The Right Time for Tulips

Want beautiful flowers in the spring? Plant bulbs in the fall! HGTV Magazine is telling the truth about tulips.
By: Linda Vater
Related To:
Tulips and Pansies

Tulips and Pansies

A garden bed filled with colorful tulips and pansies in Elizabeth Locke's Virginia garden.

They’re one of the easiest flowers to grow, but like many plants that bloom from bulbs, tulips require some preplanning. Although they bloom in the spring, the bulbs have to be planted in the fall when the soil has cooled to around 55 degrees (after about two weeks of sweater weather). So as you make your back-to-school shopping list, remember the tulip bulbs. Come May, you’ll be happy you did!

Get the Best Bulbs

Big, vibrant tulips come from healthy bulbs. Look for ones that are large, firm and unbruised, and plant them as soon as possible after you buy them. Good-quality bulbs should cost $25 to $55 for 100. For deals, buy in bulk or order from a catalog such as Van Engelen (, Color Blends ( or John Scheepers ( Most offer a huge variety of tulips, and prices are typically a few dollars cheaper than garden centers. Just make sure to order early, since popular varieties can sell out. The bulbs won’t be shipped to you until it’s planting time in your area.

Choose the Right Amount

Tulips look best when planted en masse instead of as single bulbs scattered throughout your yard. For an unfailingly lush flower bed, aim for five to 10 bulbs per square foot. Want them to look even fuller? Dig one giant hole and plant multiple bulbs in it at once. Set them about four inches apart, cover them with soil and water.

Know Where and How to Plant

If you live in a warm climate, store bulbs in a paper bag in the fridge for six weeks before planting. That way they’re chilled, which is key for root development. Once the weather is cool enough (that can mean as late as Thanksgiving in many areas of the country), pick a spot with loose, easy-to-dig soil that, in the springtime, gets about six hours of sun a day. Make a hole for each bulb roughly two to three times its height. Space the holes four or so inches apart. Place the pointy end of each bulb up, then refill the holes with soil. Water well after planting and when buds first appear, then water again only during very dry spells, since tulips don’t do well with excessive moisture.

Keep Out Critters

Deer, squirrels, rabbits, voles and gophers all like to nibble on tulip bulbs. To protect yours, put bulbs inside a metal mesh cage ($25 for a cage that holds up to 24 bulbs, when planting them in the ground. The tulips’ roots and stems will be able to grow through the mesh, but critters won’t be able to get to them. Another option: Before planting, line the bottom of each hole with a layer of sharp gravel — critters that burrow don’t like the rough texture.

Encourage Repeat Blooms

Although tulips are perennials, many gardeners treat them as annuals and plant new bulbs each year so they always look lush. But if you want your tulips to come back every spring, follow these tips: Plant the bulbs about eight inches deep (note that they’ll bloom a little later). When their green tips emerge in the spring, sprinkle them with bulb fertilizer. Water sparingly, and once the flowers are done blooming, snap off the top inch of each stem. Then let the foliage turn brown and die naturally — it will provide food for next year’s growth.

Pair Them With:

Pansies, Peonies, Phlox or Grape Hyacinths

All these flowers look great with tulips’ tall stems and goblet-shaped blooms. Plant them in the spring before your tulips are fully grown, and they’ll help hide bare spots in your flower beds.

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