If you’re a new gardener, learning how to plant tulip bulbs is fairly easy, and will bring you a lot of satisfaction when your tulips bloom next spring. Tulips are among a group of bulbs called “spring flowering” bulbs. Spring is a term used loosely by the gardening industry; spring means anytime between January and May, depending on where you live.
Tulips should be treated like annuals, which means they bloom for one year, die back and may or may not come back for a second year in a row. While most people do achieve a second blooming year out of their tulip bulbs, over the years the flowers will be less frequent or smaller. This is because the tulip puts energy into making more tulips, rather than into flowering. If you were to dig up a tulip bulb in year 3 or beyond, you may see a lot of little bulblets, sort of like cloves of garlic, on the parent bulb. These can be split off and grown into mature tulips but it takes a lot of time. I much prefer going back to the garden center in the fall and buying more!
Tulips are grouped into several types. It’s important to know which type you’d like to grow, since not everyone’s idea of a tulip is the same.
Darwin Hybrid tulips in my garden.
Cottage tulips: Cottage tulips are the traditional, classic late-blooming tulip that most people think of when they hear the word. They have a single, strong stem and a big egg-shaped flower. Most bloom later in the spring, in mid to late May.
Darwin hybrids: Darwins are among my personal favorites. These are similar to the cottage tulips but may even grow taller and larger. They are also late-blooming flowers. “Pink Impression” is one of the most famous of the Darwin hybrids.
Parrots: Parrot tulips have fringed, multi-petaled flowers. They are outstanding and showy, but the flower heads can be so heavy they actually pull the entire flower over.
Rembrandt: The Rembrandt tulips offer striped, splashed flowers. They’re named after the Dutch painter because he included these flowers in many of his paintings. The first Rembrandt tulips occurred when a virus attacked the tulip crop in Holland in the late 17th century. Today, most are hybrids, grown for their flowers (and virus free, thank goodness.)
Species: Species tulips look more like their wild cousins growing in the hills of Turkey and Asia than others. They have smaller, compact flowers, and bloom in early spring, sometimes as early as March. They are also the best tulips for naturalizing; many will return year after year.
Lily-flowered: Long, thin petals like a lily.
Rembrandt tulips in my garden.
Buying Spring Flowering Bulbs
When purchasing spring-flowering bulbs, buy the largest bulbs you can find. The bigger the bulb, the bigger the flower.
Don’t worry about the brown onion-skin like stuff floating around in the bottom of the bag. The brown skin is called the tunic and it covers the flower bulb just like an onion bulb is covered. If it falls off, there’s nothing to worry about. The bulb will do just fine without it. You can certainly plant bulbs with their tunics on, too.
I’d avoid bulbs that have started to sprout in the bag unless I get a really good discount on them. Once bulbs sprout, they’re using some of their energy for growth. They can certainly grow once they’re planted, but I don’t want to waste money on a bulb that’s already invested some of its vigor before it’s even in my garden. If your bulbs sprout once you get them home, go ahead and plant them, but I wouldn’t buy them at full price.
Buy spring flowering bulbs in the fall. If you buy them early in September, when they’re first available, you may need to keep them in the fridge or basement, or another cool spot in the house, until you are ready to plant them.
Planting Tulip Bulbs
The instructions on the back of the bulb package are important. There should be a chart which tells you exactly how deeply the bulb should be planted. Follow the chart. Bulbs planted too deep struggle to grow. Plant them too close to the surface, and you’ve either rung the dinner bell for every critter known to mankind or exposed the bulb to the vicissitudes of temperature. While you don’t have to be anal about it and measure the planting hole with a ruler, try to be as accurate as possible.
There’s a special tool called a bulb planter that makes measuring the holes for planting spring bulbs a lot easier. It is a hollow tube with a handle. Most have inch and centimeter markings etched onto the tube. You place the end of the tube on the ground and twist the handle to dig up the dirt. The dirt goes into the tube, and you can use the measurements on the side to assess how deeply you’ve dug the hole. Simply tap the tube on the ground next to the hole to knock out the dirt.
Plant bulbs with the pointy side facing up, like a chocolate kiss. You do not need to add special fertilizer, compost or amendments, although a teaspoon of bone meal does provide nutrients and sometimes deters animals from digging up the bulbs. Push the soil back into the hole to cover the bulb and tamp it down gently with your hands. No need to water after you’ve planted the bulb. Do, however, put a marker of some type near the hole so you know where you’ve planted your spring bulbs. Nothing is more disheartening in the spring than going outside to plant pansies and accidentally digging up a newly emerging spring bulb.
Keeping Animals Away from Bulbs
Tulips are NOT deer-resistant. If you want deer-resistant flowers, plant daffodils or plastic tulips. Deer find daffodils anyway, but after a few bites, typically leave them alone. Not so with tulips, unfortunately. Like many flowers, it’s “deer candy” and if they find them, they’ll eat them.
I usually plant tulips near the house. That discourages most deer and other creatures from approaching. The deer won’t come near the house, and squirrels, rabbits and rodents must face an army of three cats guarding my garden. Most won’t be brave or stupid enough to try to outwit the cats.
There are several other measures you can take to keep squirrels and rodents from digging up tulip bulbs. Ropel is an excellent product. It is a spray or dip used on the bulb before planting. It makes the bulb taste really bad to the animals, so even if they get hold of it, they will take one bite and never come back. It’s non toxic but wear gloves when you use it and follow the product directions carefully. If you get it on your hands and accidentally touch your mouth, you’ll be tasting Ropel for days.
Milorganite is a product my neighbor and friend Patty swears by. I have not tried it yet so can’t vouch for it but she claims it keeps the deer away and fertilizes her garden. It’s made from sewer treatment plants, which sounds yucky, but I’m sure they wouldn’t bag it and sell it if it wasn’t safe to use! Apparently the smell, which is only detectable to animals, keeps them away. It breaks down into useful nutrients for the garden.
What about home remedies? I’ve heard people say that putting hot pepper flakes into the planting hole with the bulbs keeps rodents away. Some sprinkle human hair from their hair brushes near bulbs, thinking the scent of people will keep the deer at bay. Others use strongly scented soaps, like Irish Spring, shaved up and placed in the garden. I can’t vouch for any of these remedies as I haven’t used them, but you may want to research organic methods of keeping animals out of bulbs to see which one works.
As for me, I just plant them and leave it to nature. Yes, I lose a few, but not many. Mostly squirrels get a few but now that I have the outdoor cats, I don’t have a problem anymore. Go figure, right?
I hope this helps you plan and plant your spring bulbs. Tulips may only last a few days or a week or two, depending on the springtime weather, but they bring me such joy that I have to plant at least a few every year. I hope they bring you joy, too!
Jeanne Grunert is an award-winning writer and content marketing expert. She lives and works at Seven Oaks Farm, her small hobby farm in Virginia, alongside her husband, John, German shepherd dog Zeke, and seven cats.