Tulips Part Three -
Letters of Two Gardeners

I write this in hopes that this information and my experiences with planting bulbs will be of some help to others.

Summer, 2005, I decided I wanted - no needed - more tulips. I knew they needed to be planted in late summertime or in autumn before the fall rains began – late September or early October is usually best for me - but that is the driest period here. Besides, we had drought that summer, so I knew the clay soil would be hard as a rock. I tried watering; it did not help; the water wouldn’t soak into the ground.

We couldn’t till the soil because one area was beneath two dogwood trees, another under a row of cotoneasters, and another under more trees. I needed to make individual holes.

Remembering seeing augers sold for planting bulbs, I turned to the Internet to find one to buy. During the process I came across Douglass Oster’s article at this address (click here).

He wrote of easily planting hundreds of bulbs in rocky woodland. Hmmmm – rocky - tree roots… sounded familiar… sounded like Crocker Croft. Yippee, just what I needed to know. So, I bought an auger set of two sizes, and bought a battery run cordless drill of good size and strength. I wanted a drill I could use way off down in the dell far from the house and source of electrical current. I thought I was ready!

Tulips were finally planted November 2005 and bloomed spring 2006, but as you can read in our correspondences below it was not as easy as I thought it would be.

Dear Mr. Oster,
While browsing the Inter Net looking for an auger to use for planting bulbs, I came across your article, "Plant Bulbs Now", from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

After reading your article, I was eager to order an auger and purchase a cordless drill so I could plant masses of bulbs. Alas, it didn't work out that way. I think the auger is ok, but the drill isn't strong enough.

The drill I purchased is a Craftsman 1/2" with a 19.2 Volt DC cordless motor from Sears. It has variable speed operation of (0-400/0-1400 RPM). It is stronger than the typical homeowner's drill, but it couldn't do the job. I used it at low torque and slow speed, but it still couldn’t do the job.

I'm eager to know what kind of drill you used when you were working in that rocky woodland. Whatever it is, that's what I need and want!

Would you please respond and tell me. I surely would appreciate your time and trouble. I still have a lot of work to do. The garden at Crocker Croft is a little over an acre with our small stone house on it. Part of the back yard used to be a limestone quarry. A previous owner had 800 loads of fill dirt put in the "hole" and now I have what might be called a bowl effect with limestone outcroppings and part of the bank is very steep. I have big dreams for this garden. But, at age 69, I need all the help I can get!

In spite of it all, with help from others to make the holes, this autumn I planted 90 Queen of Sheba tulips in the back yard, and am trying to increase the number of orange-red oriental poppies and the red and yellow native columbine (the Aquilegia canadensis) in that spot to repeat the colors of the Queen of Sheba. The best tool I found to dig the holes deeper and remove stones is a small pry bar someone made from a piece of re-bar. (I inherited it from my grandfather’s farm.)

In the front yard went: 380 assorted tulips, 500 grape hyacinths (Muscari), 200 small Alliums, 100 double snowdrops, and 150 crocuses (50 of one variety and 100 of another). So you see I need every advantage I can manage.

Sincerely, Barbara Crocker, Lexington, Kentucky (Not the best place in the world to try to garden!)

1/12/06 (His reply.)

Interesting, I think you're using the same drill that I use. Is the problem rocks or roots or both?

As far as a cordless drill goes, that's a pretty powerful one. The next step would be to get a heavy-duty plug-in drill with a long extension cord.

I'm puzzled though that the 19-volt drill is not doing the job for you. Tell me more about the soil conditions.

I'm still planting bulbs up this way, found some for 10 cents a piece.

Douglass Oster
Garden Columnist
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
34 Blvd. of the Allies
Pittsburgh, Pa 15222
Click on Garden Forum to talk about gardening
Click on Garden Tour to see my garden

January ?, 2006
Hello Again,
WOW, ten cents per bulb, good for you. The ground isn't frozen yet? It isn't here.

OK, the rest of the story: we quickly realized the cordless was not up to the task so we rented a drill with cord. My husband and two helpers (students from the University of Kentucky here in Lexington) wouldn't let me use it for fear I'd get hurt. They dug a crop of holes as best they could, and then left me to it. The holes were not nearly deep enough. That's when I used the small pry bar to make the holes deeper by repeatedly pounding the sharper end in and giving it a twist, that worked pretty well and my hand/arm held out till the end of the project, though I was beginning to get worried. I mixed compost and a bit of bulb food into the soil at the bottom of each hole, then added a layer of sand before I placed the bulb. And, I used the bar to remove stones; yep, it's rocky here.

So, you are correct: the problem is rocks and roots - plus, the main problem - drought hardened earth. This past summer was terribly hot, and central Kentucky was in a drought; watering didn't seem to help much, it just wouldn't go down deep enough (clay). We are still way behind for needed rainfall. Of all years to decide to plant bulbs!

I'm working with a very thin layer of soil (mostly clay) on top of limestone, in between is a layer of hardpan that seems intent on turning to stone. That was the layer I had to break up with the pry bar. I was hoping to get the tops of the tulip bulbs six to eight inches deep as recommended so they wouldn’t split and so they would come back year after year.

This is an old property (built 1955, we bought in 1989) so there are mature trees. The interplanted short alliums and assorted tulips (I'd read someone had solved her rodents-eating-tulip-bulbs problem by doing that.) went in under two old dogwoods. I may have killed the trees. Will see, come spring. It will either be beautiful or tragic.

The rest of the bulbs were planted in similar locations: under huge hackberry trees in the back yard, and the two varieties of crocus plus 100 double snowdrops went in, up on a small rise, under a hedge of old cotoneasters. That's my version and a tip of the hat to H.F. DuPont's "March Bank" at Winterthur. I've never been there, but I saw wonderful photos and have visited their web site. That garden is mind-boggling and attractive to me because mine is the naturalized garden style and I know how difficult it is to achieve.

The soil here is mostly clay, but the beds the former owner created were amended over the 28 years she was here, and I use worlds of leaf mold, compost, soil conditioner, mulch, and rotted wood on the new areas. I'm striving for a wildflower/native plant garden down in the little woods, a new shade garden near the house, and a dry garden (rockery and terrace) incorporating one of the outcroppings.

That last area is the most interesting to me: using my ideas and suggestions, it is the creation of student helper Neal Watts. The upper section, the terrace, is planted with succulents and creeping plants between the flagstones. I won't go into more detail, for the rockery/terrace story is a long one (but interesting, I think), and I've gone on too long already. So will close by saying, "Thank you for your interest, attention, and time in replying." I have no gardening friends and husband isn't interested, so I feel alone and lonely in this endeavor. I see a link at the end of your message, so I will go there now.
Sincerely, Barbara Crocker

Mon. 1/16/06
(His reply.)
Wow, that sounds like quite a project. You're bulbs are going to love you for what you're doing. Spring is going to be a wonderful surprise for you.

I worked in soil like that to put in a garden for my mother. I worked there solid for three years, each year putting a pick-up truckload of compost on the 8'x8' bed. At the end of the third year my mom decided she was just going to plant in containers. That bed now has the greenest grass you've ever seen!

I planted 350 grape hyacinths and I've got 450 left to plant. I bought the last ones the nursery had and they were trying to give them away, $1 per bags of 50. I'm lucky though; I found a nice woodland location with soft fertile soil. I was able to plant the 350 in an hour.

You should get onto the garden forum linked below; it's a fun place.

Here's another one from my radio show. www.theorganicgardeners.com
If you get up early on Sundays you can hear the show through your computer. We have a lot of fun if you're interested.

You need to find some gardening friends. There's nothing better than being able to exchange ideas.

You should make a trip up to the Philly area (about 5 hours from here) there are incredible gardens there.

Longwood and Chanticleer are just wonderful. I've never seen Winterthur, but I've heard it's great. My favorite in Chanticleer. It's only about 35 acres, but it has a laid back feel to it. People from the area pay $5 to come and just sit.

Remember that there will always be failures in the garden, that's part of it. Accept them, learn from them and move on. I think you will be in heaven this spring when you see those bulbs bloom.

Douglass Oster

Dear Mr. Oster,
Your mom is lucky to have you! That was a lot of work!

Thank you for all the encouragement and suggestions; I will follow up on them. You surely do a lot of different things. Keep up the good work.
Sincerely, Barbara Crocker

It was January. I spent the wintertime wondering: Did I get the bulbs deep enough? Would the hungry critters eat them over-winter? Would they have enough moisture, or would the drought continue with its grip. Would the neighbors get a pretty surprise, or would it be a failure after we worked so very hard all those days and days. We could only wait until spring to know and find out.
= To Be Continued =

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