Planting Tulips

planting tulipsIt’s time for planting tulips here in Virginia! From Columbus Day through Thanksgiving, you can safely plant your tulip bulbs for spring bloom. Now, if you’ve already bought your tulips, good for you! You’re ahead of the garden game. If, however, you’ve just read this and thought, “Oh, shoot…I had no idea that if I want to tulips to bloom in the spring then I have to plant them NOW” don’t worry. Take a deep breath. There’s still plenty of time to buy and plant tulips.

The Basics of Growing Tulips

Tulips grow from bulbs. Tulip bulbs look kind of like onion, but with a pointy top. You might say they’re shaped a little like a chocolate kiss. The roots grow out of the bottom of the “kiss” shape and the leaves, stems and flowers grow out of the point tip. Remember this when you go to plant your tulip bulbs, because it does matter which way is up when you plant a tulip bulb. Plant them pointy side up.

Tulips are planted in the fall while the ground is still soft enough to dig into, but not so warm outside that they’ll sprout and begin growing in the fall. Timing when you plant tulip bulbs is tough, but generally I use the weather and the calendar as my guide. If it’s a cool year, then I think it’s safe to plant them a little earlier. If it’s been a really warm summer and fall, I wait as long as I can to plant them. The general guideline for Virginia is to plant them anytime between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. I’ve planted them as early as Columbus Day and as late as December, and the best results tended to come from planting them somewhere in the middle of that time period.

Choose a location in your garden or landscape that receives plenty of sunshine in the spring. Like most flowering bulbs, tulips need a good 6 or 8 hours of sunshine each day in order to really thrive.

I don’t like to plant them near the roots of trees. For one thing, you’ve got to dig down pretty deeply to get the proper planting depth for tulips, and digging 6 to 8 inches into the ground near a tree’s roots can be tough. Secondly, digging into the root system of a tree or shrub isn’t advisable; you may accidentally hurt the roots of the tree, cutting into the slender threadlike feeder roots near the surface. Try planting tulips in flower beds where you’ll plant your spring and summer annuals. By the time you’re ready to plant impatiens or petunias, the tulips will be finished with their blooming and growing cycle in the spring.

How to Plant Tulips

When you’re ready to plant your tulips, use a hand trowel and dig a hole about 6 to 8 inches deep. You can also use a tool called a bulb auger or planter. It looks like this:



This is the Yard Butler. It has a long handle so you don’t have to bend over or kneel as you typically do with the hand-bulb planter shown above.

To use a bulb planter, grasp it by the handle and place the tube end firmly on the soil. Twist the tube into the soil firmly as you press down.  Soil gets pulled up into the center of the tube; when you’ve dug down to the depth you want, pull up the tube and tap the side against the ground near the hole. The soil should tumble out. Place your bulb into the hole and push the soil back over it. Remember, plant tulips point side up!

Two tricks for planting tulip bulbs are:

  • Plant odd numbers of tulips for a natural look.  Plant groups of 3, 5 or 7 in a round or oval hole for a natural look.
  • Plant even numbers for a formal, structured look. Plant 4 or 8 tulips of one color in a row, alternative with another color, then repeat to keep a neat color scheme.

I don’t like the look of a single row of tulips just marching along like little soldiers in a row. To me, that looks artificial, like plastic tulips are something. Instead, I use a shovel and dig a large, round hole. I layer my bulbs inside the hole with those requiring the deepest spacing going into the hole first; then I layer more soil on top, plant another layer of bulbs, and finish with the smallest bulbs, the crocus and grape hyacinth. The result is almost always continuous blooms from early to late spring.

Once you’ve planted your tulips bulbs, push the soil over them and tap it down firmly with your hand or with your shovel. You can put a little mulch on top, but it’s not necessary to water or fertilize your bulbs.

If you’d like to add fertilizer, purchase bone meal and sprinkle about a teaspoon into each planting hole. Bulb Booster is a Dutch fertilizer that also promotes good tulip growth.

Prevent Squirrels from Eating Tulip Bulbs

One of the most frustrating things you can encounter as a gardener is critters digging up your tulip bulbs. Whether it’s a squirrel, a rat, or another animal, many rodents are indeed attracted to tulips and will nosh on the bulbs if they can get to them.

To discourage squirrels and other rodents from digging up tulips, you can take a few precautions. Some of these are considered old wives’ tales by “serious” bulb farmers, but most gardeners have a favorite trick or two up their sleeves that they swear by when it comes to keeping squirrels away from tulips.

  • Soap:  Some people recommend buying a very strongly scented soap such as Irish Spring or Coast and shaving pieces off with a knife. Drop the pieces around the soil surface. Use it sparingly or you could end up with plenty of suds during the next rainstorm. Supposedly the scent keeps the rodents away.
  • Ropel: Ropel is a product made that repels all sorts of creatures including squirrels, rats, and raccoons. It makes the bulbs taste bad but won’t harm or kill the animals. Be sure to wear rubber gloves on your hands while using Ropel. If you get it on your hands and then try to eat a meal later on, the Ropel makes your food taste very bitter! That’s actually what it does in your garden, too. Dip bulbs in Ropel or spray a liquid Ropel solution on bulbs to keep animals from eating them.
  • Milorganite: Milorganite is a granulate fertilizer made from materials gleaned from waste treatment plants. Yes, it is what it sounds like…granular you know what.  It doesn’t smell bad or look funny to people, but to animals, it smells like humans. Sprinkled around your bulbs, it not only keeps animals away but it also nourishes them because it is high in macro nutrients and trace minerals.

Tulips to Try

There are many beautiful, simple, exotic tulips to try in the garden. Here are a few of my favorites, available from Burpee.  Clicking the links will bring you to Burpee’s website and I’m an affiliate, which means I do receive a small commission if you purchase from them. But that won’t affect your price – promise!

Tulip Queen of the Night – the nearly black tulip: 

Tulip “Cummins” – fringed parrot type with Rembrandt stripes


Tulip – “Green River”


With so many pretty tulips to choose from, they’re an easy addition to your spring garden. The hardest thing about growing tulips is remembering to buy and plant them in the fall.  The next time you are out shopping, buy some tulips to plant this fall.

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