Before you get your garden all settled in for the fall, you need to put some thought into where and how to plant tulip bulbs for next spring’s first color show. Depending on your USDA zone, tulips should be planted sometime in early to mid-fall. The bulbs need temperatures warm enough that they can begin to develop roots, which will protect them from the freezing winter ahead, but not so warm that they begin to grow.
Generally, this means for zones four and five you should plant tulip bulbs in October; zones six and seven should plant bulbs in November, and zones eight and nine in late December or early January. Ideally, the soil temperature needs to be below 60 degrees. If you live in zone eight or higher, you will probably have to refrigerate your bulbs for several weeks before planting to ensure blooms.
Decide on the area to be planted. You should avoid planting tulips all in a straight line, as they will look best clumped together in groups of five to fifteen, or in large beds with blocks of color. Since each bulb produces a single stem and just a few leaves, you don’t need to allow a lot of space between them. A few inches is more than enough.
Once you’ve decided on where you want your tulips, the next step is to prepare the soil and actually place the bulbs.
Tulips really aren’t too picky about their soil. Think about their natural habitat. The windswept hills of Afghanistan aren’t exactly a nurturing environment for a fragile plant, so tulips are pretty hardy by design. You really just need to make sure the soil is well drained and has adequate organic materials to support life. If you’re not sure about either, mix in some sand and peat or compost, and you’ll be all set.
Next lay out your bulbs. Check each one over to make sure it’s not damaged in any way. Check for soft spots or bruises, cuts, and missing tunics. Any of these could result in diseased flowers, or even no flower at all. Discard any bulbs you’re not sure of.
The general rule of thumb is to bury the bulb twice as deep as it is tall. For most tulips, this will be about six to eight inches, so you’ll want to make sure you’ve worked the soil down to a depth of a foot or so to give the roots room to grow.
Always plant tulip bulbs with the pointed end up, and cover them loosely with soil. Give them a little water and some bulb fertilizer to get them stared, and then settle in and wait.
If burrowing or digging pests are a concern, you might want to cover your planting beds with one inch chicken wire to prevent your bulbs from being dug up for dinner by the local squirrels. For Moles and other underground pests, consider building chicken wire cages to protect your bulbs.
Covering your beds with an organic mulch such as chopped leaves will help improve the soil over the winter. Be careful though not to use too much. More than an inch or so and you will have to move it aside in the spring so your tulips can find the sunlight.
After a cold and dreary winter, a bed of bright tulips is a welcome visitor. Careful planting of your bulbs in the fall will help ensure you have a beautiful display in the spring.Photo by Jackie