Tulips in the Florida garden? Yes

One of several beds of tulips in Janice Straske's front yard peaks, producing a traffic-stopping view. Janice uses a mix of bulbs, because she never knows which will thrive and which won't. Photos by Caroline Hill
One of several beds of tulips in Janice Straske's front yard peaks, producing a traffic-stopping view. Janice uses a mix of bulbs, because she never knows which will thrive and which won't.Photos by Caroline Hill

It's a rite of passage for Tampa Bay flower gardeners. We get a few seasons under our belts, some lantana and pentas and Mexican petunias looking all robust and bloomy, and we get cocky.

We want tulips.

All you've got to do is trick them into thinking it's winter in Cincinnati. How hard can that be? We're loads smarter than a little brown bulb and we've got refrigerators!

So we order bulbs, 'cause you sure can't buy them locally — everyone knows tulips don't grow here, and you stow them in the fridge with the leftovers for a few months.

Sometime in late winter, we plant them, water them, and wait.

And wait. And wait. And wait.

I've done it. My sisters have done it. My friends have done it. All we got was a good long wait.

So when my new pal, Caroline Hill, told me her old pal, Janice Straske of South Tampa's Golfview neighborhood, grows tulips, I raised an eyebrow.

Faux tulips, I thought. Like our faux forsythia and our tropical faux dogwood.

"So, what are they?" I asked, indulgently. "South African tulips? Hibiscus 'tulips'?"

"Tulips!" she said.

Two weeks ago, I got an email from her. Subject line: "Tulips are up!"

And now I've seen everything.

For the record, Janice Straske is smarter than a tulip. So is her friend Jeanne Dowdel, and her mom, third-generation Tampa native Celia Ferman. All three have tulips — from bulbs, not Publix. They've been growing them for years.

Janice, 42, says it's a splurge because the flowers are, at best, two-week annuals. They don't bloom again even if you dig them up and put them back in the fridge. (Her mother tried.)

But heck, she doesn't collect shoes or purses, like some women. And she enjoys every minute of her tulips, from the solitude of planting bulbs when her three daughters go back to school after Christmas vacation to the miracle of watching the buds unfold. (I'm 100 percent with Janice on this very valid rationalization. I use it all the time.)

Okay, so what's the secret? What did Janice learn from her mom that my sisters and I didn't learn from ours?

"Basically, you have to have a spare refrigerator if you want to grow tulips," she says. "If you store the bulbs in a refrigerator with fruits and vegetables, the gases they give off will make the bulbs go bad."

Janice orders her bulbs in October — as soon as the catalogs hit the mailbox — because they tend to sell out quickly, she says. She's tried different companies and different varieties. Some fare better than others, so she orders a mix to boost her odds for success.

"The companies always email me the next day and say, 'We've noticed you've ordered things for Zone 4. Are you aware you're in Zone 10?'

"They don't ship to Florida a lot."

Her current favorite vendor is Colorblends, www.colorblends.com. She likes its French Blend of varieties in yellow, salmon, pink and orange.

"It's a nice combination of not-too-expensive bulbs and they come up well," Janice says. "I've had some years when I've planted hundreds of bulbs and not very many came up."

She and her friend Jeanne split an order of 1,000 bulbs for about $200 each — ordering in bulk saves money. When they arrive in November, Janice stores them in her second refrigerator (Jeanne has five kids, so her extra fridge is busier.)

"Usually, the day the kids go back to school after the holidays I bring them out," Janice says. "With the kids at home for two weeks, everything's crazy and chaotic. When they go back to school, I've just got to get in the dirt."

That dirt is also worth a mention. Janice has five chickens and the more they eat, the more rich fertilizer they provide. The used straw from their coop makes for a power-packed mulch.

This year, she planted about 250 bulbs in a 50-foot strip along the back fence. Smaller beds dot the front yard. She uses a hand-held bulb planter to ensure the holes are about 3 inches deep — deep enough to foil the squirrels and to give the plants more stability when they get top-heavy with flowers.

When everything comes together perfectly — cool weather, no deluges, good bulbs — Janice has drifts of delicate long-stemmed egg cups that stop traffic and prompt strangers to leave thank-you notes and even photos of her flowers.

That's something $200 designer pumps can't do.

Read more about what's going on in bay area gardens at www.digginfladirt.com or talk with your gardening neighbors at www.facebook.com/digginfloridadirt. Reach Penny Carnathan at [email protected]

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