Spring is not just a promise when you're holding a handful of tulip bulbs: it's a bright and colorful guarantee. Each tulip bulb contains the germ of at least one cheerful flower. Planting them now, in the fall, sets your garden up for a lovely springtime display of flowers.
Big public displays of tulips often involve sweeping mass plantings of a single tulip variety. Such a bold splash of color will certainly stop traffic, but tulips are versatile flowers and there are many ways to use them in gardens of any size or style. They're graceful, stately performers within the clipped hedges of a formal garden, they add style to cottage gardens, and they bring a winter-weary perennial garden to life. They're handsome companions for evergreen and spring-blooming shrubs. In pots, they put spring color at your fingertips.
"They're amongst my favorite spring-flowering bulbs," says Jacqueline van der Kloet, a Dutch garden designer whose expert eye for tulips in combination with other plants can be enjoyed in the planting designs at the Lurie Garden in Chicago's Millennium Park, in the Battery Gardens in Manhattan, and at New York Botanical Garden. She is inspired by the colors, shapes, heights, and flowering times of tulips, she says, and "it has become a game for me to keep coming up with new combinations." Her book, "A Year in My Garden," explores many of her favorites.
It can indeed be hard to choose. Officially, there are more than 3,000 tulip varieties (classified into 15 different types), from tiny, wispy species flowers to big doubles that look almost like peonies. Bulb specialists narrow down the selection for their customers, but they still list dozens of tulips in their catalogs every fall, alongside daffodils, hyacinths, crocus, and other bulbs. It's a dizzying selection, but choosing will be easier if you give some thought in advance to what colors you like, when in the course of the spring you want your tulips to bloom, and how tall they should be. If you choose a range of tulips with early, mid-, and late-season bloom times, you can expect tulips to be in bloom in your garden for a month or more. If you're going for a really bold show of color, you might stick to mid-season Darwin and Triumph tulips: you're still likely to have blooms for up to two weeks.
Catalogs such as Colorblends make it easy to be an expert tulip gardener. Tim Schipper, the owner, and his team experiment with combinations of different tulip varieties and offer tried-and-true blends so gardeners -- and landscape designers -- get it right the first time. They have worked with Jacqueline van der Kloet on designs for the bulb display in the Colorblends spring garden in Connecticut. A blend called Pillowtalk, made for romance, combines pink and creamy yellow tulips. If you prefer your colors on the brighter side, go for fearless combinations such as Critical Mass, which the Colorblends team describes as a "chain reaction of yellow, purplish pink, and maroon."
Coming up with tulip blends "is a little like mixing chemicals," the Colorblends experts say. "Get it wrong and nothing happens, or maybe too much. Get it right and the colors seem to feed off each other."
No matter which tulips you choose, they all need the same conditions and care. Fall is the time to plant them, when daytime temperatures are reliably cool and the soil is cool, too. Plant tulip bulbs in a spot where their foliage will receive lots of sun in the springtime, and also where the soil drains well. They need water to grow and flourish, but not too much: tulip bulbs are dormant during the summer, and automatic irrigation systems can cause them to rot.
Van der Kloet recommends planting tulip bulbs at least six inches deep; a good rule of thumb for tulips and other bulbs is to plant the bulb at least three times as deep as the bulb is tall. Firm the soil over the planting area and water well. A mulch of crushed autumn leaves looks tidy and insulates the soil.
After you have planted and watered your tulip bulbs, you've done your bit. The bulbs begin to put down roots right away, but you won't see a thing in the garden until early spring, when shoots begin to poke up through the soil. The handsome foliage is itself wonderfully encouraging after a long winter, and within weeks, you'll notice flower buds, which will soon show a hint of color. Sunshine encourages them to open, slowly at first and then with a flourish. Cool temperatures and spring rains refresh the tulip flowers and prolong their bloom. It is a pleasant time to be out in the garden, and you will find yourself admiring each and every glorious bloom.
-- You can't plant too many tulips. Classic, dependable tulip bulbs cost less than 50 cents each (you can buy 100 for about $35 or $40), and with 100 bulbs, you can make a big impact.
-- In perennial gardens, tuck tulip bulbs into spaces between plants, making room for three, five, or even just one tulip bulb in each space. The effect, with flowers blooming through the length of the flower bed, is something like a wildflower meadow. Planting bulbs close together looks great, too -- like a flying carpet of color.
-- Darwin hybrid tulips and lily-flowered tulips are known for their ability to come back and bloom for several years. Many other tulips will return to bloom for a few years, also, but the first year is always the best. Little species tulips, which look great along the edge of a flower bed, can be excellent perennializers.
-- Deer are particularly fond of tulip flower buds. If deer are a problem in your garden, you'll need to spray tulip buds in spring with a deer repellant. Don't wait until the deer discover them: spraying is a preventative measure. Planting tulip bulbs in pots on the porch may keep them out of reach of the deer.
-- Plant tulip bulbs where you'll be able to watch them come into bloom from the windows of your house. Plant some out front, too: the neighbors will notice.
-- Excellent sources for tulip bulbs include: Colorblends (colorblends.com), Brent and Becky's Bulbs (brentandbeckysbulbs.com), and John Scheepers (johnscheepers.com).
-- Jacqueline van der Kloet (theetuin.nl) is an internationally known garden designer and the author of "A Year in My Garden" and 10 other garden design and nature books. Her business, Thee Tuin (The Tea Garden), in Weesp, near Amsterdam, the Netherlands, is open year round.