Tulips might be my favorite flower. They are the rockstars of spring. A bunch of tulips plunked in a vase look gorgeous with no assistance.
Tulips come in endless forms of colors, shapes and sizes. I love the fluffy double varieties that resemble peonies, but my favorites are the Scheeper’s Hybrids. They are the same varieties referred to as “French tulips” within the cut flower industry. At some point the supply of these for the cut flower industry was primarily grown in France. What I love is the perfect form. If you were to select tulips to paint, these would be the ones. They cost florists more to purchase because they don’t like to be forced. They prefer to be field grown which suits me perfectly! They are some of the latest to bloom and produce tall, elegant stems. They also are reliable at returning for those who want to grow them in the garden. I’ve grown Menton and Dordogne for the last few seasons. Menton is a lovely soft pink with hints of apricot and Dordogne is a soft orange with hints of pink.
Caring for Cut Tulips
Before removing the wrapper from your tulip bunch, give the stems a fresh cut and place them in water. Leave them to rehydrate a couple of hours. If the stems have drooped this will refresh and stiffen the stems. The wrapper will keep them upright while they rehydrate.
Arranging with Tulips
Tulips can create a statement all alone. Using an upright vase shape can show off tall slender tulip stems. A single ten stem bunch of tulips is a striking addition to any side table. I like double blooms in vessels that keep the bloom below eye level so the complexity of the bloom can be enjoyed.
My favorite bloom to mix with tulips are lilacs. Both are usually in bloom in late April to early May here in southern Iowa. Many of the double tulips resemble peonies in structure and size as the bloom opens. I like to tuck double tulips lower into arrangements as the flower can be heavy and the complexity can draw the eye deeper when viewing the arrangement. Tulips continue to lengthen after cutting, you will find they stretch 1-2” after arranging. Tulip stems can become curvy and I enjoy embracing the natural shape rather than fighting to keep them upright in mixed arrangements.
Gardening with Tulips
All tulips are not hybridized with the same purpose in mind. Some can be grown hydroponically (in water only) or forced in pots. On the opposite spectrum are those that reliably return year after year in the garden and naturalize, creating new tulip bulbs. The mother bulb of the tulip may die but produces a bulblet which will grow into a new full size tulip eventually. It takes a few years for a bulblet to reach full size. So performance of tulips year after year can be dicey. In the garden beds I like to guarantee full size blooms by adding a few new bulbs of the same variety each year. I’ve had great success with the Darwin hybrids, such as Pink Impression or Apricot Impression naturalizing and actually increasing in numbers. The viridiflora tulips such as Greenland, which is pink with green stripes, are also great at returning.
Planting both early and late tulips can create a longer lasting display. I love mixing tulips with alliums. Tulips are loved by deer, voles, mice and other pests. Interplanting alliums can offer a slight deterrence but I’d avoid tulips if you know you have deer that frequent your garden beds.
Order new tulips in May for the best selection. The retailers will ship them to you in the fall when it’s appropriate to plant them in your area. I wait until soil temperatures have dropped below 65 degrees Fahrenheit. This is usually November now in my region. I love that all the planting happens in the fall. Come spring, all you have to do is enjoy the blooms.
Narcissus - A Hero of the Garden
Narcissuses are by far the most underrated flower I grow. Daffodils are so easy to care for that we forget how gorgeous and wonderfully scented they are. The word daffodil creates images of bright yellow, trumpet type narcissus. They actually range from fluffy, double blooms like Delnashaugh with an apricot center to delicate stems with multiple blooms such as Yellow or White Cheerfulness. Narcissus can be lightly or heavily scented.
In the garden, narcissus are fabulous performers that increase in numbers, tolerate being planted under trees, and return reliably year after year.
No other flower shouts spring is here, like a daffodil. Only bulbs such as crocus and muscari bloom before narcissi. They are easy to force in containers for even earlier blooms or try planting them next to a brick or concrete building for blooms up to two weeks earlier.
In Iowa, daffodils usually bloom in late March or early April depending on the weather. If you live here, you know our springs are unpredictable! Narcissi are great because they tolerate the drastic temperature swings. Even in bloom, they can withstand temperatures below freezing. I’ve even had blooms recover from being covered in freezing rain.
As a cut flower, they bring joy to homes at a reasonable price. You can buy a ten stem bunch of a basic daffodil for under $10. More creatively you can create (or ask your florist to create) a stunning arrangement of spring blooms. Don’t be afraid to use the more dramatic doubles or delicate blooms in more formal arrangements for occasions such as weddings.
If growing daffodils, yourself, harvest by pulling on the stems. The stem will pop apart a bit below the soil line, giving you the best stem length. Harvest when blooms are just about to crack open for the longest vase life.
Narcissus blooms are usually side facing. You will want to arrange them for the viewer to see your arrangement from the side instead of overhead. The stem length can be shorter, so select your vase accordingly. Making a small hand tied bouquet can help to hold your stems in place if the neck of your vessel opening is too large to secure your stems. Casual yellow varieties look great secured with a bit of garden twine.
Narcissuses exude a sap that will reduce the vase life of other flowers if not handled correctly. There is an easy solution, don’t recut the stems when arranging. Cut the narcissus and place in water for at least two hours, preferably three. You can then arrange the flowers with other seasonal blooms such as early tulips, muscari (grape hyacinth), or flowering branches. An arrangement of branches extending over narcissus and smaller blooms gives the impression of a spring woodland.
Planning Another Year in the Garden
Today is one of those seasonally warm January days that provides hope that spring will come. I took a break from work in the middle of the afternoon to take my dog, Roo, for a walk along the trail that runs along the edge of our small town. He was exuberant to be enjoying the outdoors again instead of stuck in the living room attempting to learn new tricks.
I don’t normally enjoy winter, but I have embraced the seasonal slowdown of January to feel fully dedicated to one thing at a time. I finished up the seed starting plans for this year over the weekend. Planning for blooms all summer requires careful succession planning. I bounce back and forth between spreadsheets figuring out when each variety of flower needs to be sown and what quantity needs to be sown to fill the planned space. This is still a one-woman enterprise so I’m careful to expand the business slowly. I still have another job to do as a pattern-maker and technical designer. Growing flowers cannot be all consuming yet, despite my grand visions. I also realize my vision is of a garden that would actually require at least one full-time gardener to maintain. So, I place plants in online shopping carts and then abandon the carts knowing I can’t add everything at once. And honestly, what would be the fun in a garden that was created so quickly? The beauty in gardens is their evolution over time. Tiny seeds grow into beautiful plants. Perennial beds fill in slowly overtime until no ground is visible and the plants are arguing about who gets the most space causing some to push higher and others to sway out over the edges of the flower bed.
Plants spreading out is actually my dream. Last fall, I planted Delnashaugh daffodils in the backyard. My hope is they will look like they naturally spread themselves among the trees. Delnashaugh is a double narcissus with an apricot center. I prefer the quieter and sweeter colors over the bright yellow trumpet daffodils. I planted them in addition to all the bulbs added to my primary growing space. Hopefully next spring there will masses of narcissus, tulips, lilies, and alliums for everyone to enjoy. But those stems are plucked out of the field before they are even open so the flowers in the yard are my selfish indulgence. The previous fall I planted clumps of muscari (grape hyacinth) under the red bud trees. Hopefully, I can add new bulbs each fall giving me something new to look forward to over the winter months.
During the winter I refer back to my notes taken over the summer frequently. I keep both a notebook and a sketch book handy. When one fills up, I start a new one. During the season I try and keep detailed notes so I can look back and see what worked and what did not.
Garden journals are valuable for home gardeners also. They provide the opportunity to make seasonal observations and note improvements you want to make next season. Maybe you notice in the spring that you need more bulbs to fill in an area and want to remember where to plant them in the fall. I like to have a blank sketchbook handy (or use it as your journal) so I can tuck in sketches of future plant combinations or designs for new beds. I’m still getting to know my property so including details about which areas receive the most sun, are too wet or the areas the snow is the first to melt is helpful. If I find an image of a plant that I want to purchase in the future I’ll tuck it into the sketchbook so I don’t forget.
Do you spend winter planning? Do you have any special garden aspirations for 2022?
Narcissus (aka Daffodils) are underrated flowers. They require almost no care. They reliably come back year after year and naturalize producing more bulbs. Instead of cutting stems, you can simply reach down to the bottom of the stem and pull. The stem will snap off from the bulb and leaves will remain. There is one warning with Narcissus. Do not add them to arrangements with other flowers without conditioning the stems first. Narcissus stems produce a sap that is toxic to other flowers. You may notice the sap can also be a skin irritant. Wash your hands after harvesting or wear gloves. If you want to use Narcissus with other flowers such as tulips place them in water alone for several hours first. Then do not re-cut the stems when adding to your arrangement or bouquet.
People are astonished when I tell them cut flower tulips are grown as annuals. Tulips are harvested when the bud is first colored. When harvesting tulips for cut flowers I pull out the whole bulb. The stems get wrapped up and stored upright in a refrigerator. (I hope to have a walk-in cooler in the next couple years.) The bulb provides all the needed energy while in storage. When ready to use the bulb is snipped off, the stems are re-wrapped, and placed in water. Wrapping or putting the stems in a deep container keeps the stems straight as the flowers re-hydrate.
Lilacs have a notoriously short vase life reputation among home gardeners. Like many woody plants they can be difficult to hydrate.
Lily of the Valley
This is a shade garden staple here in the Midwest. While tiny, the blooms are beautiful and fragrant. Anyone who has tried to snip one at a time to enjoy indoors knows how tedious it is. Turns out that in the cut flower industry they are shipped roots and all. The flowers hold up during shipment this way but it is also far easier to harvest them by digging than by cutting one at a time. Since they spread easily in the garden, digging up the areas around a bed of Lily of the Valley can be a great way to keep them in check.
Did you know you can store peonies for a month? The key is harvesting when the bud feels like a fluffy marshmallow but hasn’t really opened. Wrap the harvested stems in damp newspaper and place in a refrigerator. Peonies have a short bloom season, so this can be a great way to save a few to use later.
Hopefully, this allows you to enjoy your spring blooms a little longer.
Floral Tools and Supplies
You really only need flowers, a vessel and water to bring beautiful flowers into your home. But there are a few basic supplies that will elevate your arrangements. I like to have supplies handy so I can concentrate on creating rather than spending my time gathering materials. This list is focused on the basics. I'll be adding another post on additional supplies I love for wearables or adding special touches.
I use the same snips in the flower field and when arranging flowers. They can handle most stems but the ends are pointed enough for more delicate, precise cuts.
I often see dreamy photos of floral arranging scissors modeled after bonsai snips. Someday I'll give a pair a try but I know I will likely revert to my comfy handled snips.
I do also keep bypass pruners (2) handy for woody stems. They make easy, clean cuts through woody branches such as forsythia or lilacs.
Floral Netting or Chicken Wire (3)
Many florists are recognizing the downsides of wet floral foam. Floral foam is petroleum based plastic and it is not reusable. Instead you can use netting (chicken wire) folded into a ball inside your vessel to secure your stems. So what's the difference between floral netting and chicken wire? The wire marketed as floral netting is usually coated in green vinyl and comes in 12-24" wide rolls or pieces. The coating is supposed to resist rusting better. I find both the vinyl coated wire or regular galvanized chicken wire both work. Both hold up to multiple uses before rusting. You do need to recycle or dispose of the wire once it is rusted. The rust particles could clog up the flower stems preventing water take up.
There are a few different types of floral tapes so be sure to grab the right one depending on the end use.
Stem Wrap (4) is the tape you often see at the end of a boutonniere. It's also used with wires to create faux, bendable stems in some bouquets and arrangements. You pull the tape to activate a waxy coating that will adhere to itself. It's easy to find this tape in the floral section of craft stores but it's not needed unless you are venturing into fancy bouquets, corsages, or boutonnieres.
Waterproof tape (5) comes in clear or green. Clear is handy for creating a grid at the top of glass vases to hold stems in place. Green or clear works to secure balls of wire into vessels when creating arrangement.
There are a few vases and containers I like to keep on hand but be creative! I like to have a tall, simple cylinder vase for branches or to plop a bouquet in when I'm short on time. I also keep smaller clear vases or even pint size mason jars for when I want to take a small arrangement to a friend. The secret is that they fit in the cup holder in the car which makes them easy to transport.
When decorating the dining table I like to use shorter vessels. You want to be able to see over the top of the arrangement. Small pots or compotes are great. Another alternative is to use many small bud vases to create a tablescape.
I save the tall pitchers or urns for side tables.
Do you always need flower food? No, changing the water frequently is more important than flower food. Treating the water does help many stems pull up water more efficiently and keep the water clear. Flower food has sugar which helps to feed some flowers. Some treatments also have acids or bleaches that clarify the water because some flower stems have a bad habit of creating stinky, murky water after a few days. If you don't have flower food common alternatives are to add a bit of citrus based soda like 7Up or a tiny bit of bleach and sugar.
Valentine's Day Gift Ideas
Let's face the fact that many of us will be staying in for Valentine's Day this year. So how do we make the day extra special? I believe we can make the day great and support small businesses and arts organizations.
Flowers and Plants
The hard truth is flowers don't grow outside in Iowa in February. Any flowers purchased this time of year will be imported from somewhere. An alternative is to gift a bouquet subscription for flowers when they are in season. Many flower farms like mine offer subscriptions for flowers during their growing season. By purchasing flowers in advance you help fund seed and supply purchases for the season. I'm trying out a 4-week bouquet subscription for the first time this year.
Want flowers to give right now? Chat with your florist about what they recommend. Stock, ranunculus, anemones, tulips and hellebores are easy for florists to source this time of year. Be adventurous and put some trust in your floral designer. Try a dried arrangement like this gorgeous one from Wild Flower Des Moines.
Gardeners might be more interested in plants more than cut flowers. How about a gift certificate to their favorite greenhouse? Or they might love a houseplant from a florist or garden center.
Rather than the traditional chocolates how about a dessert from your local bakery? Small businesses can certainly use our support right now. I love the pie from Pies and Such here in Leon, Iowa. Plan a take out meal from a local restaurant for a date night.
At Home Theatre
Date night options are limited right now, but there are a number of performance art organizations holding virtual performances. Joffrey ballet in Chicago is streaming a performance of Bolero for free at 7pm on February 12th. You can go to the ballet without leaving your home. The Des Moines Symphony is presenting a ticketed virtual concert on February 11th. So, search out your favorite performing arts groups and check out what they have going on virtually. Get dressed up, plan that take-out or delivery order and a special dessert.