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How to Grow Tulips

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Customer photo of a fully-open Monsella Tulip by Pamela Klein of Pacifica, Calif.

Tulips say "spring" like no other flower. The vivid yellow, red, pink, purple, and orange flowers are a feast to eyes weary of the dull browns, grays, and whites of winter. Although closely associated with Holland, the tulip originally hails from Persia where the word means "turban"—describing the flower shape. There are literally hundreds of tulip varieties to choose from, grouped by flower form, height, and bloom time. Choosing which ones to grow is dependent on where you live, where you're planting, and the desired effect.

Tulip Types

Two of the common ways to group tulips is by bloom time and flower height. Tulips can be divided into early, mid, and late season flowering and by heights ranging from short (less than 8 inches tall), to medium (8 to 18 inches tall) and tall (greater than 18 inches tall). If you take both of these variables into consideration when designing a spring bulb garden, you can create a visually interesting display and a long season of bloom. Some examples of tulip varieties within these groups are listed below. To see a complete listing of varieties, see Tulips By Bloom Time and Division.

Early Tulips

Species Tulips: There are many different varieties of these delicate, very early bloomers. Most are 4 to 10 inches high and ideal for rock gardens or other intimate garden spaces.

Emperor (Fosteriana): Large and majestic are the terms used to describe these bold-colored flowers. These are first to bloom among the large-flowered tulips

Single Early: Solid-colored, single flowers.

Midseason Tulips

Triumph: The large, 5-inch-diameter blooms are great for cutting. They grow 18 to 20 inches tall.

Darwin Hybrids: These large, classic tulips, such as Apeldoorn Elite grow 20 to 24 inches tall.

Fringed: Featuring a fringe on the top cup of the flower.

Late Tulips

Double Late: Double-flowered varieties, such as Angelique, feature peony-shaped blooms on 16- to 18-inch-tall stems.

Lily-Flowered: Shapely, pointed petals give these flowers a graceful look. Most varieties grow 20 to 22 inches tall.

Parrot: Ruffled, curly petals in striking color combinations give parrot tulips a special appeal. They grow to 18 to 22 inches tall.

Design Ideas

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For best impact, plant tulips in dense groups. This combination features Esther and Negrita.

Resist the temptation to plant tulips in a long, single row. They look best planted in informal groups of 5 to 11, or as a block of color with 20 or more bulbs planted just a few inches apart. Plant each variety in a block unto itself, positioned next to a contrasting or complementary color. Or combine several colors together and plant your own unique mix. Choose varieties with different flowering times to extend the bloom season.

Tulips look great planted in combination with annual and perennial flowers. Try planting tulips with annuals such as pansies, forget-me-nots, and allysum. Early flowering perennials such as bleeding heart (Dicentra), basket-of-gold (Aurinia), and columbine also match up well with tulips. Other spring flowering bulbs such as muscari, scilla, and fritillaries will add contrast and stretch the bloom season in the bulb bed.

Planting & Care

Purchase high-quality bulbs from a reputable seller. The larger the bulb size, the bigger and better the flower you'll get. Tulips are hardy in USDA zones 3 to 7. In warmer areas, you may need to chill the bulbs before planting, or choose specific varieties, such as the Darwin hybrids, that don't need a long winter dormancy before blooming. To chill tulip bulbs, refrigerate them for 8 weeks at 40 to 45 degrees F. Plant after Nov. 1, placing bulbs 6 to 8 inches deep in a lightly shady area so the bulbs remain as cool as possible. The best planting time varies from region to region. Check with your local cooperative extension for advice.

In zones 3-7, the most important consideration when planting tulips is drainage. Tulips prefer a sandy, well-drained soil. If your soil is wet and/or very heavy, add compost and peat moss. You can also mound the soil up into a raised bed, which will help the soil dry out and will also help raise the temperature of the soil. For everywhere else, choose a full-sun location with well-drained soil for best performance. Plant after the soil has cooled to 60 degrees F (or lower) at 6 inches deep--usually late fall. Cultivate the soil to a depth of one foot and work in some bulb fertilizer. Set the bulbs pointed-end-up about 4 to 6 inches deep (check planting instructions on the package to be sure). In cold winter areas, the planting area can be mulched with 4 to 6 inches of straw or hay for extra protection. Wait to mulch until the top several inches of soil have been frozen.

Tulips flower best the first spring after planting, so many gardeners replant tulips each fall, treating them as annuals. The small-flowered species tulips are an exception. These tulips will naturalize and flower as perennials for many years. Fertilizing all tulips once or twice a year, in fall or early spring, will encourage them to flower well for several years. If you want to try for a second year of bloom, cut back the tulip flower stalk after blooming, but leave the foliage to naturally yellow and die. The foliage will produce the food energy the plant needs to form the next year's flower.