Planting Tulips

Tulips are bulbous plants which are natives of the Old World, where they occur in an area extending from the Mediterranean region to Japan. There are some 60 species and several thousand horticultural forms. They are doubtless the most popular bulbous garden plants.

Species of Tulips

These tulips have been derived from wild species, and generally breed true from seed. Species tulips, also known as botanical tulips, are not generally grown in quantity as are the garden tulips. Most are early flowering and prefer a dry, sunny location. They are planted in groups in the border or rock garden. Among the best species are the dwarf T. dasystemon with violet and yellow flowers; lady tulip (T. Clusiana) with striped flowers; T. biflora with white and yellow flowers; and the many cultivars of T. Fosteriana, including Red Emperor or Madam Lefeber with bright red flowers, Gold Beater with golden flowers and Pinkeen with orange flowers.

Garden Tulips

Flowers of the breeder tulips appear in May and can be recognized by their rounded base and square-edged sepals and petals.

They spread them over Europe. Since then the Dutch have been the great breeders of tulips. Most garden tulips were derived from innumerable crosses with the species T. Gesneriana and T. suaveolens, and the thousands of named forms which have since arisen. Garden tulips are divided into groups as follows:

Breeder Tulips

These are tall-stemmed tulips which bloom in May. The flowers are distinctive in that they have a rounded base, while the sepals and petals have square ends. The Dutch varieties have oval or cup-shaped flowers mostly in shades of brown, purple bronze, or red, but the base of the flower is white or yellow, and often stained blue, green or blue black. The English varieties have ball-like flowers, the base of which is yellow or white but not stained with any other color.

Cottage Tulips

These are tall-stemmed, May-blooming tulips with self-colored, mostly pointed or rounded sepals and petals. The flowers in general have a square or somewhat rounded base and pointed or rounded tip.

Darwin Tulips

These are the tallest of the self-colored May-flowering tulips. They may be recognized by the flower which has a somewhat rectangular base, while the sepals and petals are square-tipped or rounded.

Early Tulips

These are the first of the tulips to bloom and follow close behind crocuses. They are chiefly dwarf in habit and may have single or double flowers in a variety of colors. Typical of the early tulips is the Ducvan Thol.

Griegii Tulips

These tulips have mottled or striped leaves and bloom later than most other types.

Lily-Flowered Tulips

These are tall-stemmed, May-flowering tulips with the sepals and petals distinctly long-tipped.

Mendel Tulips

These are medium-early flowering tulips derived from crossing the Ducvan Thol with the Darwin varieties.

Triumph Tulips

These are tall, early-flowering tulips, blooming just after the early tulips.

Tulip Planting and Culture

In selecting tulips for the garden, the background must be considered. For instance, a yellow tulip would seem to be an intruder in front of a pink-flowered dogwood or a flowering crab apple tree, but would be fine near the violet blue racemes of Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda).Matching the flowers of tulips with those of flowering shrubs and trees can be fun.

Tulips seem to be at their best in the garden growing with other plants, such at pansies, bluebells, forget-me-nots, rock cress, lungwort, Jacob’s-ladder, English wallflower, bleeding-heart, doronicum, and the often harsh basket-of-gold. But they may also be plant together in groups in a bed or border to pro-duce striking color schemes.

The bulbs grow best in well-drained light loam. The soil should be deep and enriches with plenty of well-rotted manure or compose to insure good plant growth and large flower, over a period of several years. Fertilizers such as bone meal, cow or sheep manure, or corn-post are excellent dressings. Tulips will usually do better and bloom earlier in the sun than in half shade. Large bulbs may be planted deeper than small ones. The ideal depth is from four to six inches and they should be about four to nine inches apart. If bulbs are planted too deep, they weaken as they push through the soil, but if planted too shallow, they may be heaved out of the soil, or possibly frozen. When setting the bulbs in the soil, give a half twist as though screwing the bulb into the soil; this assures that the base of the bulb is in direct contact with the soil.

Never cut the green leaves at any time, these leaves feed the bulb with new food to be stored for the next season. When the leaves begin to turn yellowish at the base and have a withered appearance, they can be pulled out easily from the soil. The bulbs are then more or less cured and may remain in the ground for at least two more seasons or even a third if the flowers have appeared well the last season.

Lifting and Storing Bulbs

Lack of flower development is a sign that the bulbs should be reset. Lifted bulbs may be reset in new bed immediately, or they may be stored for the fall planting. Tulip bulbs do not usually last for years in the ground without special requirements. Left in the ground, they may rot during the summer from too much moisture or beaten by rodents who love the juicy pulp.


The first or second week in June is a good time to remove tulip bulbs. By this time the late Darwins have finished blooming. If you are too busy at the time, the bulbs may be removed as late as the end of the month. But, the sooner the better, as the stems will be firmer, and there will be less chance of their breaking. Stem and bulb must remain intact for proper curing.

Use a spade to lift the bulbs from the ground. A garden fork does not give the necessary protection during the lift. Insert the spade least four inches from each tulip stem. Force the spade straight down to a depth of six inches.

Then, gently press down upon the handle, pushing outward, until the ground heaves and the plant moves. Bring the bulb to the surface and carefully shake it free of dirt, taking care not to snap off the stem. The new bulbs need the nourishment stored in the stem now that their soil food supply has been cut off.

Place your stemmed bulbs neatly in a pile until all have been taken up. If it is bright and sunny, protect the tender bulbs with a damp sack or heavy paper. Never expose tulip bulbs to the direct rays of the sun.

Hilling In

After your bulbs have been dug and each variety placed upon a separate pile, remove them to a protected part of your garden. In a vacant spot, dig a trench long and deep enough to accommodate all the bulbs. Carefully lay the bulbs in the trench and, before hilling in, stake or number each variety so you will know which is which when you lift them later.

Cover the bulbs with at least six inches of soil, but allow the green stems to remain exposed to the hot sun. As the sun dries the stalks, the food supply gradually trickles down to the bulbs. There, it is stored for next year’s growth.


In about a week or two, as soon as the stems have turned yellow, remove the bulbs from the trench. Never allow them to remain hilled in more than three weeks, or they will rot. Run your fingers through the loose dirt after lifting, to get all the tiny bulblets that might have broken off. Spread the bulbs out on a flat surface in a heavy shade to dry for about an hour. Then continue removing the bulbs from the stems and casings.

As you begin your work you will notice that the bulbs are encased in a thick, brown pouch of cloth like fiber. Tear this apart, and remove all bulbs found among the different layers. No bulblet is too small to save. Even the tiniest grows to a reasonable size in one year. Besides the parent bulb, you will find as many as four or five bulblets with each stem. These smaller bulbs should be planted separately in the fall.

When the pouch is completely empty, throw it on a pile with the discarded stems. Later, this can be added to your compost heap or mulching material.

As the bulbs are removed from their casings, it is wise to place them immediately in trays specially built for tulip bulbs. These trays are nothing more than large squares with two-inch-high sides, and bottomed with heavy window screening to prevent the loss of tiny bulblets. If you have several different varieties, you might partition off the squares and save room. Some sort of legs in the form of one-inch blocks should be nailed under each corner to allow a good circulation of air through the moist bulbs.

Don’t forget to tag the trays if you have several varieties of tulips. This information will enable you to plant different arrangements in your beds next fall to create striking color effects in spring.

Storing Tulips

As soon as you have finished this phase of work, take the bulbs indoors immediately. Set the filled trays in a warm, dry place. The attic floor of your home or garage is excellent. Place the trays on the floor individually. That is, don’t pile one on top of the other. And don’t worry about the heat concentrating too heavily over the bulbs during the hot summer. It won’t hurt them a bit. The hotter it is, the drier the air will remain. Tulip bulbs must be kept completely dry to prevent rotting.

Roll the bulbs back and forth in the trays several times during the first two weeks of curing to prevent moisture from gathering among the bulbs. One turning per week for the following month will finish the job. It is best to allow the bulbs to remain in their tram until planting time.

If your bulbs are bothered by mice, be sure to set traps or tack another sheet at window screening across the tops of the tress. Mice love the taste of tulip bulbs, and can eat away quite a few by fall.