Tulip Time!

These classic beauties practically scream "Spring!"

Credit: Netherlands Flower Bulbs; Van Noort Bulb Company

Don’t bother tip-toeing—these classic beauties practically scream “Spring!”

There’s a reason city councils and public bodies love to fill open spaces with tulips. They’re inexpensive, circus-tent bold and virtually foolproof – barring a few persistent squirrels – making them a good bet for beginning (or forgetful) gardeners too. “A tulip, in essence, has everything and anything it needs to perform built into its little package already,” explains Carl van Noort, president of Van Noort Bulb Company. “Once they root, there is very little that can go wrong.”

Tulipa Rococo 'Peach Blossom'
Tulipa ‘Rococo’ (parrot type), T. ‘Peach Blossom’

How to cultivate a good relationship with your bulbs

Good bulbs, bad bulbs. Look for size gradings marked on the package. The bigger, the better. “Buy a good-sized bulb that feels nice and firm, no soft spots or real hard parts,” says John Zaplatynsky, president of GardenWorks. “They mean the bulb has either been damp and has a bit of rot, or it’s dried out and won’t flower very well.”

Good and bad tulip bullbs


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Plant in fall. Tulip bulbs need to experience 10 to 12 weeks of winter chill before they will sprout. This is why bulbs are happiest in northern regions, but less common in warmer zones, like California or Florida. Plant before the ground freezes, usually September or October, but even into December if the weather is warm enough. Fertilize with bone meal or bulb fertilizer.

Location, location. Choose a sunny spot with well-drained soil. Bulbs hate being soggy, and may rot in wet soil. A sunny balcony container works too. Tulips are unlikely to bloom if kept indoors.

Spring trim. After your tulips have finished flowering, cut off the spent bloom and stem, but sprinkle a little fertilizer and let the leaves continue to soak up sunshine. They’re manufacturing nutrients to feed the bulb for the following year, so don’t trim back until they’ve started to yellow and wither.
Bulb life. Bulbs will produce for two to five years before you need to replant – less in wet areas, longer in dry regions. Harsh winters won’t harm bulbs.

Arranging tulips
Even small groupings will shout “Spring” with incredible volume

colourful tulips
Experiment with flamboyant colours in small spaces

Tulipa 'Spring Green'
Tulipa ‘Spring Green’

Tulipa greigii Quebec
Tulipa greigii ‘Quebec’

Tulipa New Design
Tulipa ‘New Design’

Weber's Parrot
Tulipa ‘Weber’s Parrot’

Making your bed

Linda Black, owner of Wheelbarrow Nursery on Gabriola Island, offers the following design tip. “Mix up your early bulbs, mids and lates when planting so you don’t notice when some are out of bloom [i.e. don’t plant all the early-bloomers in a bunch]. Plant at least three of each type together. Like any kind of decorating, you want groups of threes or fives. Try to get a mix of colours in each type. Peach, yellow and orange look beautiful together.”

Cheap and chic. No other flower provides a bigger bang for your buck, cramming explosions of colour into those first tentative weeks of spring in March, just when you’re most desperate for cheerful hues. Cheap enough to plant in wide swaths of bold crimson or sunbeam yellow on large properties, but even on the tiniest balcony, a grouping of three or five of these large-headed blooms shouts, “Spring!” with incredible volume.

Large properties. For a classic look, plant single colours in blocks. “When you think of the traditional tulips planted in the big gardens in Holland they tend to be wide swaths of reds and yellows,” says van Noort.

Small yards. If you don’t have space for huge drama, create interest by combining contrasting colours, such as orange and white. Because urban gardens are often smaller, many nurseries and mail-order houses sell ready-made packs, such as Van Noort’s Colourful Companions line. Try Elegant Duet, purple tulips matched with peach-blushed white.

Balconies. With limited space, go for flamboyant scene-stealers. Parrot tulips have elongated petals resembling tufted feathers topping parrots’ heads. Peony tulips are full and fluffy and fringed tulips have a slightly ruffled edge. Fancier varieties are often bi-colour, meaning two hues in one bloom.

Foliage. Hybridizers, beyond aiming for disease-resistant bulbs, are breeding for interesting variegated leaves, such as ‘Eternal Flame’, which has leaves edged in pinky-white.

Contemporary. Trendy colours tend to follow cycles, says van Noort. One year it will be pinks, peaches and whites, and the next year back to saturated colours such as purples, reds and yellows. For a super-chic front gate, go for deliciously warm orange, this year’s top seller. Or try Tulipa ‘Spring Green’ cream-coloured tulips with bold green streaks.

Classic. “When you say tulips to people, typically they think of red,” says van Noort. “It’s your quintessential tulip. There’s a lot of call for the classic style and shape of tulips from decades ago. Simplicity, just straight nice solid colours.”

Prolonging spring

Tulips are categorized as early, mid or late-season varieties. Plant some of each, and you could have blooms from early March until the beginning of May on the coast. Add three to four weeks to the start date for non-coastal regions. Northern areas with a late spring should skip early-season varieties.

Each bulb will flower from two to four weeks, depending on weather. “If you get cool bright days without a lot of wind, the flowers will last longer. Blossoms tend to dissipate more quickly in a real warm spell,” says Zaplatynsky.

Early-season: Start flowering early March. Tend to be shorter than later cultivars. Tulipa greigii or T. kaufmanniana hybrids grow 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 in.) tall.

Mid-season: Start flowering late March. Hundreds of cultivars in this bloom range.Around 30 to 40 cm (12 to 16 in.) tall.

Late-season: Starts flowering early to mid April. Fancier varieties such as fringed, peony or parrot tend to be late season, and are typically used in small beds or containers. For dependable blooming in large areas, try the simpler Darwin Hybrid cultivars, in any colour you can imagine.