University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Fall News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
It may seem premature to be thinking about next spring already, but fall is the time to buy and plant tulips so you'll have tremendous color to begin your next gardening season.  Knowing what to expect from them, how to plant, and how to protect from wildlife will help you to have the best spring show.
You may not realize that most tulips are generally grown as annuals, flowering one year and either not living or few flowering the next.  I don't mind, as I only have room for so many tulips, and this gives me the chance to try some new ones each year.  There are tulips, however, marked as "perennial" such as Darwin types that will rebloom each year.  Many of the smaller species tulips are perennial also, just check to make sure these are hardy in your area.  Planting tulips deeper than the usual 5 to 6 inches may help them "perennialize" as well.
Tulips are an elegant, formal flower best suited to formal plantings.  These are most often geometric, such as rectangular, beds using even numbers of bulbs. If planting in either linear or curved rows, use several parallel rows (even if short) for best effect. When choosing bulbs, look at the time of bloom so you can choose varieties for early to late flowering in spring.  If combining tulips for certain color combinations, make sure the varieties you choose bloom at the same time of the season.
Plant as soon in fall as possible to allow roots to develop.  Planting late, however, is better than trying to hold until spring. Dig the bed, or trench if planting in rows, to about 6 inches deep.  Mix good compost or organic matter in the soil, especially if it is sandy or clay.  Choose a well-drained site as bulbs may rot if too wet.  Tulips bloom best in full sun, not a problem near deciduous trees that only begin leafing out in spring.
Space tulip bulbs about 6 inches apart, planted with the pointed side up.  Backfill with soil, and that's all there is to it.  I like to label my different varieties as I usually don't remember all the names come spring. 
Since fresh tulip bulbs already have their needed food stored inside, the International Flower Bulb Center ( recommends to not put fertilizer in the planting hole or bed.  Besides, too much fertilizer can easily burn the base of the bulbs.   Definitely don't use bone meal as you may see in older recommendations, as it provides little nutritional value and its odor is an invitation to dogs and skunks to dig up your bulbs!
If growing as annuals, you wont need to fertilize tulips.  If perennial ones, sprinkle bulb fertilizer (you can buy as such when buying bulbs in the fall) on top just as the bulbs emerge in the spring.  Some also fertilize again as the foliage dies down in summer.
When planting, you may consider layering-- an effect used by the Dutch to extend the bloom period.  Layering is simple-- just plant the tulips, backfill with several inches of soil, then plant smaller bulbs such as crocus or squill before adding the remaining couple inches of soil.  This way you can have early blooms, followed by the tulips emerging through them later.
If you have deer and squirrels and other critters that like to dig and eat tulips, or eat the flowers once up, there are several tricks you can use.  Dig a bed as you would normally to plant tulips, then line with wire mesh or poultry wire before planting and backfilling.  This, or using ground shells or sharp stones (you can purchase these at many outlets, such as poultry grit at feed stores) also helps discourage diggers.
Once tulips emerge in spring, keep new growth sprayed with repellents, use a fence around larger areas, or interplant tulips with daffodils.  No animal eats daffodils, and by seeing these come up first, gardeners tell me animals move on and generally don't return.  Training early is one of the keys to successful wildlife management, not just with bulbs but with all plants.
You might save out or buy a few tulips for potting and forcing into bloom indoors as well.  Merely plant 4 bulbs in a pot 6-inches across with the bulb tips at the surface. Keep the potting medium moist, and give about 12 weeks at 40 degrees (F) as in an unheated garage, cellar or refrigerator.  Some tulips are marked as especially suited for forcing.
For each 10 tulips I buy I'll plant 6 and pot 4.  I then just sink these plastic pots in the ground until spring.  Once the shoots emerge in April, I dig the pots and sink into potting mix in large containers.  This way I get blooms in these mobile and visible containers, in areas where I might not grow bulbs otherwise.  They are easy to remove after bloom to make room for annuals.

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