Every garden needs a place for hardy spring bulbs, such as tulips. They emerge during the drab, gray days of early spring to brighten the garden when little else is green. Properly planted, tulips provide a bright spot of color in the garden for several years, although they eventually lose steam and should be replanted. Since they remain in the ground for several years, take extra care during planting to give them a strong start.
Shop for tulip bulbs in early fall for the best selection at local nurseries and garden centers. Select tulip bulbs that are adapted to your climate and choose bulbs that are large and heavy for their size. The bulbs should have a papery, dry skin. Avoid bulbs that are lightweight or have soft spots on them, which indicate decay.
Look through any bulb catalog and you’ll find hundreds of tulips, but they can all be classified into one of four groups. Early-flowering tulips, such as ‘General de Wet,’ bloom shortly after crocuses in late winter. They usually have single flowers that stand on tall stems. Midseason tulips, such as ‘Mendel’ and ‘Triumph’ grow 26 to 30 inches high and come in many colors. The blooms are long-lasting and withstand late winter storms. Late-flowering varieties include several more showy varieties, such as the “Darwin” tulips that have egg-shaped blooms, “Lily flowered” tulips with vase-shaped blooms, and the spectacular “Parrot” tulips that have blooms with ruffled or fringed blossoms. One final category of tulips is species tulips, which are actually hybrids of several species. Most species tulips are short-stemmed, such as T.greiggi and T. fosterana. These tulips vary in their bloom time, but are usually longer lived than other types of tulips.
When choosing tulips, plant the ones best adapted to your region, as well as gardening situation. Short-stemmed tulips work well at the front of a perennial border, while long-stemmed tulips are more suitable in a mixed bed of perennials. Tulips need cold weather each winter to bloom properly, so plant them as annuals in warm climates.
Choosing a Site for Planting Tulips
Plant tulips in an area where they will receive some spring sun for best growth and flowering. They’ll bloom before deciduous trees produce leaves, so planting them under trees usually works well. For best effect, plant them in a group planting, massed together in perennial beds or at the front of borders. Deer love tulips, so plant them behind a fence if you have deer, or consider daffodils instead, which deer usually avoid.
Preparing the Soil for Tulip Planting
Tulips need well-drained soil to grow properly and will rot in heavy, clay soils. Amend your soil with compost or manure to a depth of 12 inches before planting to improve texture and drainage. Consider using raised beds if your soil is very heavy or wet.
Dig a hole for each tulip 6 to 8 inches deep and add 1 tbsp. superphosphate or bulb food to the soil in the bottom of the hole. Tulips need phosphate for strong root formation.
Plant tulips from early fall to a few weeks before the first frost. Plant them early enough that they develop some roots before the first freeze, but not so early that they rot or come out of dormancy. Set them in the hole with the pointed nose facing up and cover them lightly with soil. Space tulips 6 inches apart for an abundant display.
Mulch the soil with 2 to 3 inches of wood chip mulch, which conserves moisture and regulates the soil temperature.
Water the tulips immediately after planting to encourage early root formation, and periodically through the winter during dry weather. Water on dry, sunny days when the temperature is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fertilize tulips when they first emerge in the spring with a sprinkling of bulb fertilizer, but do not fertilize them after flowers appear which can reduce blooming and encourage rot.
Tulips almost always bloom prolifically the first year, but will dwindle in the following years. Plan to renovate the entire bed every five years or so, depending on growing conditions and the tulip variety.