Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Bulbs
Getting Started With Tulips
by Michael MacCaskey
No other flower heralds spring like a tulip, especially after months of dreary, not to mention cold and snowy, weather. Like a river of clear, cool water on a hot summer day, my mind's eye feasts on the color and shape of tulips in early spring. If, like me, you need to see tulips bloom at winter's end, now is the time to buy bulbs and get them planted. Tulips are fun and enormously satisfying. To grow them, no expert's touch is required, and you don't need a large garden.
This article is for those of you who haven't had much experience with tulips or would appreciate a refresher. I hope it also offers a bit of inspiration. There is some basic how-to and a chart of the 14 types of tulips with some of the best varieties of each. A sense of these types and their characteristics goes a long way toward simplifying catalog and nursery shopping. And to make your planning even easier, I've listed some of the best combinations of tulips, as well as tulips to combine with annuals, perennials and other bulbs, so that you can make artful displays of complementary colors and bloom seasons.
Buying and Planting Tulips
Most tulip bulbs are 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
Start by purchasing quality bulbs from a mail-order supplier or from a well-stocked garden center. The bulb exporting business in Holland is tightly regulated, so only top-quality bulbs are shipped. For most varieties, this means bulbs that are about 1 1/2 inches in diameter or 12 centimeters in circumference. Bulbs of some species tulips are much smaller. Choose bulbs that are firm and free of defects such as cuts, bruises or white mold. Expect to pay between 30 and 70 cents per bulb, depending on the season, the variety and the dealer. Generally, the earlier you order or the more you buy, the cheaper the bulbs.
Tulips like cold winters, so they're more challenging in the mild-winter West and South. In these regions, choose varieties that are proven in warm climates, usually the mid- to late-season bloomers such as the Darwin Hybrids and most of the late tulips do well. Likewise, in Gulf Coast regions, I'm told that the Darwin Hybrids are most reliable. Reasons? Their stocky stems are fairly tolerant of wind and rain, and the midseason blooms usually appear before the worst spring weather.
When to Plant
Plant tulips anytime the soil six inches deep is 60 degrees F. or colder. In the North and Midwest, this means September or October. Wait a month, then lightly mulch the planted area. This will give the bulbs time to break dormancy and begin growth before the soil freezes. The mulch protects them if snow cover is light or nonexistent before severe cold.
In the South and West, plant tulips during November and December. In the Deep South and Southwest, wait until after Christmas, when the soil is coldest, and plant deeply--to eight inches or more. Deep planting minimizes the superficial temperature fluctuations that occur closer to the surface.
If you live in zones 8 or 9, you'll need to chill the bulbs in your refrigerator crisper for at least eight weeks before planting. In the South, for instance, you'd buy bulbs in early November and plant in early January. Place them in a vented paper bag and away from ripening fruits that produce ethylene gas, which destroys the bud within the bulb. Chilling is not necessary for gardeners who live in zones 3 to 7.