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Don Kinzler, Published September 27 2013

Tulip Truths: 13 things gardeners need to know for tulip success

Southern gardeners struggle to grow lilacs, peonies and rhubarb. Heck, we can grow them with one trowel tied behind our back. Not to mention that we don’t have to check inside our shoes for scorpions, alligators don’t slither into our decorative water features, and I don’t have to worry about a python hiding in my raspberry patch.

Tulips, the great herald of spring, are among the plants that grow better up North where they receive the necessary winter chill. There are 13 secrets to tulip success.

UNDERSTAND TULIP BOTANY

Let’s do an autopsy. Located deep within a well-grown bulb is next spring’s flower garden. The flower bud and leaves are already formed inside.

After planting, the bulbs aren’t sitting idly all fall, rather they are producing roots. The bulbs receive the necessary cold period during winter. Next spring pre-formed internal flower buds and leaves burst forth.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT BULBS

You’ll get more impact for your money if you plant bulbs in groupings of the same type or in mass plantings.

Choose large bulbs that are packed internally with flower power. Bargain assortments often contain smaller, weaker bulbs.

PLANT IN PROPER LOCATION

Full sun will give best success. South-facing locations along house foundations are questionable because they warm up too early in late winter causing premature growth that can be damaged.

A location protected from wind will avoid the heartache of beautiful tulip blooms being blasted apart on a windy spring day.

PREPARE THE SOIL

Proper bulb soil is a necessity. The soil must be well-drained, never water-logged. Mounding the planting bed slightly will help.

Create rich soil by adding sand plus compost or peat moss to the existing soil. Bulbs prefer sandy or sandy loam soil. Heavy clay soils make bulb growth difficult.

Rototill or spade the soil to a depth of 12 inches. A spading fork works well.

ADD FERTILIZER

Bulb fertilizers are specially blended with analysis like 5-10-10. Because phosphorous, the middle number, doesn’t move readily downward through soil, bulb fertilizer should be mixed thoroughly into the planting bed‘s soil.

PLANT PROPERLY

There are two methods of planting. You can excavate the soil to the proper depth by making a circular or rectangular flat-bottomed trench into which the bulbs will be placed. Alternatively you can use a trowel or bulb planter to individually remove a scoop of soil, plant a bulb and replace the soil.

I prefer the first method, because I can see all the bulbs at the proper depth and spacing before backfilling the planting area with soil.

WATCH DEPTH AND SPACING

Tulips are best planted 4 to 6 inches deep in heavy soils, and 6 to 8 inches deep in sandy soils. Depths are measured to the bottom of the bulb.

Space bulbs 4 to 6 inches apart, and remember to plant with the pointed end facing upward.

WATER THOROUGHLY

Even if soil is moist, it is important to soak the planting area to bring soil into contact with bulbs. This initial watering should provide adequate moisture along with fall rains.

Moisture is important to ensure development of a strong root system before winter.

ADD MULCH

Six inches of leaves or straw placed over the planting area will moderate soil temperatures both in fall and spring. Remove before spring growth begins.

KEEP BULBS STRONG

Large, healthy bulbs have enough food and energy stored up within to ensure vigorous blooms the first spring. Our job as gardeners is to rebuild the bulb’s energy after blooming.

Remove flowers immediately after flowers fade so energy is not spent on seed production. Apply a well-balanced fertilizer.

Keep the foliage green and healthy as long as possible, because it is during this time the bulbs are forming next year’s flower buds deep within.

TAKE CARE IN SUMMER

Foliage will turn from green to yellow to brown. Let this occur naturally before removing the dried leaves.

If tulip bulbs have a preference they would prefer summer dormancy in somewhat dry soil. Some tulip growers dig the bulbs in July, store in a dry location and replant in fall.

FERTILIZE EACH FALL.

Apply bulb fertilizer each fall to encourage strong roots before winter. Work the fertilizer down into the soil, and water well.

DIVIDE AND THRIVE

Most tulip varieties will need to be dug, divided, and reset every two to four years.

I’ve got a challenge for all of us. Can you imagine our cities and towns if everyone would plant a dozen or two tulips in the front landscape? Spring would enter with a boom. I’m putting my money where my mouth is and planting two dozen Yellow Triumph tulips by our front door.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com