High-Maintenance Gardening in the Washington Post


Locals are already talking about the spring gardening advice in today's WaPo, judging from what not one but TWO clients said to me today.  Both asked:  Do we REALLY have to do that? 

The relevant quotes:

Tulips are best dug as their leaves yellow and brown. Lay them in the
sun to dry for about two weeks, protected by chicken wire cages if
wildlife is a problem. When the bulbs dry, knock off soil, separate the
bulbs and place them in a porous bag with vermiculite to keep dry. Store
them in a cool, dry location until replanting in November.

Fertilize deciduous shade trees only if you didn't fertilize them last
fall. Use a general-purpose fertilizer that's not too high in nitrogen.
(Formulations of 5-10-5 or 10-6-4 are good.)… And incorporate organic material into the root zones of plants. It
helps tree roots retain moisture and increases soil's ability to hold
nutrients. One inch of compost around the root system at tree base is
the perfect complement to fertilizer.

Insects are waking up now, and disease-causing organisms that were
dormant in winter are emerging. Spray dormant-oil insecticide or
fungicide. Spraying now will ensure the least negative impact on the
environment by reducing the need for additional spraying during the
growing season. 

Of course I assured both clients that no, they do NOT have to dig and store tulips, fertilize all their trees or spray their garden with insecticides and fungicides.  I do NONE of those things myself and my plants are all just fine, thank you.

But I need a reality check here.  Readers?


  1. Tulips will do better if they are bone dry during their dormant period (like in their native habitat), but if you have good drainage and don’t water much, they should be fine in the ground. Of course, many people treat them as annuals.
    A mulched tree shouldn’t need fertilizing. Feed the soil, not the plants.
    I can’t imagine needing to spray anything except fruit trees. People either need to get used to a few bugs or grow stuff that isn’t bug prone.

    People ask for something to do, and the “experts” give it to them.

  2. Screw the tulips. Plant daffodils. Nothing is worth that kind of effort when there are lots of other choices.

    Fertilize deciduous trees? If you fertilize the lawn or the flower beds you will be fertilizing the trees because their root zones are so expansive. If your tree is in the lawn and you fertilize that with a high nitrogen fertilizer the tree is going to get it. Then you are supposed to go back and add a low nitrogen fertilizer to the tree alone?

    Become one with the bugs. No preventative spraying unless there is a known problem. That problem must be specifically targeted.

  3. ok clients: why you need to hire a landscape designer/garden coach with #hands-in-dirt experience:

    in re: tulips: unless you are on tour for historic garden week or some such, plant darwin hybrids or small heirloom tulips that are reliably perennial. life is too short for tulips that only bloom one week out of 52, then get composted. (because the success rate on digging and storing for people who are not true hortgeeks is about 5%; i.e. failure rate 95%)


    Compost IS fertilizer, not the perfect ‘complement to’. What, now compost is a fashion accessory rather than the real deal?! And frankly, ‘incorporating’ in the root zone of trees is not always easy or desirable. Nor is layering volcanos of mulch or compost on top of the root flare/trunk.

    ONLY IF called for by the soil test results, fertilize at the DRIPLINE: LOOK UP, NOTICE CANOPY ABOVE, AND FERTILIZE BELOW with organic amendments, slow release, low-test, that won’t hurt microbial action/beneficial critters in the soil.

    Spray now, forget later? Doesn’t work. Spray for what? where?

    This is the kind of advice that ruins the environment, the plant and the joy of gardening. The only good words in this paragraph are ‘oil spray’.

    And btw, read the label (novel idea): NEVER SPRAY ANYTHING WITH ANYTHING (INCLUDING WATER) in direct sunlight, when temps are above 70 degrees, OR when it’s windy. Well, there went late spring and summer in the MidAtlantic!

    I once heard Rob Proctor talk on naturalizing bulbs. He said something like: “Those of you who bobbypin down the flopping foliage of daffodils or braid it: YOU NEED A NEW HOBBY.”

    And we need garden writers to stop ‘should-ing’ on people, which discourages them from enjoying the garden.

  4. The Washington post article is nothing more or less than a cut and paste job from a 1960’s county extension bulletin, or perhaps a re-cycled gardening article from that era. Lazy journalism, or, more likely, budget journalism.

    Wasn’t the Post the home for years of Henry Mitchell, the “Essential Earthman”? They could at least re-run his informed, thoughtful and joyous gardening articles.

  5. Tulips are at best annuals. As for not spraying when teps are above 70*….the humidity factor is mor of an issue. 85* and humid is more the cut off point.

    Have to do these things? No Young trees and shrubs can and should be fertilized. Large trees a waste of time.

    Fruit trees will not produce without some spray prgram. I used a sulfur pyrethrins blend and my trees did produce. Only problem was the eight point buck got the apples before we did.

    The TROLL

  6. None of those things are needed in my garden, EVER.

    Who wrote it? Queen Victoria’s still living head-gardener?

    Hmm, if they printed good garden articles they could get more advertising from the horticulture industry.

    Poor business all around.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  7. Saw that article. Used it on the bottom of the canary cage. Load of piffle.

    Tulips — if you want the big luscious ones, be prepared to pull them out after they finish blooming, because they Will NOT come back like that next spring but will just give you a tattered mess of leaves with an occasional (small) bloom. They’re cheap enough, for heaven’s sake, that they can be treated as annuals in an average-size garden.

  8. okay, I admit to digging up my tulips every year…we have maybe one day of frost and my experience shows that the specimens tend to like a bit more cold than that…here in Berkeley, CA.
    Since when are there major and “minor bulbs”? I’d call crocus a major bulb as it’s a harbinger of Spring.
    The advice makes gardening seem like a chore rather than the pleasure it really is.

  9. This is the kind of negative advice that drives people OUT of gardening rather than encouraging them to enjoy their bit of earth.

    Horrible! He begins with the weeds, not the joys of planting something new in spring. And as you point out, Susan, none of the labor he recommends is in any way necessary.

    I think of the Washington Post as the last example of excellent newspaper garden writing–and of course, a shrine to the late, great Henry Mitchell.

    Maybe I have to rethink.

  10. I do none of those things out here on “the other coast” and things are plugging along just fine. Sure, I’m monitoring for pests and disease, but I’m not spraying willy-nilly…actually, I’m not spraying at all!

  11. To put the column in context, it’s my understanding that Joel writes for the Post in the Real Estate Section for no pay, but to promote his business. Which is fine with me, as long as the content is good.
    The Post still carries the excellent Barbara Damrosch, and their full-time garden writer Adrian Higgins, whose articles I frequently link to right here.

  12. My spring clean up includes raking out the oak leaves, cutting back the grasses and other perennials that stood over the winter and getting a jump start on the weeds while they are little.

    I don’t use chemical fertilizer for the shrubs and trees or spray for bugs and I’ll leave my tulips in the ground and cross my fingers that they come back next year.

  13. My grandma used to grow Red Emperor tulips in her big garden bed. Every year when the foliage faded, she dug them out, let the bulbs dry, and stored them in the basement. Then she put in red-blooming geraniums she’d grown from cuttings. On October 1, out came the geraniums to be made into cuttings, and in went the bulbs. Grandma was a frugal gardener…

  14. I re-mulch my entire garden every year with high-quality compost. It’s a three days of a heck of a lot of work, but it replaces fertilizer and weeding for an entire year.

    Maintenance does make a difference. It shows.

    Here Hippeastrums, are splendid no-care substitutes for Tulips. They form specatular clumps, are drought-tolerant, and come back reliably year after year.

  15. I would just dig my tulips up and throw them away when I was back east. More fun to get a new type next year anyway.

    Never really went out of my way to fertilize trees and shrubs specifically but for a while I was fertilizing my entire garden. I probably wouldn’t be that gung-ho on that anymore though.

    As for spraying it depends on the plants. For most of our stuff it wasn’t needed. We did have a long border of eastern hemlock that needed to be sprayed for wooly adelgid every year. Sadly they finally lost the fight and had to be removed. We lost a beautiful screen.

  16. My tulips are planted as “annuals” yet have a surprising tendancy to turn out to be perennials after all. I have yet to dig one up — correction: I have yet to dig one up on purpose.

    For trees? Well, I’ve been letting the chipmunks handle those… They seem to have done just fine, I’ll have to ask them what they used.

    and… ummm…. cough… I’ve been gardening for about 20 years and I still don’t own a sprayer. So…
    Should I be attending some Gardener’s Anonymous meeting?

  17. Unbelievable. It’s like a time capsule of advice from 1957. I do none of those things, and, though I treat hybrid tulips as annuals for the most part, some of the ones I have left in did come back quite nicely. I also find that tulips in containers is a great, easy way to go. And of course I love the species.
    Compost and careful selection of shrubs and trees that are good for your area make the rest of the advice equally superfluous.
    What a shame that that was actually published on a respected paper like the WaPo.

  18. I don’t even bother with tulips anymore. Don’t have the patience to chill them X number of hours before planting, although I might still have a bag of bonemeal I used to mix into their planting mix…

    Fertilizing trees? Really? I think this kind of propaganda is what compels people to hire professional landscapers/gardeners, to be honest. Compost and mulch. Don’t sweat the odd pest, and don’t forget there are helpful flowers one can plant near the tree that’ll attract beneficial insects.

  19. What’s the big deal? He gives a link to the extension service. And he’s right about the tulips. You’re being Far Too Righteous.

  20. I taught horticulture in college for over 20 years.
    i have never heard of the tulip fiasco. Species tulips perennialize in the north.By planting regular tulips extra deep
    they may come back. Certain cultivars and species have a better overwintering habit. Check with your
    extension agent for info. Otherwise, use a reliable bulb source. I hate when people get misinformation.
    Ladies-keep up your rant! We need you now!

  21. I don’t do any of the above advice except watch out for insect infestations and disease. Even then, I often let nature takes its course. My advice? Plant tulips, but enjoy them as annuals unless they are the species type. Buy disease resistant cultivars of shrubs, including roses. I don’t fertilize trees. We’re doing fine here too.~~Dee

  22. I agree with Nian, think the over-reaction is unwarranted. None of the advice from JL’s column is actually wrong – just maybe more work than most of us care to do – and that is our choice if we don’t want reliably re-blooming tulips and sparklingly healthy trees/shrubs. We all need to read gardenb advice with a mind-set of how much effort we want to expend vs how much ROI we’ll get from our time/money invested in it.
    It is not like he’s telling you to go out there with tweezers and magnifying glass to nip out each weed before it dare shows itself to your delicate garden visitors or to only water your precious perennials with Evian. LOL.

  23. Not into tulips ( combo of other interests & wrong climate for them ), but I can see that if I really liked them, I’d take those steps to make certain I had beautiful blooms next year.

    I am, however, into fruit trees & shrubs, and used to do all that spraying, mulching, fertilizing. I’ve noticed that since I stopped all that & let the soil & plants tell me what they need, I’m getting much more produce of much better quality & my garden is full of wildlife, with the good usually taking care of the bad.

  24. Interesting debates 🙂
    I like tulips personally.

    Indeed, Apart from lots of sunlight, tulips need well drained soil as well. I am particularly fond of the various color tulips can bring to your garden – combination of red, yellow, white & etc.

    How wonderful flowers can add harmony to your yard/garden.

    Jay Chua
    Publisher, PorchSwingSets.com

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