7 Tips For Planting Your Tulip Bulbs in the Fall
Are you planting tulips this fall? There are a few things you can do to ensure you have tulip beds full of beautiful tulips this spring! In this article, certified master gardener Liz Jaros shares her top tips for planting tulip bulbs successfully this fall.
You’ve raked the leaves and cut back the perennials. The porch pumpkins have begun to rot, and your mums are not long for this world. But before you hang up your gardening tools and lock up the potting shed, why not take a minute to gaze off into the future – a future where a scattering of cheerful tulips greets you in spring and ushers in the new season. It’s not too late to make that happen. In fact, the timing is perfect.
A tulip is a ‘true bulb,’ meaning its complete life cycle is contained in a storage structure that grows underground. It is also a perennial plant, meaning it will flower, enter dormancy, and then grow again next year. Tulips require a period of cold dormancy and will need about 14 restorative weeks before they can flower.
So even if you’re cold and tired and looking forward to hibernating all winter, you’ll need to muster one last burst of gardening energy to get those bulbs in the ground before it freezes.
To aid you in that task and help get your spring flowering blooms off to a healthy start, we’re offering 7 tips for a successful fall planting. Read on for more information on getting the timing right, purchasing bulbs, planting them properly, and caring for them like a pro.
The time to plant tulip bulbs is in the fall. However, you will likely begin seeing ads, catalogs, and displays for them earlier in the growing season.
Whether you’re planning to order bulbs through the mail or purchase them from a garden center, you should first research a tulip brand and/or grower to make sure they have a reputation for high quality, disease free bulb production and a well timed delivery.
Some companies will hold delivery until the fall, which is ideal. This means they’ve been stored properly and are ready to be popped into the ground when the conditions are right. If bulbs are delivered earlier in the season, however, you’ll need to keep them cool and dry until fall. This can be done in a refrigerator or cold storage that does not exceed 60 degrees.
Same goes for bulbs purchased from a retail store. You might see them on display in mid summer. But that doesn’t mean you can bring them home and plant them right away. Again, keep them cool and dry until you’re in the fall sweet spot for installation.
When inspecting potential tulip bulbs on your nursery’s shelves or examining them after delivery, make sure bulbs are firm and dense with a papery skin. There should be no cuts, bruises, soft spots, or mealy textures. Bulbs with blemishes are more prone to carrying and acquiring diseases and insects.
When deciding which cultivars to try, consider the palette of your other spring flowering perennials and bulbs, and choose tulip varieties that are complementary. Take height and foliage characteristics into account before planting. Then make sure there is ample sunshine in the location where you plan to start planting.
Shoot for November
Tulip bulbs should be installed in late fall. It should be after the potential for a heat wave has passed, but before the ground actually freezes over. You can begin planting when temperatures are consistently below 60 degrees.
You want to make sure you’ve given your tulips enough time to grow some roots before entering dormancy, but not enough time for their shoots to grow prematurely.
In most regions and hardiness zones, this means late October or in November. However, tulip bulbs can actually be planted up until January if the ground is still workable. So if you get a sudden urge to get out there in your puffy coat and start digging some holes, your bulbs will be fine as long as they’ve had a full 14 weeks of dormancy before the weather warms.
Amend Your Soil
The best time to prepare your beds for an end of season bulb installation is actually spring. So if you know you’re going to be planting in fall, you should start working on the soil makeup as early as possible. But if you weren’t thinking this far ahead, don’t fret. It’s not too late to adjust your beds.
Drainage is key for healthy bulb growth. Your soil needs to be properly balanced before you start planting. Beds shouldn’t have weeds, and you’ll want to turn over the top 12 inches of soil before you start.
Work compost, sand, and/or peat moss into the soil to amend clay-heavy beds. Enrich sandy or loamy sites with organic matter, compost, and additional soil if necessary.
Plan on testing your soil before you begin planting. You can start testing at the end of the growing season to make sure your pH is in line. Lime and bone meal can be used to increase the acidity of your soil. Sulfur and peat moss should help tone it down. Make sure your pH is between 6 and 7 for best results.
If a prospective tulip bed is lower than the terrain around it or will puddle and freeze in early spring, raise the soil grade to create a berm for higher planting and good drainage. Standing water will likely rot your bulb, and persistent ice might negatively affect spring blooms.
Plant in the Sun
Tulips need heat and light in order to break dormancy and begin blooming. You’ll need to plant bulbs in a location that will get 6 hours of direct sunshine every day. The hours in the sun don’t need to be consecutive, but you need to aim for at least six hours, or you risk their ability to bloom.
Gardeners that grow in colder hardiness zones need to keep in mind that some early spring tulip varieties may start opening before the tree canopies leaf out. So go ahead and plant tulips under a tree or deciduous shrub that will not fill in until your tulips are done blooming.
Keep in mind, however, that tulip foliage must be left in place until it dies back completely. Thei leaves will need at least dappled shade in order to photosynthesize and store energy for the next season. So if you’re planning on repeat blooms, don’t plant bulbs beneath a tree canopy. These areas will be dense and dark for the remainder of the season.
Gardeners in warmer hardiness zones should plant tulips where they will get some relief from hot afternoon sun. Tulips tend to wither in intense heat. You’ll still need to make sure they get 6 full hours, but concentrate the rays in the morning for best results.
Refer to your nursery’s variety-specific growing instructions for precise depth and spacing. Generally speaking, tulips should be planted 5-6 inches below soil level at a distance of about 4-6 inches apart.
In light, sandy soils, you may want to plant bulbs 1 or 2 inches deeper as they will sprout more easily. Conversely, in heavier, more clay-based soils, you can set the bulbs a couple of inches higher. This will ensure shoots breach the soil without too much resistance.
Make sure you insert bulbs with the flat end sitting on the bottom of the hole and the pointed end reaching skyward. If you’re having trouble telling which end is the bottom, look for a rough central circle with root hairs. This is the basal plate and the point from which roots will grow downward.
If you’re planting mass quantities of bulbs, you can excavate 5-6 inches of dirt to a tarp or wheelbarrow, stand your bulbs up, and cover carefully. If you’re planting a small bed or scattering a few tulips here and there, use a bulb planter, trowel, or a drill with an auger to dig your holes.
Tulips look best when planted in clusters, ideally in odd numbered quantities. But you can plant them in rows if you’re going for something more formal. Just keep in mind that you might get a dud here and there. Or, you might have a bulb thieving squirrel in your yard. So it’s best not to get too cute with your planting scheme.
Newly planted tulips do not require fertilizer, as their bulbs contain all the nutrients they need for the upcoming growing season. In subsequent years, sprinkle with bone meal or water in a phosphorus-rich fertilizer in late fall and early spring.
Root rot and fungal conditions are some of the biggest threats your tulips will face in their quest for healthy growth. So it’s important that they never get standing water or overly saturated soil.
Once installed, tulips will need to be watered a prior to the ground freezing over. This will help your tulips establish roots and prepare for dormancy. Keep an eye on the soil, and water just enough to keep the ground moist.
Hit them every few days with a light spray of the hose (unless conditions are unusually wet). If you’ve had a week pass without rain, you’ll want to water at the base of the plant with a house. Avoid turning your soil to mud, but make sure it’s not dry.
After the initial growing season, your bulbs shouldn’t need additional irrigation unless it’s an extremely dry season. Watch your beds, and water when the soil is cracked and stressed. Once shoots have emerged in the spring, the same rules apply. Water sparingly and avoid overwatering.
Protect Them During Winter
If they are properly planted, you do not need to worry about your tulip bulbs ‘freezing’ in winter. Again, they need this period of dormancy in order to flower next season.
Adding a layer of mulch, however, will help keep them from being vulnerable to unseasonably warm temperatures causing them to wake up prematurely. It will also discourage puddling and freeze/thaw cycles that may cause off-season damage.
A three-inch blanket of leaves, straw, evergreen boughs, or hardwood mulch can be used to cover tulips for the winter, just make sure you remove the material in spring when the time is right. The ground will need to warm up before tulips can sprout, and heavy mulch will delay the process.
You may also want to give your newly planted bulbs some protection from dirt-digging critters. Many garden bandits will be racing to fatten their food stashes before winter. Squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, mice, and voles are all renowned bulb thieves and can cause major damage if they’re not kept in check.
Planting as late in the season as possible, after their active period has ended, will aid a bit in the prevention of critter damage. But if you want to increase the chances of your bulbs surviving a ravenous rodent, lay chicken wire over beds. You can also install some kind of ornamental fencing to deny them access. Just make sure beds are free and clear for growth in spring.
In warmer regions, if bulbs have been stored and chilled carefully, some luck might be had with a late winter or early, early spring installation. But roots will not be as well established and blooms will not likely be as robust. For best results, tulips should be planted in fall. It’s an act of optimism and a gardening effort you’ll be glad you made.