How to Plant and Care for Spring-Blooming Tulips
Tulips are beautiful, cup-shaped flowers that come in a wide variety of colors and bloom in mid to late spring. They need a period of cold, so bulbs are planted in fall after the first cold snap. Tulips grow well in USDA zones 3–8 and in most of the UK.
Originating in Turkey, tulips were cultivated there by 1000 CE (AD). Introduced to Europe in the 17th century, they quickly caught on as a novelty plant in royal gardens. By the 1630s, tulips became so popular in the Netherlands that they appeared in designs on ceramic pieces, carved into furniture, on fabrics, and can be seen in Old Dutch Master still life paintings. Many of the tulips in old oil paintings are broken tulips, a type that led to a craze called Tulipmania. As Tulipmania grew, the bulbs were heavily traded and became a hot commodity. Speculators sold the bulbs by weight. Frenzied traders caused dramatic price increases until an over-supply caused markets to crash. Investors were ruined, lost all they had, and were thrown into debt.
The most desirable tulips were broken, which means that plain-colored blooms appeared with a white, creamy, or pale yellow feathered pattern. What the Dutch traders of 1636–1637 did not know was that the interesting pattern was created by a virus called tulip breaking virus or TBV. (You can see an example of broken tulips in an Old Dutch Master painting below.) Later called Rembrandt tulips, these TBV-affected bulbs were taken off the market. Today, real Rembrandt tulips can only be seen in historic collections. Some Rembrandt-style tulips, which are stable cultivars, are available for the retail market.
Tips on Purchasing Tulips
Purchase tulips bulbs from a reputable catalog or garden center. Tulips bought in a pot at Easter may not bloom the next year after planting in the garden. They have been forced for the holiday market by the manipulation of environmental conditions in a greenhouse.
Some large public gardens lift their tulips bulbs in late spring. The clean, dry bulbs are often sold. Bulbs lifted from Baltimore's Sherwood Gardens are cleaned up and sold at Cylburn's Plant Sale in May. Bulbs such as these can be stored or planted in the garden.
How to Plant Tulips
Public gardens often feature tulips in large beds with geometric designs, or in wide drifts. Though attractive, the space needed for such a display is not often available to the home gardener.
If you want to plant tulips, they look lovely planted in groups with an uneven number. Several groups can be planted. Some gardeners plant several groups of all one color. Planting several shades of one color works well too. Tulips look beautiful when mixed with grape hyacinths or common hyacinths. Blue, purple, or violet hyacinths mix well with almost any color of tulips. Mix in white for a bright, clean look; with pink for a soothing look; or with red and white if you are feeling patriotic.
Plant tulip bulbs in a rich, well-drained soil in fall after a heavy frost. Add a tablespoon of bone meal beneath each bulb at the bottom of an 8–10 inches deep hole. Some experts suggest planting in a more shallow hole, but deeper is best in many areas. Plant with the pointy side of the bulb facing up.
If the soil is clay heavy, dig the hole a bit larger and mix in sand. Tulip bulbs will rot in heavy, wet soil. Plant in full sun. Planting under a deciduous tree works well. By the time the tree is in full leaf, the tulip leaves have yellowed.
How to Avoid Rodent Problems
Many people notice that sometimes last year's tulip display does not return in force the following year. While the bulbs are not expensive, the loss of some favorite, well-placed flowers can be frustrating.
Small rodents tunnel through the soil to feast on tulip bulbs. Mice, voles, and gophers gobble up the bulbs in winter when the pickings are slim. No problem with the narcissus group, however, which includes daffodils. They are poisonous.
Try these tips to protect your tulip bulbs from hungry rodents:
- Surround tulip bulbs with narcissus bulbs.
- When planting tulip bulbs, add crushed oyster shells.
- Plant bulbs 10 inches deep, too deep for voles.
- Do not plant tulips near a bird feeder. The fallen seeds attract rodents to the area.
Should You Lift Tulips or Leave Them in the Ground?
Experts at many public gardens lift tulip bulbs after the foliage has died back. This is done to ensure a regular pattern of blooms in next year's beds. The home gardener may lift bulbs in areas with mild winters or with wet soil in summer.
If you want to lift tulip bulbs, do so when the foliage has turned yellow. If you wait until the leaves disappear, you may be unable to locate the bulbs. After lifting, brush off loose soil and hang in a mesh bag in a cool, dry place.
Which Tulips Should Be Lifted and Stored, and Which Should Be Left in the Ground?
Left in Ground
Best Lifted and Stored
Some Popular Tulip Groups
Choose tulips from different groups to create a long-lasting blooming period. You can see that some groups feature plants that are taller than others. Plant taller tulips behind tulips from a shorter group in case flowering periods overlap.
Single Early Tulips—The large, single blooms are lightly fragrant. Plants grow 10–18 inches tall. Many blooms of this group are multi-colored. Though called early, these are not always the first to bloom. Some types are quite old. Keizerskroon, at 14" tall, was introduced in 1750!
Double Early Tulips—Introduced in 1860, double early tulips feature large, peony-like blooms quite different from the typical tulip. Flowers appear in early spring on 8–12 inch stems. The long-lasting blooms are beautiful in arrangements. "Murillo" dates from 1860.
Triumph–A mid-spring blooming group. One of the largest of groups, Triumph looks similar to spring early but is taller at 14–20 inches.
Viridiflora—This variety has green markings that rise up from the base of the petal on this mid- to late-spring blooming group. Viridiflora grows approximately 20 inches tall.
Darwin Hybrid Group—This large group features elegant oval blooms on tall 24 –28 inch stems. Bulbs of this new group introduced in 1981 are best lifted and stored after foliage die back. This group is popular in large beds.
Lily Flowered—The tapered, pointed blooms resemble lilies and are quite striking. Blooming in mid- to late-spring, the flowers appear on 10–21 inch stems.
Fringed Group—These unusual tulips feature petals with delicately fringed edges. Flowers emerge in mid- to late-spring on 22-inch stems.
The Plant Lover's Guide to Tulips by Richard Wilford;Timber Press, London Uk; 2015
The Complete Book of Practical Gardening by Peter McHoy; Hermes House; New York, NY; 1997
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2015 Dolores Monet