Planting Tulip Bulbs

All About This Dutch Classic, From Growing It to Its Bizarre History

I like tulips with closed blooms. But this one with the orange center looks nice.
Yellow tulip with an orange center. David Beaulieu

Taxonomy and Botany of Tulips

Plant taxonomy places tulips in the genus Tulipa.

Some types of tulips in some climates may be perennials, while other types in other climates will bloom for only 2 years or are even treated as annuals.

These flowers are classified as spring bulb plants, as are other well known flowers such as:

Plant Characteristics

As with roses, I admire tulip flowers before they have quite yet opened.

Most produce a big enough flower for it to be showy even at this stage. The flowers come in the colors yellow, orange, red, pink, white, purple (some so deep as to be nearly black) or bi-colored. There are thousands of types of tulips, so you can easily imagine that height would vary greatly; however, the typical tulips I see growing in yards stand between 10 and 30 inches tall. The leaves, which are fleshy and waxy to the touch, can be blade-shaped or oblong.

Sun and Soil Requirements, Zonal Information for Planting Tulips

Planting tulips in zones 3 to 7 is recommended by the USDA.

The bulbs have a chilling requirement, which poses a challenge in more southerly climes. A workaround employed in warm areas is to dig up tulip bulbs in fall, keep them refrigerated during winter, then replant next spring.

In terms of geographic origin, the world of tulips has its roots largely in central Asia, despite the fact that, in the West, tulips are strongly associated with Holland.

Planting tulips in full sun and in a well-drained, friable soil is recommended. Use compost as a soil amendment when planting tulips (and periodically thereafter, along with bone meal, to fertilize).

Tulipomania? Yes, It Really Happened

The time period from the late 20th century to the early 21st century has seen an Internet bubble and a housing bubble in the U.S., but such "bubbles" are nothing new.

In 17th-century Holland, tulips were allegedly so prized that they were traded as a sort of commodity. According to Flora Mirabilis (p. 91), "By 1610 a new tulip variety was perfectly acceptable as a dowry, and houses and businesses were often mortgaged to facilitate the purchase of a coveted flower. Tulipomania reached its peak in 1633." The bubble burst in 1637.

Best Times for Planting Tulips

The bulbs are planted in the fall. The best time for planting tulips is determined by your zone:

  • For zone 3: September
  • For zones 4-5: October
  • For zones 6-7: November

Types of Tulips

These flowers can be grouped in a number of ways. For those most interested in "timing" the color display of their spring flowers, it may be most convenient to group tulips according to how early in spring they flower. Examples follow:

  • Early-flowering -- Fosteriana
  • Mid-season -- Triumph
  • Late-flowering -- Lily-Flowered

Facts About Tulips

The name derives from the Turkish word for turban.

If you are a savvy Valentine's Day shopper, you may be aware of rose color meanings. Tulip flowers, likewise, have a meaning in the language of flowers: their meaning (especially the red ones) is "perfect love."

Tips for Planting Tulips, Plus Care and Dividing

To prepare the ground for planting tulips, loosen the soil down to a depth of about 1 foot.

When planting, always remember to leave the pointy end of the bulb sticking up. Follow instructions on the package that the bulbs came in to determine planting depth.

Some fertilize at planting time with bone meal. Others say bone meal is unnecessary at this time and invites squirrel pests to dig around, which could dislodge your bulbs. If this is a concern, lay chicken wire on top of the ground after planting. Or you could hold off on the bone meal till spring and just use some compost when planting.

Deadhead after flowering -- not to promote re-blooming, as you would for many other flowers, but to channel energy into bulb development rather than setting seed. But don't remove the leaves until they die (signaled by yellowing) on their own, so that they can continue to send energy to the bulbs, using photosynthesis.

Consider it a down payment on next spring's flowers.

Indeed, the degree to which your tulips -- with your help -- can store energy in their bulbs is one of the determining factors in extending their years of blooming. That's why, while dividing helps ensure vigor, division should be carried out at the right time -- not in spring, but in fall. I'll explain:

People divide the bulbs every few years, either by scheduling the division or simply because they perceive their plants are no longer blooming as profusely as they had previously. But when you divide tulips in spring (before the foliage has died back), you are necessarily starting out with depleted "stock," i.e., bulbs cut off prematurely from their energy source. I prefer fall as a time to divide them, figuring that, by then, the bulbs will have already stored all the energy they are going to store for next year's blossoming.

After the ground has frozen in late fall or early winter, apply mulch over your bed to protect the bulbs, if your region experiences severe winters.