Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Beautiful Bulbs

Every spring the Skagit Valley of Washington state bursts into breathtaking beauty. Nothing outside of the Netherlands can top the vast sweeps of color, as far as the clip_image002eye can see. That illustrates one of the challenges with tulips. No one can gainsay their beauty, but their impact is greatest in large color blocks. Interplanting mixed colors can detract from the show as can planting too few together. The other problem is that many of the exquisite hybrids are not reliably perennial in the home garden.

But who can resist them? I can’t! I buy some almost every year, usually at Costco, and they provide an inspiring display the following spring. If you are willing to treat them as annuals, you will never be disappointed.

However, if you are only interested in large tulips that will return for another season, the variety that is most likely to accommodate you is the Darwin hybrid. In fact, the tulip with which I have the most success is a Darwin hybrid ‘Pink Impression.’ These are hybrids of the vigorous T. fosteriana species tulip crossed with the Darwin tulip. The Darwins were 19th century selections of the so-called ‘cottage tulips.’ They were first offered commercially in 1899 by a Messrs. Krelage and Son, of Haarlem in The Netherlands. These strains were probably survivors from the earliest Tulip mania in Europe, descended from T. gesneriana. So, this is a tough tulip. No need to tiptoe through these brawny blossoms.

Tulips should be planted once the weather has turned consistently cool and before the ground has frozen. Tulips prefer part-day, full sunlight or filtered sunlight for longest bloom time and best color. In the Pacific NW, that probably translates to full sun. All of our sunlight is somewhat ‘filtered’ by cloud layer. Bulbs will not grow in an area with poor water drainage; don’t even try it. They hate "wet feet".

Place the bulbs firmly in the soil with the pointed end up at a depth of 6-8”. Different bulbs require different planting depths; the general rule of thumb is to cover the top of each bulb with 3" to 4" of top soil. My tulips get a compost mulch and little else in the way of fertilizer. If you prefer, you may fertilize the bulbs three times a year: at planting time in the fall; when the sprouts first push through the soil in the spring and when the foliage dies in the summer. Don’t mix fertilizer into each hole; if you must fertilize, broadcast it over the surface of the bed and water it in. Water your tulips after planting if the soil is dry; they need to establish a strong root system before the ground freezes.

After your bulbs bloom, be sure to leave the foliage and stems to die back naturally, but you can "dead head" the flowers as soon as they have faded. The foliage manufactures energy and stores it in the bulb. If there is any hope of bloom the following year, the foliage should not be removed until it has withered completely. Bulbs are best left to regenerate in the ground. Of course, if you are treating your tulips as annuals, you can remove all of the foliage when you remove the faded blooms.

There are several ways of dealing with the yellowing foliage. You can plant the bulbs in gallon pots and sink them in the garden. Be sure to cover during our rainy winter with fern fronds and fir branches to prevent “wet feet.” (This works well with Dahlias, too.) Then after you enjoy the bloom in the spring, remove the pot to another location where the foliage can be allowed to “ripen.”

tulipsI prefer to interplant my bulbs with perennials that emerge a bit later but put on enough growth to cover the dying bulb foliage. Some candidates might be Geranium, Leucanthemum, Peonies, Echinacea, Nepeta, Brunnera, Hemerocallis, Aster fritarkii, and Hosta. Anything with broad or vase shaped foliage that is winter dormant then comes on strong after May will work well.

Set your expectations according to their limitations and you won’t be disappointed. These bulbs are too beautiful to eschew, so enjoy their extravagant display.


  1. I'm encouraged by your saying that those bulbs should be thought of as annuals....I've never had much luck with them the second year. Great blog Susan! I'm a fan!

  2. Where do you buy the darwin hybrid? That sounds awesome.

  3. The Darwin hybrid tulip is very popular and widely available. You should find them locally wherever they sell tulip bulbs in the fall. Infrequently, they are only labeled with the variety such as 'Pink Impression' or 'Daydream'. So, you may want to browse the web, and ID some of the easy to find varieties. Check out johnscheepers.com, MZbulb.com or brentandbeckysbulbs.com online.

  4. Very helpful information, so next year I will have a perennial garden enhanced with fabulous tulips. You are indeed a Master Gardner!