Tulips gladden the heart of any homeowner with their vivid colors and elegant shapes. Many varieties emerge as early as crocuses and daffodils, offering bright spots to relieve the still-bleak landscape. Like the majority of bulbs, tulips require fall planting. In fact, because tulips are so easy to incorporate into the landscape, the most challenging thing about planting them is to remember to get them in the ground in the fall--and to set them pointy-side up.
Choose a garden spot which receives full or part sun and which won't get waterlogged during the rainy season. Decide which tulip variety or varieties to plant in the fall. Resist the urge to choose them on color and height alone, but also take into account their bloom times. Tulips fall into three broad categories: early flowering, midseason and late-flowering. If you're looking for tulips to be the first harbingers of spring, select early-flowering bulbs. If you're integrating them into a perennial bed or container, choose bulbs which will bloom when the other plants will. Alternatively, choose an early or midseason variety that will bloom just before its neighbors, so that when these perennials emerge, their leaves will screen the tulips' dying foliage.
Order tulip bulbs from a mail order nursery, or buy them locally, in late summer, when the selection is best. If you purchase them locally, find a garden center which sells them individually rather than in bags. This practice enables you to sort and choose the healthiest-looking bulbs. Smell the bulbs and examine them for mildew and mold. If you buy them when the weather is too warm for planting, store the bulbs in the refrigerator or a cool, dry basement or garage. In Southern gardens, it's helpful to refrigerate your bulbs a month before planting.
Planting in Garden Beds
If you're putting the tulips together in a single garden bed, enrich the soil throughout with high-phosphorus fertilizer or special tulip fertilizer and perhaps some sand, if the soil needs lightening. The spacing depends on the variety chosen; consult your nursery or garden catalog. Make sure to set the tulips 6 to 10 inches deep in their holes. The traditional method is to set the bulbs the number of inches deep that equals three times the height of the bulb. Set the bulbs so the pointed side is up, cover with garden soil, and tamp down firmly.
While gardeners traditionally choose tulips for garden beds and use less stately bulbs like daffodils and crocuses for scattering throughout the yard, no law says tulips can't also be naturalized. Dig a square-sided hole wide enough to accommodate the spacing of four to five tulips, and which is 6 to 10 inches deep. Scatter a handful of tulip fertilizer or high-phosphorus fertilizer at the bottom of the hole, set the bulbs in, and cover with the previously removed soil. If you removed a patch of lawn, set the sod patch back over the hole; the tulips will find their way through the grass next spring.
Alternative Naturalizing Method
Special bulb planters exist which help you remove the soil and hold it as you drop the bulb in, at which point the soil is replaced. The disadvantage with these planters is that it's difficult to set them for your specifications, and you may not save much time planting individually as opposed to digging a hole for four or five bulbs.
If planting a small amount of bulbs in a rodent-plagued garden, consider building or buying a simple wire cage to enclose the bulbs. The tulip stems grow through the mesh holes, but the cages contain the bulbs so they cannot be carried away by pests.