Claire Curran

Planting tulips in this garden is nothing short of a party

Sharon Cohoon and Jim McCausland,  – October 11, 2005

Helen Crawford must have taken lessons from Tom Sawyer. No, she didn’t talk her friends into painting her fence, as Tom did, by convincing them she was doing them a favor. Instead, for years she has invited relatives, neighbors, and friends to plant her tulips for her, and every year they come, willingly. Unlike Tom – who only managed this trick once – Crawford has pulled this off for three decades.

Each November, Crawford and her crew plant at least 2,400 tulip bulbs in a 55- by 10-foot bed in front of her house in Covina, California. The planting date is always the same – the Friday after Thanksgiving (in this warm Southern climate, bulbs do not winter over). Her guests clear their calendars months in advance and often travel great distances to join the fun. (The Crawfords’ son, Mark, and his wife only have to drive from Pasadena, but their daughter, Tracy, and her family fly in from Washington State.)

Doris and Paul Meyer just walk across the street. They sauntered over out of curiosity in 1973, during Crawford’s third planting party, and ended up pitching in. They have been back every year since, accompanied by their sons, Greg and Matthew, and daughter, Paula. “Through babies, college, marriage, travel – no matter how widely (our family is) scattered – we have a bond with that November Friday,” Doris says. “We don’t miss it.”

What’s the draw? “I think people today miss traditions,” says Doris. “Many of the old rituals of our ancestors have lost their meaning, and we haven’t replaced them. It’s up to us to invent new ones, as Helen has.”

Happy memories of previous planting parties also keep people coming. “I remember how Matthew’s chest swelled with pride when he shoveled dirt with the men for the first time,” says Crawford. It was a rite of passage.Potted tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils extend the color show right up to the front door (note the stained-glass tulips). Containers are planted four to five weeks later than the rest of the tulips for simultaneous bloom.

“The party has made us an extended family,” says Crawford. “Maybe the bulbs are just an excuse to get together.”

In most parts of the West, November is not too late to buy bulbs. Whether you copy Crawford’s party idea and gather a group together or plant on your own, you can adapt her techniques.

Planting a tradition
Here’s how Crawford plans this annual planting party.

Crawford orders tulip bulbs from a mail-order bulb company (she prefers Dutch Gardens, in New Jersey; 800/818-3861). By ordering early, she ensures she’ll get the bulbs she wants in the quantities she needs. She orders the full range of colors and some of every type (singles, doubles, fringed, parrot, and so on). To extend the color show, she also requests some early- and late-blooming varieties. Until the day of the party, she chills the bulbs in the refrigerator. (In mild climates, tulips need a minimum of six weeks’ chill before planting. Place them in a paper bag in the crisper section of your refrigerator; keep bulbs away from apples.)

A few days before the party, Crawford contracts with a manual laborer to help her double-dig half of her tulip bed. She divides the plot into six sections, then has the worker shovel out 8 inches of soil from every other section, piling the excavated dirt atop the remaining three. A generous amount of compost, usually homemade, is shoveled into each of the dug-out sections and worked into the next 8 inches of soil, along with a handful of bulb food. This preparatory step means guests can begin planting immediately the day of the party.

Once everyone arrives, Crawford distributes bulbs and a few suggestions. “Plant at least 25 of each variety in a group or else the color won’t read,” she says. She also tells them to plant closely but not too orderly–“This isn’t school; you don’t have to stay in rows.” And leave an exit route: “Start in the center and work to a corner so you can get out without tromping on bulbs.”

After the first three sections of the bed are planted, the soil excavated from them is replaced. The men and older boys usually volunteer for this job.

Helpers dig out 8 inches of soil from the remaining three sections, piling it atop the soil covering the three planted sections. They add compost and bulb food to each newly dug-out section, plant the bulbs, and cover them with the excavated soil. Then the soil over the whole bed is gently evened out with rakes.

Dispensing rewards is the final step. Appreciation of the ritual may be the main reason guests return to West Palm Drive every year, but the promise of homemade cookies and good English tea afterward doesn’t hurt.