Planting Tulips

Few flowers herald spring quite like tulips do. Follow these steps to create a stunning display in your yard or garden.

Fertilizing Bulbs

Fertilizing Bulbs

After you plant your bulbs in the fall, top dress them with a balanced 10-10-10 or 10-15-10 slow-release fertilizer or a product formulated especially for bulbs. Feed again in the spring, as soon as new growth emerges from the ground. Mix the fertilizer into the soil to avoid burning the bulbs.

Photo by: National Garden Bureau

National Garden Bureau

Materials Needed

  • high-quality tulip bulbs
  • trowel or bulb-planting tool
  • shovel
  • bulb fertilizer
  • mulch

Step 1: Decide What to Plant

Start with high-quality bulbs, which can come from a mail-order supplier or from a well-stocked garden center. The Netherlands tightly regulates its tulip growers, and as a consequence all Dutch tulips are of good quality. If you're shopping at a garden center, shop early in the season and choose only bulbs that are firm and free of defects such as cuts, bruises or mold. Later in the season, be wary of store-bought bulbs or ones offered at significant discount. We also recommend you buy tulips by variety or species name, not color. "Red tulips," for instance, can mean different kinds of varying performance, or you may get a mixture of colors.

If you live where winters rarely or never reach freezing temperatures, tulips likely won't grow all that well; however, you can still grow tulips if you chill them for 6 to 8 weeks before planting. The best choices are Darwin Hybrids or Single Late varieties. The long, strong stems of these tulips are more tolerant of wind and rain, and their midseason blooms appear before hot weather or spring weather. You might also consider some of the species tulips that are better suited to milder climates. These include lady or candy tulip (Tulipa clusiana), with rosy red petals that are white inside; Candia tulip (T. saxatilis), with vivid rose-lilac petals and a yellow base; and yellow Florentine (T. sylvestris). These are smaller and less dramatic than hybrid tulips but are still full of tulip character.

Step 2: Consider Companion Planting

Some annuals to plant with tulips include 'Carmine King' forget-me-not with 'Angelique' tulip; any blue pansy with 'White Triumphator'; or 'Mrs. John T. Scheepers' (yellow) with Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amabile). Another idea is to combine tulips with perennials to maximize the impact of both; for instance, combine 'Beauty of Apeldoorn' tulip with basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis), or combine any tulip with white candytuft (Iberis sempervirens). Combinations of tulips to try include 'Golden Apeldoorn' (yellow) with 'Apeldoorn' (red); 'Boccherini' (maroon) with 'Hibernia' (white); or 'Esther' (pink) with 'Shirley' (white with purple).

Step 3: When to Plant Tulips

Plant tulips any time the soil 6 inches deep is 60° F or colder. As a general guide, plant in September or early October in USDA Climate Hardiness Zones 4 and 5; October to early November in zones 6 and 7; November to early December in zones 8 and 9; and late December to early January in zone 10. In zones 8 through 10, refrigerate tulip bulbs for 6 to 8 weeks before planting. Place them in a paper bag away from ripening fruits (the fruits produce ethylene gas, which destroys the flower bud within the bulb).

Step 4: How to Plant Tulips

Tulips grow best in full sun in well-prepared soil with fast drainage. Avoid planting where water collects or in locations that are prone to late frosts. The rule is to plant tulips pointed end up and 6 inches deep, meaning 4 inches of soil above the top of the bulb. Plant a little deeper, to 8 inches, if soil is light or sandy, or if pests such as voles are a problem (those 2 extra inches put bulbs just out of reach of voles). Deep planting also keeps the bulbs cooler, an advantage in mild-winter areas. For an attractive flower display, plant five tulips per square foot, or 250 bulbs per 50 square feet. Space individual bulbs about 5 inches apart. Use a low-nitrogen granular fertilizer specially formulated for bulbs, and follow label directions about the amount to apply. When planting a grouping, take the extra care to plant at exactly the same depth; this ensures that they all will bloom at the same time. With a shovel, excavate soil to create a level planting base. Set bulbs into the bed, fertilize, then cover with excavated soil.

Step 5: Aftercare

After planting, firm soil and water thoroughly. Don't water again until leaves appear. In cold-winter areas (zones 3 through 6), apply straw mulch about a month after planting. This gives the bulbs time to begin growth before the soil freezes solidly. The mulch also protects the bulbs if snow cover is light or nonexistent. In mild-winter areas, mulch after planting to help keep soil as cool as possible for as long as possible.

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