shoots get entangled or squashed by it. As soon as you see the shoots appearing for those bulbs you want to flower inside, bring the pot into a warm room. Give it a good soak and from here on out make sure the soil is damp.
I bring my garden pots out around this time too, but because it’s likely to be cold, perhaps even still snowy, they will not flower as quickly. It is important to give them a good soak about a month before flowering – my guesstimate is when the shoots are a few inches tall. This ensures they will have really long beautiful stems and not be disappointingly stumpy.
This in-and-out-of-the-barn business may seem like a bit of a faff for the outdoor pots. However, while tulips need a really good long cold spell to set roots and get growing, large temperature fluctuations can play havoc with them. Our winters have become so erratic that being under cover provides that extra crucial bit of protection.
So, who’s joining me with the tulip pots this year? •
Pom Shillingford is an obsessive gardener originally from England and now based in Salisbury, CT. She offers seasonal cut flowers through English Garden Grown. Find her on Instagram @english_garden_grown.