Growing Beautiful Tulips in Wisconsin (and other cold places!)
Tulips have always been my favorite flower. Their perfect, dusty green foliage; their fresh spring scent; the sound they make when you work with them - all factors that make me look forward to their cheerful blooms each year. They also come at such an ideal time here in the cold north; when I am chilled to the bone (and heart!) after a long, frigid winter, tulips are the sign that spring is truly here in Wisconsin. If you don't already grow tulips in your yard, I hope to convince you! Come to the dark side. We have cookies. And tulips.
So, why should I grow tulips?
If you live in northern climates (Zone 3-7), tulips are the gifts that keep on giving. You plant them once and enjoy their blooms year after year. They can make a lovely cut flower and can really brighten up your life after surviving the brutal months of February and March here. (Is anyone else as bitter as me that some people think the first day of spring is in March?! HA. False. Not here anyway.)
How do you grow tulips?
Tulips are honestly pretty simple plants that are grown from bulbs. They like full sunlight (think southern side of a building), but since they bloom so early, you can get away with planting them below trees. They typically don't need water in the landscape, especially not if you give them a good water the first time you plant them. You also typically don't need to feed them. All in all, they can be a really great addition to your spring garden.
So, how do bulbs even work?
Some plants multiply through something called bulbs. You plant the bulb in the ground in the fall, and the plant slowly grows roots throughout the fall and winter (Yes, you read that right. Plants grow roots in winter, even here in Wisconsin.). In spring, the bulb shoots stiff green leaves up through the soil, along with a beautiful flower bud.
After the flowers die back, the green leaves stay to absorb sunlight and 'charge' the bulb throughout the spring (think of the leaves sort of like solar panels). Once the bulb has enough energy to both multiply and bloom next season, the leaves turn yellow or brown and die back to the ground. Note: This is why it is important to leave the foliage until it has yellowed. Resist the urge to cut it down too early!
One single bulb turns into a few 'daughter bulbs' by the end of the season. These baby bulbs start the process over again, growing roots and absorbing nutrients until they bloom the following spring. This is why it is important not to plant your tulips too close together; those babies need room to grow!
What do bulbs look like?
The photo below shows healthy tulip bulbs that are ready to plant in the ground. Many tulip bulbs have spots on them from being at nature's whim - this is okay! As long as the bulb is pretty firm and not mushy or moldy, you are ready to plant these in the ground. Another way to think of bulbs are like onions (another type of bulb!) - the outer layer of an onion can be damaged while the inside remains protected and ready to eat (or plant!).
Okay, you've convinced me. Now what do I need to know to grow them?
Success! I have transitioned you to the dark side. Read on to become a tulip pro!
When should I plant my tulips?
Tulips can be planted any time after your first frost. In Zone 5 or colder, this is anytime after mid October. Tulips generally need 12 to 16 weeks of 'chill hours' (i.e. days when the ground temps are below 55* F) in order to bloom properly. That being said, Chris and I have planted them in mid-December and still got a lovely show!
How deep should I plant my tulip bulbs?
Tulips should be planted 6-8" deep, measured from the bottom of where the bulb sits. Include any mulch or compost as part of the depth measurement. Tulip bulbs are planted with the pointy end facing up. We like to use this tool to plant them. It saves time (and your back!).
How far apart should I plant my bulbs?
We recommend planting your tulips 6" apart if you plan on leaving them in your landscape for many years. This will give the bulbs room to multiply. If you prefer a fuller look right away, you can plant tulips 3-4" apart and plan on digging them up and separating them in a couple of years if they become too crowded.
Will my tulips come back every year?
Yes! Tulips are a perennial in Zones 3-7. If they are allowed to 'recharge', they will come
back and bless your garden year after year.