Section: LIFE & LEISURE,  Page: G1

Date: Sunday, May 5, 2002

Visitors to the 54th annual Tulip Festival in Albany's Washington Park next weekend will reap the visual pleasure of more than two months of planting last fall. Workers planted 200,001 (or so) flowering bulbs, according to Judy Stacey, the city gardener. Stacey and her crew have been extra busy this year working with the Washington Park Conservancy to restore the flower beds to their original 19th-century dimensions. The sizes are based on a study commissioned by the conservancy.

``We've eliminated some of the extra beds that have crept in over the years,'' Stacey says. They also introduced new tulip varieties this year, plus grape hyacinths and five kinds of daffodils.

Other spring-blooming flowers for the event, which begins Friday and runs through Sunday, May 12, include regular hyacinths, for fragrance, and woodland species Spanish and English bluebells, snowdrops and lilies of the valley.

All of the blacktop has been dug up on the long walkway in the park between Henry Johnson Boulevard and Madison Avenue and the path was widened to its original dimensions. The new gravel surface is historically correct as well as bicycle- and wheelchair-friendly. Elm trees line the walkway.

In addition to other new lighting, the statue of Moses will be lighted again.

Stacey also restored the shrub borders that once enclosed Washington Park. City forester Tom Pfeiffer planted a lilac hedge with 42 new bushes in various colors. The rhododendron beds by the lakehouse are new.

``The shrubs have spaces in between, which will address security concerns,'' Stacey says. ``They were never designed to be grown as a hedge, but rather to divide the city from the park.'' She says the former hedge had grown out of control.

Planting hints

If you want to re-create the look of massed tulip beds at home, fall is the time to plant. Keep these tips from Stacey in mind:

Plant in large quantities. She recommends clumps of approximately 100, or between five and seven per square foot, depending on how much space you have.

``One tulip may be nice to look at or to draw,'' says Stacey. ``But the best thing about tulips is the `poke-in-the-eye' color.''

Don't worry about matching colors because all tulip colors go together, she says.

``There are groupings in blocks of the same color,'' says Stacey. ``But if you see a lot of the same color and one or two of a different color in the bunch, blame the squirrels. They are always digging them up and then reburying them somewhere else.''

Because squirrels and deer consider tulip bulbs gourmet fare, Stacey suggests interplanting with something the animals don't like. Daffodils work well, as do fritilleria, also called Crown Imperials. Their slightly skunky odor helps deter four-legged diners.

Most tulip varieties bloom for 10 to 14 days. Single, earlier tulip bulbs, such as Red Riding Hood or Jean's, may stick around for a month. Heat like we had in April will shorten the bloom time of the tall and showy mid- to late-season Darwin hybrids.

``Watch to see which colors last the longest in your garden,'' says Stacey. ``We have found with our plantings that yellows and reds seem to pass by the fastest and that pinks and purples seem to stay around longest.''

Stacey suggests treating most tulip bulbs as annuals. ``We plant tulips all over again each fall,'' she said. ``The nutrients in the mother, or central, bulb are exhausted and baby bulbs form, but they require about seven years to mature. If the bulb sends up a flower the second year, the stem will be shorter and the flower will be smaller.''

Some varieties, such as Darwin hybrids, yield up to three good years of bloom. Their longevity depends on having the right soil and getting a feeding of bone meal at the end of the season.

``At the cost of tulips, it's best to buy new,'' Stacey stresses.

She says trying to save the plants from drought or cold can actually harm them. Throwing on unnecessary mulches or other covers can bruise tulip plants.

Color patterns

Fickle spring weather has often cursed the Tulip Fest, so the beds are designed to bloom at different times, Stacey says.

The Washington Park tulip beds were planted to produce different color patterns, including five reds and four whites. One bed features only Parrot tulips and another, the Quebec/New York State Friendship Garden, boasts a blue-and-white mix.

Stacey created name tags for each bed so visitors can identify the 132 different varieties of tulips.

And for those looking to buy real Tulip Fest bulbs in late spring, they won't be available. The Washington Park Conservancy formerly sold year-old bulbs dug up from the park, but the group no longer has the space to store them before the sale.

Stacey notes that dogs have already destroyed 3,000 flowers by rolling in or running through the beds. She asks that park visitors keep dogs on a leash near the statue of Moses and that owners use the plastic bags located on the park lights to clean up after their dogs so others can safely tip-toe around the tulips.