Tip 1. Buy reputable tulip bulbs from your garden centre and make sure full instructions are written on the back. That sounds obvious, but as a regular at garden centres, I’ve noticed a few cheap brands skimp on some important details such as what time of year to plant them, what shade/sun is required, and how deep to plant the bulbs.
Tulips should be planted with the pointy end upwards, and around 20-25cm underground. One of the most common errors when planting tulip bulbs is to plant them too shallow. Depending on the kind of tulip you buy, each tulip could yield between 1-4 flower heads, and most need to be planted around 20-25cm apart. I have seen people plant them closer together, however this will cause you problems in future years, when you dig them up to space them out a bit (as the plant is perennial and grows back and ‘spawns’ new blooms each year – in English and European climates, especially).
Tip 2. Deciding where to plant your tulips can be part of a grand experiment. This year, I planted some in a border near daffodils, some in hanging baskets where I had a spare bit of space, one or two in a ground planter and approximately 40 in row sets under wood-chip bark. Each lot of tulips have come up, successfully revealing the gorgeous bloom for which they were intended! (You can see by now I’m a bit tulip-crazy!)
The best looking tulips, health-wise, are the ones I planted in full sun in a hanging basket. The leaves are pest-free, and the potting mix seems to have nurtured them into full bloom. The only negatives are tulips near the sides might not reach a good height as the top is touching the hanging basket chain. Planting many and close together in a small hanging basket does work, yet considering they top out at about 30 cm tall, take that into account when deciding where to plant them. By the way, these tulips are sharing the basket space with pansy flowers, which seem to be amiable companions for them. My other lot are in a ground planter with a cyclamen, and whilst they seem happy, the cyclamen is not. I’m not sure they like sharing space with other bulbs (the cyclamen, that is).
One thing to remember wherever you plant your tulips, the green leaves come up around February time, the flowers mid-late April, and the blooms are all done by June at the latest. For the rest of the year the bed will look a bit bare. I suggest you plant something compatible with them on the surface, so if you are not too sure about this (I wasn’t) experiment with hanging baskets to see what works. Around the neighbours’ houses I’ve seen tulips planted under low-lying ground cover plants, the grassy borders of tree trunks, or pansy flower beds. I can see why no-one puts them under a large bush – they need light and height. If surrounded by too many bulbs they won’t come up so great either, it seems from my observations. However, the exception to that rule seems to be they will share a spot with the humble daffodil – as long as there’s room – otherwise the “daff” wins the spot, every time. by inference, you’ll need to prepare any bed you plant tulips in by digging the soil over deeply (to 35-40cm) and pulling out bulbs that are already in there by hand. These include bluebells, daffodil and snowdrop bulbs which could all potentially inhabit a garden bed. This is particularly relevant if you’ve inherited a new garden to play around with. If you haven’t seen the spring flower show, be prepared to dig!
Tip 3. The pests that can attack your tulips include the four-legged kind! The bulbs, which resemble onions in their smell, are attractive to burrowers when tulips are newly planted. There’s not much food around in October/November time, as autumn becomes winter, and believe me, if you’ve spent hours planting a tulip bed, as I did, you won’t appreciate a badger coming around and having a little meal. The solution here is to plant the bulbs at the correct depth in the ground (25-30cm), cover with soil, firmly press down and immediately water. One of the main reasons I put mine under wood-chip this year was to deter cats using the bare bed as litter tray (and possibly digging them up), and foxes deciding the bare garden was a good area for them to pass through, have a little sleep, or bury some bones they are fond of.
Once the tulips begin to show signs of budding, there is the need to watch out for squirrels. They love to eat the head of the tulips! After all that effort you could lose them all – so aside from using an air rifle and being an incredible shot – if you live near squirrels you can forget about growing tulips. Have a little think about this – how many tulips do you see growing in public parks where squirrels roam loose? Exactly! (Or maybe public gardeners are a great shot?)
Another pest which can put little holes all through the leaves is the common garden slug. Slug pellets will keep them at bay, but not totally eliminate them. If you are not too worried about a few nibbles, the tulip flowers will come up just fine, but the leaves look a little mottled. I’ll say straight off I use organic pellets so the birds can eat the dead slugs, which seems a pleasing result for all concerned.
In a second and third year of growth (which you will get if you plant little ground covers, pansies or compatible plants with shallow roots above your tulips) the leaves are much more robust. After the first year you will have a super-strong showing. Add fresh manure or garden compost around Autumn and re-cover the bed with wood-chip or the plants I’ve suggested. I’ve noticed slugs can also be slowed down by wood-chip (which is why I tried this as we are infested with the critters where I live), and of course, the usual slug traps will work too. When you notice more blooms, or crowded beds, you need to dig up the plants just after they bloom, and replant them (deeply) to give them the extra room needed for your next season (usually do this every four years or so).