Growing Concerns 196: Ruined tulips and dividing bleeding hearts

Truck ruins tulip show

I planted tulips last fall but the bed was run over by a truck. The tulips were all torn up and thrown out of the bed. Can I buy new tulips to replace them or am I stuck now? - M. A. -

Tulips don't flower unless they have 10-12 weeks in fall and late winter to grow roots before they emerge, so bulb companies don't sell the bulbs in spring. Wait until fall to plant new tulips. Potted, forced tulips from a garden center are advanced beyond outdoor conditions. They have an extra five or six inches in height over garden-growing tulips so they are far enough above the ground that they may be out of range of the earth's radiant heat. The forced bulb's flowers or buds are more likely to freeze and die during a frosty night.

(If you're really set on tulips now and don't mind that this year they will bloom earlier than they should, you can buy and plant forced bulbs. Do two things to make this work. First, plant the bulbs deep -- burying a good bit of the stem and leaf in order the set the bulbs at least 7-8 inches into the ground. That's because forced bulbs are potted very shallow whereas garden bulbs must be deep to perennialize. Second, keep old sheets or floating row cover around to throw over the forced bulbs if temperatures at night will dip below 28F.)

            To replace the lost color when a tulip show is ruined, buy some cool weather annuals, such as pansies, primula, or calendula. Most garden centers have some for sale now, and may already have them hardened off -- ask about this when you buy.

Harden off what you buy in early spring

Greenhouse-grown plants need to be acclimated gradually to the outdoors. We "harden them off" by putting them outside for three or four successive days and bringing them in to a cool, frost-protected place each night. After the third night, the plants' cells are ready to handle nighttime cold.

Truck ruins soil, too

There is probably something more important than replacement plants to consider, and that's soil repair where truck tires compressed the bed. There may be considerable damage to the soil structure --how crumbs of soil and air spaces are aligned. This is especially likely if the accident happened while the soil was wet and cold. It's likely that air spaces have been eliminated and soil crumbs pulverized, so roots won't be able to grow there. New bulbs or plants may wither and rot.

            Use a garden fork to pop up the soil in the tire ruts, then add a layer of peat or compost and loosen again with the fork so air-filled organic matter falls into the spaces made by the fork's tines. Don't rototill, and don't simply add soil in the tread marks to bring them up to the old bed level. A tiller makes crushed soil structure worse, and adding soil creates soggy, root-rotting mud puddles above an impervious base. Core aeration, or forking, then top dressing and overseeding is the best way to fix tire marks on a lawn, too.

Afraid to divide bleeding heart?

I have a beautiful bleeding heart plant that has apparently been growing for several years in a flower bed against our Florida room. It loves where it is and seems to get bigger every year. I want to divide it and move both parts to an island area we created under a mature tree. I figure it will get the same amount of light there as it has been getting where it is now.

I've read about this and have seen a demonstration on how to divide, but the closer it gets to doing it, the more nervous I am because I don't want to kill it. It is already starting to push through the soil. When should I divide it, how, and what care should I take in transferring it to its new spot? - D.C. -

You've read about it and seen it done but you want to hear it all again? You need to get out there and just do it!

Plants are a lot tougher than we think. This is why we wanted to name our garden maintenance book “You Don't Know the Plant Until You've Killed it.” (The publisher had final say. though, so it goes by the title Caring for Perennials.)

Okay, scaredy-cat, here goes. Dig a big root ball now while the plant is only just emerging. Rinse or crumble the soil away from the crown so that you can see clearly, then slice straight down between sections that each have several stem buds.

Still chicken? It's easier to practice on something that has no sentimental price tag. So go buy a new bleeding heart from a garden center, de-pot it, rinse the soil off of it, split it into tiny sections -- each will have one bud rather than five or six -- and plant them in that new bed. You can even wait a year and see how your test plants do before taking a spade to the older plant. It's often much simpler to get small plants started under mature trees, anyway.