Ten steps to success with Tulips

Barbara Mrgich
Adams County Master Gardener

Of all the many bulb choices we have to give us early spring color, tulips and daffodils (Narcissus) are probably the two most popular and well known.

Between these two, tulips are definitely the most finicky and least likely to rebloom. While the narcissus bulbs will continue to multiply and return year after year with little care, tulips will many times fade within a couple years after planting. Some people actually consider them as annuals. Although they will most likely never attain the longevity of their friends the daffodils, there are some tactics you can learn to improve your success with those beautiful spring flowers.

1. Start with the reliable varieties -- If your goal is to keep them coming back for many years, plant old fashioned tulips. While the newer hybrids are very spectacular, they are far less likely to continue to come back. The old fashioned tulips are more forgiving about the exact correct environment, and are more likely to bloom year after year.

Of the hybrids, however, one of your best bets is the Darwin Hybrid tulips. I have Darwins that I dug in Hershey Gardens as a volunteer in 2005. One of them is in the picture which accompanies this article. That's a pretty long life span for a tulip.

2. Site them correctly -- Tulips are very fussy about their location. They must be planted in a well-drained, and very sunny area to survive and bloom.

To measure your soil drainage rate, dig a hole about 12" deep, and 12" across. Lay a bar across the top of the hole, then stand a ruler in the hole leaning against the bar. Fill the hole with water and wait. That hole should drain at least 2" per hour. If it doesn't, don't waste your money buying tulip bulbs until you have amended your soil with enough organic matter to achieve good drainage.

3. Check Your Soil Ph -- Tulips prefer a neutral soil of close to 7.0. If your soil is acidic, 6.0 or lower, your tulips bulbs will most likely not last.

4. Plant Them Deep -- Most directions will tell you to plant them 6-8" deep. MAKE IT 8". The deeper the better. Sometimes your soil will heave during the repeated freezing and thawing of the winter, and before you know it, you will find your bulbs at or just below the soil surface. If this happens, replant them back down to 8".

5. Be sure to plant them right side up -- There are some bulbs that don't care, but tulips need to be planted with their pointy end up. That's where the flower will emerge. The flat side, where the roots will develop, goes down. After planting, broadcast a good balanced fertilizer over the planting area.

6. Fertilize them -- I buy organic fertilizer especially made for bulbs. Following directions on the bag, I feed my established tulips just after they finish blooming.

7. Allow Them to Flower and Die Back Naturally -- It is true that after they flower, the greens of bulbs become unsightly. It's good to cut off the spent flowers to prevent the bulb from wasting its energy producing seeds, but you must leave the greens alone until they turn brown. This is the period of time when the bulb, through photosynthesis, is storing energy to produce next year's flowers.

Although it is always recommended to plant your bulbs in the fall, if you need to move them, do it before you cut off the browned leaves. That way you can see exactly where they are when you dig. I have done this many times with good success.

8. Be Sure They Get Their Period of Cold -- All of the spring blooming bulbs, including tulips, need a period of cold weather before they will bloom. That's why we plant them in the fall. One good thing about our long, cold winters here in Pennsylvania, is that tulips and daffodils will bloom reliably in the spring. If you travel to a warm climate in the early spring, you most likely won't see these flowers unless they've been refrigerated.

9. Protect Them from Varmints -- Squirrels, voles and mice find tulip bulbs a real delicacy. Notice I didn't say moles. Moles are carnivorous. They eat such things as insects, slugs, snails, and termites. The role of the mole in your tulip problems is their superior tunnel digging abilities. The moles are the chief tunnel diggers, making it easy for the voles and mice to get around underground to eat your bulbs.

Squirrels will dig up bulbs to eat when they can find them. The bulbs are most vulnerable just after planting because the soil is loose and easy to dig, and the squirrel is attracted by the odor of bulb debris you may have dropped during the planting process. When planting, keep your bulbs in a large plastic bucket, and be careful not to drop bits of the papery covering of the bulb, or anything that may carry its scent.

Many people swear by adding bonemeal to the hole when planting tulips. The problem with that advice is that bonemeal actually attracts rodents! It's probably best to stick with the balanced fertilizer.

Laying chicken wire, or old window screens, if you have access to them, on the soil over the newly planted bulbs will also prevent the squirrels from digging them up. This can be removed after the ground has had a chance to settle, and before the tulips come up in the spring.

Voles will tunnel under the ground to eat your tulip bulbs. This is another reason to keep the bulbs deep in the soil. The voles do not generally tunnel as deep as eight inches. The best deterrent I know to protect tulips from voles, is to intersperse them with daffodils, allium, and fritillaria (Crown Imperial). These three bulbs are repulsive to the voles, and they may not find the tulips hidden among them.

Fritillaria are huge, beautiful flowers with large, rather flat bulbs. A hint I learned is to plant this bulb sideways so the water does not lie on it and cause it to rot. The bulbs have a skunky odor which rodents do not like.

10. For best selections, order from a catalog  -- The bulb catalogs have tremendous selection, beautiful pictures, good prices and great horticulture tips. With the catalog, it is easy to read, learn, compare and plan. No garden center could possibly offer so many choices.

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