T.S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruelest month, and gardeners know the truth of that statement better than anyone. All you want is a pop of color in your garden, but the weather doesn’t always cooperate. In Zone 5, April is often brown and muddy, with plants only slowly pushing their way out of the ground.
For impatient gardeners longing for spring blooms, tulips are a great way to get a jump on the season and spread some cheer outdoors. There are many varieties of tulips available, but reliably early bloomers like Emperor, Double- and Single-Early tulips will give your landscape an early wake-up call each spring.
Growing Zones: 3-8
Bloom Time: Large, cup-shaped flowers in spring; lance-like green leaves die back to the ground by midsummer
Exposure: Full sun before and during bloom
Mature Size: 6 to 18 inches tall, depending on variety
Notes: Tulips come in a wide range of shapes, sizes and color thanks to hundreds of years of hybridization. They grow from bulbs that contain all the energy they need for a growing season. The bulb will typically weaken over time, resulting in smaller flowers, though Emperor tulips come back for many seasons. Tulip leaves must be left in place until they shrivel and die to allow the bulb to store as much energy as possible for next season.
Growing Tulips in the Landscape
Tulips look best when planted in groups rather than singly. Plant them in a mass in the middle or back of your perennial border where you’ll enjoy the flowers in early spring, but where other plants will fill in and hide their dying leaves later. Tulips need full sun before and during bloom, but can tolerate dappled shade after that, so consider planting them under trees that won’t leaf out until May for additional landscaping options.
Ideally, tulip bulbs should be planted in the fall. Choose a sunny location with excellent drainage, as bulbs left in wet soil will rot. With a hand spade or tulip dibbler, dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep. Sprinkle bone meal into the bottom of the hole before placing the bulb in. Bulbs should be planted with their pointed ends facing upward. Cover bulbs by replacing dirt and gently firm in place. Water well and leave the bulbs alone until they bloom in spring.
To plant a larger swatch of bulbs at once, you can dig a large hole or trench and place many bulbs in at a time. Bulbs should be spaced about 6 inches apart in all directions.
If you receive potted bulbs as a gift in the spring, you can transplant them into the garden after they die back. Keep them in a very sunny spot and continue to water until half of the leaves turn brown. Once the leaves shrivel, cut them off and plant bulbs in the garden as outlined above. Transplanted bulbs may or may not bloom well the following spring, but it’s worth a try.
Ongoing Care for Tulips
Fertilize tulips with a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer or top resting of compost when leaves emerge in early spring. Reapply fertilizer in early fall well before frost.
Once tulip flowers are past their prime, deadhead them to remove spent blooms. This allows the plant to put all its energy into the bulb instead of into seed production. Allow leaves to remain intact until they die back on their own. Leaves should detach easily from the bulb with a light pull, which lets you know the time is right to remove them.
Tulip bulbs are susceptible to chipmunk and squirrel damage. If this is a problem in your area, plant groups of bulbs in a trench and place a piece of chicken wire over them before backfilling with dirt. This will thwart any digging predators while allowing your plants to come up through the holes in the mesh in the spring.