Anyone else know the words to” Tiptoe Through the Tulips”? Anyone besides me, I mean.
I’m referring, of course, to the popular ballad written for the 1929 musical starring “the Crooning Troubadour” (a man named Nick Lucas) called “Gold Diggers of Broadway.”
OK, ever heard of Tiny Tim?
Tim was the crooning troubadour who immortalized the song a mere 50 years ago. He sang it exactly as it was first recorded, in falsetto and accompanied by a ukulele.
Last week I was trying to get the song out of my head when it occurred to me that one doesn’t tiptoe through tulips without incurring the wrath of whoever planted them, unless, as was proposed in the song, the tiptoeing is done after dark.
But even in broad daylight one doesn’t tiptoe through tulips. That’s because tulips look their best in clusters, not here and there (individually) or in widely spaced rows like the Buckingham Palace guards.
Moreover, tulips ought to grow among groundcovers, and NOT the sort you step on, such as sedum or chamomile or white clover or thyme, but the low mounding types (heuchera, cranesbill, catmint) that hide the tulips’ leaves as they wither, as wither they must while storing energy for next year.
This raises another issue regarding tulips. Some gardeners dig them up and replant them in late fall; some buy new ones. But the best tulips, in my opinion, are the ones that are left in the ground and allowed to naturalize.
Tulip bulbs’ reproductive drive is no different from that of any other plant, or any other species, for that matter. Instinct compels them to go forth and multiply.
They will happily do this (at no additional cost to the gardener, except in garden space) if they are cold-hardy varieties, meaning they’re able to go dormant without being killed by frigid winter temperatures.
Buy cold-hardy tulips and you will never pay another dime for more of them (unless your aim is simply to try something new. Or unless the bulbs you prefer are not cold hardy.)
Sticking with such tulips in no way limits your choices. I grow some of the most flamboyant, including parrot tulips, as well as the stately Darwin hybrids, as well as so-called species tulips, which are the first to appear in spring and whose petals close in the evening. They grow on short stems. Mine are yellow with white edges. They are called Tulipa tarda.
I have different rules for tropical bulbs.
These I bring indoors for the winter and treat as houseplants.
Clivia blooms twice, once around Christmas and again in summer. It has long dark green leaves that look and feel like leather and emerge straight up from the stem before drooping in the manner of palm and banana leaves.
Their brilliant orange flowers are almost as big around as a giant ornamental onion (Alium giganteum) and last a lot longer. They make wonderful cut flowers.
Amaryllis looks and acts like Clivia, except that instead of resembling (from a distance) an orange grapefruit, the flowers are shaped like lilies and come in a wide array of dazzling colors.
Mine are red with white speckles in the throat.
They come inside in the fall, along with the Clivia, but are not quite as robust (or reliable because they’re planted in gravel. I’m lucky to get Christmas flowers every other year.).
I did persuade them to divide in two, but the newborn died of thirst after it was given a new container and then forgotten on the potting bench.
Dahlia tubers can also be brought indoors. Unlike the others, they are sent immediately to the basement, provided it’s a cool basement.
Once the tubers are stripped of their leaves and roots but not the eye from which the plant will regrow, they are boxed up in a mixture of peat and sand. A dormancy period rejuvenates them.
How the tulip song got stuck in my head is this:
Several years ago, I scattered some tulips in a remote corner of my yard (out of sight, out of mind) that gets full eastern light and is (still) mostly a weed pit.
This corner happens to be next to my chicken run, so when a young woman strolling by pulled out her phone, I assumed she’d begin taking pictures of the girls.
Turned out, the tulips had caught her eye. As it happens, they were tiptoeing most delightfully through a smokebush (Cotinus coggygria).
The latter shrub is famous (and nicknamed) for its pinkish-gray panicles. Think cotton candy only fluffier, smokier and more ethereal. The unusual flowers cover the plant in late summer.
In spring smokebush is pretty, too. This is thanks to its fat buds and unfurling purple leaves and its long slender branches.
The tulips that tiptoe through the branches are tall. The pale-yellow flowers open to the morning sun. The sunlight turns them translucent, on stems bent slightly through the less pliant (dare I say, more masculine?) branches of the shrub.
Both the shrub and the tulips tilt away from the picturesque shed that is the backdrop for this fairy-tale scene. In midafternoon the flowers begin to close, as wild tulips (and California poppies and morning glories) always do.
Did I plan this composition, which only gets better from year to year, as the tulips multiply, and looks best when the sun’s rays are running through it?
I did plan the magnolia grove that used to be there but succumbed to an attack of scale just as the magnolias (these were Merrills) were beginning to compete with each other for fresh air and sunlight because I’d planted them way too close together.
How many times I’ve told myself that plants are not furniture, I can’t tell you.
Too many to count. Indeed, most of the “improvements” I make are corrections. Nothing really good in my garden was ever planned.
I suppose the humility that comes from learning that (again and again) is good too.
But too much humility can have a paralyzing effect.
Whenever I’m tempted to trade in my trowel for a new hobby, one more appropriate to my stage in life, like knitting, what rejuvenates me is seeing something in my yard that I don’t like the look of and am mortified at the thought of someone else seeing too. Humility gives way to excessive pride.
The old compulsion is once again triggered by what a gardening friend homed in on in what she called her beginner’s guide to pruning.
It went like this: “Take a little off, then stand back and have a look, then take a little more off.”
For me the operative phrase is “stand back and have a look.”
I’ve never been good at seeing “in the mind’s eye.” The only eyes I see with are the ones on either side of my nose. They are far from perfect but, after all these years, I still take all my design cues from them.
All this is by way of explaining my affection for plants that some might call invasive, but I call innocent victims of group-think. I rely on them, in fact. Why? Because I never know where they will end up and usually where they end up is better than where I planted them.
True monsters like purple loosestrife and buckthorn are exceptions to this rule, of course. And I deplore the lack of vigilance that allows such monsters to stow away on ships and attack our shores. (I’m also talking about you, ever loathsome Japanese Beetle!)
My non-sterile catmint may be undocumented but its habit of running over its neighbors is as innocent as the day (in June) is long. No criminal intent involved, just a life force that reminds me of my own. It’s not always easy to get up in the morning much less run around all day with a trowel and pruning shears.
So, I’ve made my peace with the catmint and instead of grumbling and cursing as I pull it out in handfuls I smile and toss it into my wheelbarrow and head to the henhouse.
My chickens just happen to love the headstrong plants. Not just catmint, but dead nettle, and even goutweed. Anything, it seems, that has a smell and taste as assertive as its temperament.
Bonnie Blodgett: Stewardship starts with observation
Bonnie Blodgett: Chive snipping, rhubarb leafing, the scents of soil in the spring! Oh, and the pansies