Would you rather spend your money buying a house or one tulip bulb? The question sounds ridiculous, but during the historic Netherlands tulip craze of the 1630s, a single tulip bulb could sell for the going rate of a nice house. Imagine the disappointment if the bulb winterkilled.

When you see the happy colors of tulips blooming in someone else’s spring landscape, have you ever wished you had planted some, too? Luckily, we needn’t spend a house-sized budget to make our tulip dreams come true.

Tulip bulbs are planted in the fall because they need chilling temperatures to break their internal dormancy so they can emerge in spring, and Upper Midwest winters certainly provide plenty of chill.

Tulips can be planted throughout the fall months, but planting in September or early October provides a better head start versus later planting. Tulip bulbs produce underground roots after planting, and early fall installation gives a longer rooting time, resulting in stronger growth next spring.

Selecting bulbs

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Next spring’s tulip leaves and flowers are already pre-formed deep inside the bulbs we purchase. Large-size bulbs contain more internal buds and energy than smaller types. Bargain assortments often contain weaker bulbs.

When shopping for tulips, larger bulbs produce better blooms than smaller bargain-priced bulbs. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
When shopping for tulips, larger bulbs produce better blooms than smaller bargain-priced bulbs. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Designing the planting

Tulips give more impact if planted in groupings of the same type or color. A curving, circular drift of tulips is more naturalistic than a straight row or rectangle. Tulip plantings can be included in most home or business landscapes for attractive pops of spring color.

Site

Tulips require at least six to eight hours of direct sunshine each day for success. If sunlight isn’t sufficient, tulips are less likely to return in future years. Protection from wind is a plus, which helps flowers last longer.

Next spring's flowers and leaves are already pre-formed deep inside each tulip bulb. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Next spring's flowers and leaves are already pre-formed deep inside each tulip bulb. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Soil preparation

Rich, well-drained soil is important for bulb success. Amend heavy clay soil with 3 inches of peat moss or compost spread over the soil and worked into a depth of 8 to 10 inches. Sand can be incorporated into the bottom of the bed at planting time, if desired.

Add fertilizer

Bulb fertilizers, with analysis like 5-10-10, give bulbs the nutrition needed for maximum growth. Don’t put fertilizer in the bottom of planting holes or in direct contact with bulbs, which can cause burn. Instead, mix the fertilizer into the soil following label rates.

To provide tulips with nutrition for best growth, fertilize at planting time. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
To provide tulips with nutrition for best growth, fertilize at planting time. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Planting

There are two methods of planting. You can excavate the soil to the proper depth by making a flat-bottomed wide trench into which the bulbs will be placed. Alternatively, you can use a trowel or bulb planter to individually remove a scoop of soil, plant a bulb and replace the soil. The first method is preferred, because you can view all the bulbs at the proper depth and spacing before backfilling the planting area with amended soil.

Depth and spacing

Tulips are best planted 4 to 6 inches deep in heavy soils, and 6 to 8 inches deep in sandy soils, measured to the bottom of the bulb. Space bulbs 4 to 6 inches apart. Remember to plant with the pointed end facing upward.

Water thoroughly

Even if soil is moist, it’s important to soak the planting area to bring soil into contact with bulbs. This initial watering should provide adequate moisture along with fall rains. Moisture is important to ensure development of a strong root system before winter. If the fall is dry, water once every seven to 10 days.

Add mulch

Six inches of leaves, straw or shredded wood products placed over the planting area will moderate soil temperatures both in fall and spring. Remove before spring growth begins.

Longevity

Tulips and other spring-blooming bulbs are not considered long-lived perennials the way peonies are long-lived. To encourage greater longevity, plant in full sun, fertilize in fall and again at spring bloom time and allow leaves to remain on the plants after flowering until they’re crisp-brown.

Some tulip cultivars perennialize better than others, which is often listed on the label. Darwin hybrids, such as the Impression and Apeldoorn series, are popular choices for many gardeners.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.