The cheerful tulip is among the world's most revered signs of spring. Growing from a bulb that may not necessarily come back the next year in many hot-summer areas in temperate climate regions, it is best designed in larger numbers in conjunction with other spring flowering plants. Playing the many flower colors, timing of bloom and their mature flower stem heights also broadens the effects the tulip can bring into the design of a spring garden display.
How Many Tulips to Use?
Only one flower or one flower stem is produced from each tulip bulb, so larger quantities of bulbs yields more impressive displays. For visually exciting displays with small numbers, plant tulips in clusters of five to 10, no more than 6 to 12 inches apart. Avoid planting bulbs in straight rows when using fewer bulbs because it will look unnatural and incomplete.
Grandiose displays of tulips often result when dozens to hundreds of bulbs are planted in a bed or container. Although more money is needed to secure large numbers of bulbs, the per-item cost is usually less when purchased in large quantities. More labor time is required for the bulb planting, too. Large-scale plantings of tulips may be made entirely of tulips, with bulbs spaced 6 to 8 inches apart, or with underplantings of spring annuals like pansies, when bulbs may be spaced slightly further apart at 10 to 14 inches.
In containers, the same general aforementioned rules apply. Clusters of tulips look more impressive and visually beautiful when made up of larger numbers of bulbs. Large quantities of tulips can also be grown in several layers, or soil depths, within the container. Multilayering in containers allows for a succession of bloom over a slightly longer period in spring because the lower-most bulbs emerge later than those closest to the soil surface.
Depending on the type of tulip, the mature height of the flower stem must be considered when determining the number of tulips to use in a design. Lower-growing varieties have a scale that lends their use nicely to small clusters in beds, rock gardens or containers. Tall-stemmed tulips have more impact when used in large numbers in proximity to other plants of a similar height.
Consult literature on the tulip packaging label or the supplier's care instructions for recommendations on spacing of bulbs as well as proper depth and expected flower stem heights and seasonality.
What Color of Tulip?
Tulips are available in every color except true blue. Many are bi- or multicolored with spots, mottling or stripes. The choice of color is purely personal and always right. Perhaps the safest choice of a tulip color is the traditional red, but mixing solid colors of a similar tone or contrasting hues can be outstanding. Warm-colored tulips include those that are red, orange or yellow or have combinations of the same. These flower colors are exciting and stimulate the eye. Mixing a solid red with a striped or spotted orange and yellow tulip is equally interesting and pleasing.
Cool-colored tulips are those that have pink, lavender, white, purple/black or pale green tones. They tend to create a sophisticated, soothing air in the garden. Likewise, mixing or juxtaposing bulbs with one solid color and a stripe can be breathtaking.
White is a unifying color. It is the perfect complement to all other tulip flower colors and will create different effects when placed near other others. White can be used to make a color look more saturated or deeper in tone. It also acts to soften the effect of a bold color such as red or orange. Lastly, an all-white collection of tulips is often regarded as among the most elegant and sophisticated of designs.
Don't forget to research the foliage of the tulip. Although not common, some varieties of tulips have foliage that is attractive even when there is no flower. Some leaves are narrow while others wide and tongue-like. Leaf color may range from light green to blue-green or mottled with silver or burgundy.
A bed planted with tulips looks bleak until the bulbs finally emerge in spring. Until the tulips grow and flower, garden designers usually plant the bed with complementary annual flowers to bridge the gap from fall bulb planting until the spring tulip display. After the bulbs are covered with soil, massed blocks of flowers can be placed atop them in the top inches in solid colors or intricate designs.
Pansies and violas, the slightly smaller-flower cousins of pansies, are a favorite backdrop to tulips. Just like juxtaposing colors of tulips in the same bedding design, the pansy can also mimic or fully contrast the color of the tulips that will emerge in spring.
Added visual beauty occurs when the companion plants accentuate the tulip flower color. For example, a white tulip emerging from a bed of royal purple pansies heightens the display. Contrastingly, white tulips in a bed of white pansies is elegant, and white tulips emerging from a colorful mixture of many multifaced pansies creates a playful, informal look.
Other companions for tulips include ornamental kale and cabbage; snapdragon; forget-me-not; erysimum; and other later spring flowering bulbs like daffodil, squill and grape hyacinth.
Extending the Tulip Season
The hundreds of varieties of tulips allow you to create a garden that has a tulip flowering in early spring and others that flower in late spring. Using different seasonally flowering tulip types allows you to change displays and enjoy different colors at different times of spring.
For example, a bed is filled with yellow pansies. In April an early-flowering tulip that is orange emerges and flowers. As the orange petals drop, the mid-season tulip bulbs are beginning to bud and will soon open a deep violet with streaks of white. As these fade, late-season tulips are now above ground and reveal their nearly black petals.