Hail to the Orange (Tulips)

By Layne Knoche, RORG Landscape Designer

As an Illinois native plant fanatic, I typically stick with native plant species to make up most of my planting design palette. However, every once in a while, an opportunity arises where I simply can’t ignore the fact that a design may benefit from a non-native, non-invasive species. ‘Rozanne’ Geranium – a species that is STILL in full bloom as we approach November – is one such example at the Red Oak Rain Garden. This coming spring, you’ll certainly notice the next one.

With RORG being located in a highly visible location on the University of Illinois campus, I’ve been looking for ways to introduce some subtle oranges and blues (our school colors) into the garden. I’m an Illinois alum and huge Illini fan with a LOT of school spirit left in me. So, when I realized the aesthetic value and pollinator benefit of of adding in a blue-blooming species like Virginia Bluebells Mertensia virginica, I couldn’t resist the temptation to include orange tulips into that spring-blooming mix. Spoiler alert – all concepts of subtle hints of orange and blue went out the window.


With funds raised by our amazing supporters so far, we were able to install an exciting display of 1,000 ‘Prinses Irene’ Tulips. In mid-October, I worked with East Central Illinois Master Naturalists Karen Folk and Linda Bailey on the installation. The tulips were planted in large drifts (several hundred each) underneath the Red Oak and Sycamore trees, as well as another large swath of them across the sunny bank of the garden. Most of these drifts were installed alongside mass plantings of Virginia Bluebells, which, come spring, will provide a wonderful display of orange and blue blooms just before graduation. Additional spring ephemerals will provide interest in other areas of the garden at a time of year when not much else has woken up from the winter months.

The bulbs were installed into the existing groundcover layer of sedges and other low-growing species at RORG. Each bulb was planted in a hole about 6 inches deep, about 8” apart from each other. To dig the holes, I used the same equipment I used for the other 10,000 plants at the garden – a powerful battery-powered drill and a 3” auger drill attachment. The University of Illinois Facilities & Services Grounds crew continued their wonderful support of the garden by lending us their drills.

Protection from Squirrels

If you’re familiar with campus, you know about the dense population of over-friendly squirrels. Unfortunately, I had to work with the fact that tulip bulbs are one of their favorite treats. Add in the Red Oak at the garden, which is loaded with thousands and thousands of acorns each year, and we would have an unfortunate ten-course meal for our squirrely friends. For this reason, we installed some preventative measures to ensure the safety of the tulips.

After installing the bulbs, we laid down chicken wire with one-inch mesh over the planted drifts and secured it using metal landscape staples. This should prevent squirrels from digging into the soil to reach the delectable tulip bulbs, while allowing the plants underneath to grow through (and eventually completely cover) the mesh come spring. I also decided to leave one smaller drift, which is aesthetically less important, unprotected. This way, if the squirrels are going to eat our tulips one way or another, there are some bulbs that are much easier to get to. Live bait? Basically. However, this should keep them far away from our larger, more important drifts.

With the tulip installation complete, we’re nearly finished with work at the garden for the year. There will be a few clean up days in the coming weeks once the leaves fall, but winter is coming and I’m just about ready for hibernation!

These additional plants were made possible by a Community Stewardship Grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. This grant offers a 3 to 1 match for donations. If you’d like to help support future plantings, click here to make a donation.

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