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Tulips 101
by Yvonne Cunnington
by Yvonne Cunnington

I am a garden writer and photographer living near Hamilton, Ont. My articles have appeared in Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Canadian Gardening and Gardening Life magazines. My book for beginner gardeners, Clueless in the Garden: A Guide for the Horticulturally Helpless (Key Porter Books) was published in 2003.

My husband and I tend a large country garden, which has been featured on TV’s Gardeners Journal and in Gardening Life magazine. We have had numerous bus tours visit our garden.

Visit her website at

October 20, 2002

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Fragrant double flowering tulip 'Angelique'

It's impossible imagine spring without tulips. After a long winter, we all yearn for an energizing shot of colour, and bright, cheerful tulip blossoms embody spring's promise of renewal. In fact, they are the ultimate visual spring tonic.

Tulips are easy to grow, and range from the small, hardy species tulips often used in rock gardens, to the tall, majestic and colourful hybrids that brighten flowerbeds early in the season. This fall, be sure to tuck in at least a dozen or two: they're sure to jumpstart your flowerbeds into life next spring.

Think spring in fall

Tulips are perfect for Canadian gardens because they actually need winter cold to flower. You can plant tulip bulbs from mid-September to December, as long as the ground isn't frozen. But who wants to freeze their fingers off planting bulbs? In general, the colder your climate, the earlier you should plant. To allow plenty of time for root development before winter, plant your bulbs about six weeks before hard ground frosts hit your area.

When buying tulips, avoid soft, mushy or mouldy bulbs, and choose large size bulbs. Bulbs are graded and sold by size; smaller bulbs are cheaper, but they produce smaller flowers. However, bulbs of so-called species' tulips' (see below) are naturally smaller than hybrid tulip bulbs.

You'll notice that tulip bulbs have an onion-like outer papery skin or "tunic" that can come loose or torn - this usually isn't a problem and may actually promote faster rooting once the bulb is planted.

If you can't plant them immediately, store your bulbs in a paper bag in a dark and cool place, preferably under 20ºC. If keeping longer, put the bulbs into a cold room in the basement or in the crisper of your fridge, but keep them away from apples and other ripening fruit, which emit a gas that can ruin bulbs.

Ready, set, plant

Tulips thrive in full sun, but part shade will do, as long as they get at least six hours of sun. Good drainage is important: if the soil is too wet, bulbs may rot over the winter. To prepare the planting site, work the soil with a garden fork and remove any weeds and small stones. Dig either a trench or wide hole, or individual holes for individual bulbs or small cluster of bulbs.

Avoid planting bulbs rigid soldier-like rows. Generous "bouquets" are far more dramatic than a smattering here and there. Planting is as easy as one-two-three:

  1. Place bulbs in soil pointed side up. Bulb size determines planting depth - in general, the planting depth should be three times the height of the bulb, so plant large bulbs (5 cm in diameter and larger) about 20-25 cm deep and smaller-size bulbs (2.5 cm in diameter) 7-12 cm deep. Space large bulbs 7-15 cm apart and small ones 3-6 cm apart.

  2. If the bulbs are intended to come back year after year, add a bulb fertilizer when planting, following the manufacturer's directions.

  3. Cover with soil and water thoroughly. After the ground cools, apply 5-8 cm of mulch (compost, well-rotted manure, wood chips or chopped up leaves) to help keep soil moist and provide added winter protection.

Survivor: the tulip version

In their native mountain habitat in Turkey and other central Asian countries, where the winters are cold and summers are dry and cool, tulips are perennials, returning year after year. However, under moister, richer garden conditions or where summers are very warm, many hybrid tulips look spectacular the first year or two, but then their flowers get smaller or just leaves come up or the bulbs disappear entirely.

The deeper you plant and the better drained your site, the more staying power your tulips will have. And choose your varieties carefully: the best perennial performers include tulips in the Kaufmanniana , Fosteriana and Greigii classifications and species tulips:

Kaufmanniana tulips are very early-blooming and have flowers that open wide on sunny days to resemble a star or waterlily. Compact, averaging 10-15 cm in height, they are good choices for flowerbed edges and rock gardens. Popular selections include Stresa and Heart's Delight.

Greigii cultivars, which are also early-blooming, grow from 20-30 cm tall and have attractive chocolate striping on their leaves; varieties to try: Red Riding Hood, Toronto, Donna Bella

The Fosteriana tulips, which bloom at daffodil time, include the ever-popular red, white and yellow Emperor varieties; they grow 40-50 cm tall and have large flowers with broad, green or grey-green foliage.

Another option is species tulips - the forerunners of hybrid tulips. Try the starry flowered white and gold Tarda tulip, the cream and yellow turkestanica type, the canary yellow Tulipa batalinii 'Bright Gem' or the scarlet Tulipa praestans 'Fusilier'. At 15 to 30 cm in height, they are smaller than most hybrid tulips and their flowers are smaller too. Try them at the edge of flowerbeds, in front gardens and in rockeries. Most species tulips are early blooming.

After the show

Always remove faded blooms, so your plants will put their energy into strengthening the bulb, not into producing seeds. Then leave foliage in place to allow bulbs to "recharge" for next spring's performance. This takes restraint, since floppy tulip leaves look messy as they ripen and turn yellow. But the leaves perform an essential job, using the sun's energy to make food to be stored inside the bulb for next year's flowers.

When bulb leaves have yellowed and withered about six weeks, cut them off.

If you want to be rid of the leaves sooner, plant early-blooming varieties only.

Plant tulips between groups of large perennials with strong foliage, such as peonies, meadow rue and daylilies. The emerging foliage of the perennials helps camouflage dying bulb leaves.

Next spring, when you notice tulips emerging from the ground, apply a sprinkling of bulb fertilizer.

If you can't resist masses of bright, colourful tulips but just hate having yellowing leaves afterwards, consider treating them as annuals - just dig the bulbs out after flowering to make way for summer annuals. You'll be sure to have a terrific display each spring - and the bonus is that you can to try new varieties or a whole new colour scheme every year.

Squirrel Trouble in Paradise

Squirrels consider tulips tasty treats. Bulbs are most vulnerable after planting, when the soil is still soft from being dug up, and squirrels often discover them while burying nuts. Planting deeply, firming the soil down well, throwing a few leaves on top and then cleaning up any trace of bulb planting can help discourage squirrels.

But if you have serious theft problems, place chicken wire on top of the planted area and anchor it with pegs cut from wire coat hangers. The squirrels can't dig through the mesh, and it can be removed once the ground begins to freeze hard. As a last resort, you might even try feeding the squirrels, so they'll leave your bulbs alone.

Tulips: The Ottawa connection

The Canadian Tulip Festival in Ottawa (see, which happens to be the world's largest tulip festival, has long been a symbol of the friendship between the Netherlands and Canada. During World War II, Ottawa gave sanctuary and support to the Dutch royal family. A thank you gift from the Netherlands of 100,000 tulip bulbs led to Ottawa's annual spring extravaganza, featuring four million tulips in bloom. Next year's festival is set for May 2 to 19

Although tulips don't originate from the Netherlands - they were first grown there in 1594 - the Netherlands have long been the world's leading supplier. Dutch nurseries grow about 10 billion flower bulbs, of which 3 billion are tulips. Two-thirds of Dutch-grown bulbs are exported.

Top 10 Tulips

These tulips are at the top on the hit parade for Canadian gardeners:

  1. Angelique: late spring flowering; double, blush-pink and fragrant

  2. Queen of the Night: late spring flowering; satiny maroon, almost black flowers

  3. Apeldoorn: mid spring flowering and tall hybrid; large scarlet red flowers, fragrant

  4. Golden Apeldoorn: mid season; tall with large golden yellow flowers

  5. Apricot Beauty: early spring blooming; delicate rose apricot and fragrant

  6. Don Quichotte: early spring flowering; purplish-pink flowers

  7. Negrita: mid spring blooming; plum-purple lightly frosted with silver

  8. Purissima (also sold as White Emperor): Fosteriania tulip; showy white flowers in mid spring

  9. Red Emperor: Fosteriania; huge scarlet flowers in mid spring

  10. Red Riding Hood: Greigii; early-flowering in scarlet with jet black base

For more information about growing tulips and other flower bulbs, visit the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Centre's excellent website at

© Story & Photo: Yvonne Cunnington, Oct. 2002

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