RIP tulipa?


speciesIt looks like the deer won. I gave a talk at a suburban garden club last week, and, to a woman, all the gardeners there told me they don’t bother trying to grow tulips anymore. No matter what they do, the bulbs get eaten, as soon as they start to emerge. You can’t really fence off your front yard—well, you can, but it’s not a great look in most cases—and the constant reapplication of smelly remedies gets to be a drag. I know I wouldn’t be able to keep up with it.

Of course, I don’t have to. Deer do not roam freely through my part of Buffalo, so April-May are the most fervently anticipated months of my gardening year. Amazingly, the potted bulbs in my (unheated) garage survived the winter, and are coming up, albeit slowly. And the new species tulips I planted in my redesigned front beds are  blooming, starting with the early t. tarda (I think) and t. turkistanica, above.

To me, this is just one more of the countless advantages of city living. It is the only time of year my deeply shaded front yard is filled with bright color. The beds are planted with the species (as well as erythronium, eranthis, muscari, and scilla) and two big clumps of hybrids, which also appear in big pots.

But even in the city, I don’t see as many tulips as I’d like. Maybe gardeners feel they’re too short-lived. But that’s part of their appeal—for me, anyway. Even if I could plant the entire garden once with a mix of perennials that would never need to be replaced, ever, I wouldn’t. Bore. Ing.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I don’t plant many tulips because even if I don’t have deer (which in many cities they do) the squirrels and rabbits eat them. I do have lots of daffodils which I hope confuses them to leave the tulips alone. They are also too expensive for a one shot deal for me. I did buy up a bunch on sale last fall for my daughter’s cutting garden. I also can’t stand the ugly foliage that seems to go on forever.

    I do love seeing tulips in other people’s gardens, but they certainly are not making use of the huge variety out there. I wish people would plant more spring bulbs in general, they are such a happy thing to come across after a terrible winter.

  2. I did the entire plant it with perennials ‘thing’.

    Had color all year, dead-heading, cutting back, herbacious, dividing, dormancy.

    Waste of time.

    Now, flowering shrubs, flowering trees, flowering groundcovers, self-seeding annuals, and the odd perennial that takes care of itself.

    More, the shrubs/trees/groundcovers are gorgeous all year WITHOUT EFFORT. Far superior in pollinator habitat too. Increasing crop yield by 80%.

    Perennial gardening was too limiting in myriad ways. Cost/coverage etc….

    The perennials in my garden now deserve their Oscar or a Nobel….

    Tulips? Never, nevah. Daffodils? Yes!

    Wish I had done chickens at the front end of my gardening efforts. They’ve brought the missing layer of gardening most of history had, Until subdivisions. Stewardship.

    Perennials are a great example of my experiences moving from Amusement to Stewardship.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. Ha! I’m with all those who don’t bother with the tulips anymore.

    I, too live in the burbs of Buffalo and throw my hands up in despair of the dear deer.

    What can I say? I love the deer! And they love me! I just wish they’d stop eating my tulips. Oh well, now I can just buy myself some for Mother’s Day.

    But *maybe* it would help if I stopped feeding them the rest of the year. They do so love my pear and apple trees =)

  4. I garden in a rural acreage but have few deer issues, because we have a small outdoor dog (she has a heated doghouse on our front porch). I highly recommend this solution for deer. Small dogs cause little garden damage, don’t eat too much and keep down the rabbits too (plus, they keep you company when you garden!).

  5. Still trying to figure out the tulip thing. A friend gave me some of her extra bulbs a few years ago, so I kind of randomly planted them. They’ve multiplied with no help from me, and I’ve enjoyed them, but I know I have to “lift” them at some point. So far, the deer have ignored them until the blooms are almost spent, when they “mow” them down, which is fine by me. There must be more for the deer to eat here in Oregon than in New York? Or maybe I’ve just been lucky.

    • Anne, you don’t need to lift them; just make sure the foliage decays. Eventually, they may start to falter; in which case, add more. I think if they get a good blast of sun and good summer baking they last better.

      I leave only species tulips in the ground, which tend to perennialize. The hybrids I replace yearly.

      • Thanks Elizabeth, that’s good to know! Because realistically speaking, I will probably never go to the trouble of lifting them. So now, no guilt!

        I have no idea if the tulips I’ve got are species or hybrid, but they seem to be coming back more abundantly each year.

  6. I have a few tulips scattered around for accent. Have more of the species tulips cause they spread. But I’m with Tara. Love the daffs!

  7. It’s not the deer, or any other varmint in my case. I’m a fairly cheap gardener so I don’t spend much on plants I have to coddle. Tulips, and most other bulbs that do well in Eastern gardens, I’d have to coddle. It doesn’t get cold enough here to have them do well. Sure, my calla lilies are outa sight, and there’s that one patch of paperwhites that I haven’t killed in nearly five years of laissez-faire gardening, and somehow the freesia & the muscari manage to both thrive in their amended beds. But tulips and daffodils – nope. They just are not happening. It’s like they look at the clay soil (if in ground) or feel the relative warmth of our winters and give up before even considering a bloom.

  8. I’m in Austin too. Oxblood lilies and spider lilies are great, and fall is wonderful in general. But I don’t see that as any reason not to have spring bulbs too. Some (not all by any means) daffodils do well here. Tulips have to be stored in the refrigerator for two months before planting, and they don’t come back. For me they’re worth it. I plant between 150 & 200 each year and will as long as I can dig the holes (or get someone to do it for me), and as long as the deer don’t show up in my part of town. I’d have more than that if I had a bigger refrigerator.

  9. A new trick I have been using to fight off deer is Irish Spring soap. Use a cheese grater and make a barrier around the beds. It seems to be working this season. It’s a truly endless battle.

  10. I guess I’m fortunate. Though there are tons of deer, squirrels and bunnies around, they don’t come near my yard. But then, I live in a rural area, and unlike city deer the deer around here are hunted, and are therefore skittish of humans.
    I also have a large german shepherd. He’ll chase deer, bunnies, and squirrels out of the yard (though I’ve never seen him catch one; he’s too fat and slow)
    Anyway, I can grow deer treats like tulips and lilies with impunity. Some of my neighbors ask me to dump the dog hair around their gardens when I brush my dog, and swear it keeps deer and bunnies out of their tulips as well.

  11. Since I have not mowed my lawn in years I have voles, moles, deer mice,once a shrew (other than my wife), rabbits, chipmunks, skunks, and the deer that actually ate ivy. Forget tulips. They don’t seem to bother the daffodils or snowdrops and I am somewhat surprised they leave the iris reticulata alone.————————————–Weedy

  12. I too have come back to tulips. In spite of a herd that hangs out in our wooded lot and chomps at will, I love the perky presence of tulips, especially the fragrant varieties. Keeping them hot and dry throughout the summer after the foliage dies down goes a long way in increasing their longevity.

  13. I have been so disappointed this spring to see virtually no tulips flowering in home or commercial landscapes. And I have been looking. There is still time in this pleasantly cool spring for the Darwins to come into their glory. I am ever hopeful in this deer ravaged part of northeast Ohio to see a cheery display. While there is much to merit daffodils, they are best enjoyed on a stroll, not a driveby, so that unique varieties can be observed. No matter how many tulips might be planted in a display, rarely will be heard the criticism that they all look the same.

    I think that pots overwintered in the garage are in my future.

  14. I put tulips in pots every year. Last year they didn’t go into the soil ’till Jan.21, so I feared I wouldn’t have anything. Surprisingly, the White Emperor has started blooming right on time and they’re as good as ever but a tad smaller for the shortness of time spent in soil.
    I can’t live without the color and beauty of the bulbs; this is my treat to myself and anyone who enjoys looking at them.

    You may be able to view my photo here:[email protected]/

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