Start with Quality Bulbs
Start with quality bulbs, most often from a mail-order supplier but also from a well-stocked garden center. The Netherlands tightly regulates its tulip growers, and as a consequence, all Dutch tulips are of good quality. If you're shopping at a garden center, shop early in the season and choose only bulbs that are firm and free of defects such as cuts, bruises, or mold. Later in the season, be wary of store-bought bulbs or ones offered at significant discount. We also recommend you buy tulips by variety or species name, not color. "Red tulips" for instance, can mean different kinds of varying performance. Or you may get a mixture of colors.
When and Where to Plant Your Tulips
Plant tulips any time the soil 6 inches deep is 60° F or colder. As a general guide, plant in September or early October in USDA Climate Hardiness Zones 4 and 5; October to early November in zones 6 and 7; November to early December in zones 8 and 9; and late December to early January in zone 10. If you're not sure what your hardiness zone is, you can find out here.
Planting Bulbs in Warm Areas
In zones 8 through 10, refrigerate tulip bulbs for six to eight weeks before planting. Place them in a paper bag away from ripening fruits (the fruits produce ethylene gas, which destroys the flower bud within the bulb).
How to Plant Your Tulip Bulbs
Tulips grow best in full sun in well-prepared soil with fast drainage. Avoid planting where water collects, or in locations that are prone to late frosts.
The rule is to plant tulips pointed end up and 6 inches deep, meaning 4 inches of soil above the top of the bulb. Plant a little deeper, to 8 inches, if soil is light or sandy, or if pests such as voles are a problem. Those 2 extra inches put them just out of reach of voles. Deep planting also keeps the bulbs cooler, an advantage in mild-winter areas.
Planting a Tulip Display
For an attractive flower display, plant five tulips per square foot, or 250 bulbs per 50 square feet. Space individual bulbs about 5 inches apart. Use a low-nitrogen granular fertilizer specially formulated for bulbs, and follow label directions about the amount to apply. When planting a grouping, take the extra care to plant at exactly the same depth; this ensures that they all will bloom at the same time. With a shovel, excavate soil to create a level planting base. Set bulbs into the bed, fertilize, and then cover with excavated soil.
After You Plant Your Tulip bulbs
After planting, firm soil and water thoroughly. Don't water again until leaves appear. In cold-winter areas (zones 3 through 6), apply straw mulch about a month after planting. This gives the bulbs time to begin growth before the soil freezes solidly. The mulch also protects the bulbs if snow cover is light or nonexistent. In mild-winter areas, mulch after planting to help keep soil as cool as possible for as long as possible.
Combine tulips with perennials to maximize the impact of both. For instance, combine 'Beauty of Apeldoorn' tulip with basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis). Or combine any tulip with white candytuft (Iberis sempervirens).
Combinations of tulips to try include 'Golden Apeldoorn' (yellow) with 'Apeldoorn' (red); 'Boccherini' (maroon) with 'Hibernia' (white); or 'Esther' (pink) with 'Shirley' (white with purple).