Tulips are rather fussy. They like lots of sunshine and well-drained, light soil. They hate getting their feet wet and grow best in spots with at least 6 hours of daily sun. Tulips grow happily in zones 3-8, and with proper care, many varieties will perennialize in such climates. In colder or warmer areas, you’ll have to make some special accommodations.
Once you’ve chosen your spot, the next thing to know is that tulips can only be planted in the fall, with enough time before really cold weather sets in that the bulbs have a chance to develop some roots before the ground freezes. Ideal soil temperature for planting is about 9⁰C /50⁰F. Plant your bulbs at a depth roughly twice their height, and water thoroughly to encourage root development.
In colder climates, it’s best to plant the bulbs deeper, at a depth 3-4 times their height, watering the bed and then covering it with heavy mulch.
In warmer climates, it’s necessary to pre-chill the bulbs for 8 (check) weeks prior to planting to guarantee flowering the following spring. Many large bulb companies will pre-chill bulbs for customers in warm climates. In that case, all you’ll have to do is plant, water and wait!
The cool period (or dormancy), whether natural or simulated, is crucial for flower development. Like potatoes and onions, the fall tulip bulbs are packets of starch with a tiny flower hidden at the center.
During dormancy, the bulb slowly converts that starch into the sugar that gives the embryonic bud at its center the energy to blossom when spring comes. No matter what your climate, fertilize your tulip beds as soon as the first leaf shoots appear.
Once your tulips stop closing up for the night, cut the flower head off, but leave the foliage in place until it dies back naturally. It’s fine to interplant tulips with later blooming perennials, or to tuck young annuals in among the withering foliage so they can take over for summer. Leaving the foliage in place until it dies gives your tulip bulb the chance to store up starch for the following winter and to develop another tiny embryo in preparation for the coming spring.
Although perfectly cared for tulips will perennialize in the right setting, many gardeners prefer the reliability of planting fresh bulbs each fall. If that’s your choice, you can pull up the plants, roots and all, once flowering is over.