Plant tulip bulbs outdoors in late fall in Zones 3-8 to allow them to chill before blooming in springtime. In Zones 8-10, use a refrigerator to chill the bulbs for 8-10 weeks. Tulips grow best when planted in well-draining soil situated in full sun. Most tulip bulbs are planted 6″ deep and can be placed as close as 4″ apart in the garden (or even more closely in a planter pot). Water tulip bulbs after planting.
Planting tulip bulbs in a flower bed
The most common place to plant tulip bulbs is in a flower bed. Tulips planted in the ground are generally low-maintenance and can perennialize in good conditions. Tulips grow best in Zones 3-8, where the soil becomes cool enough in the winter to facilitate tulip bulb root development. Tulip bulbs can also be grown in Zones 9 and above but typically must be pre-chilled before planting.
Unpack the tulip bulbs as soon as you receive them. Most specialty bulb suppliers will ship tulip bulbs to customers at the proper time of fall planting, regardless of when the year the order was placed. Bulbs are generally stored just above freezing, around 34°-38°F (1°-3°C), in commercial climate-controlled storage prior to shipping.
Plant the bulbs outdoors in Zones 3-8 immediately after receiving them. If waiting for the weekend or another opportune planting time, store the unpacked bulbs in a cool spot (around 40°-60°F (4°-16°C)) that has good air circulation.
In Zones 9-10, tulip bulbs must be chilled artificially to stimulate growth. This process is best done in a spare refrigerator. Start by making sure there are no fruits or vegetables of any kind in the fridge, as they produce a gas that can harm flower buds. Set the temperature to 45° (7°C) or lower. Vernalization at temperatures above 48°F can lead to tulip plants that grow leaves but no flowers. Chill tulip bulbs for 8-12 weeks prior to planting outdoors.
How to plant tulip bulbs in a flower bed
Choose a planting spot with full sun exposure, meaning that the tulip plant’s future leaves should receive 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day. Tulips also grow best in soil that drains out excess water easily. Avoid planting them in heavy clay soil or areas where water tends to pool after rainfall. Where soil is nutrient-poor, a bulb fertilizer can be mixed into the soil prior to placing the bulb.
Use a bulb planter to dig a 6″ deep hole for each bulb. Tulip bulbs can be planted as close as 4″ apart but are often spaced further apart to allow for a smaller number of bulbs to cover a larger area.
Place bulbs in the planting holes with the roots at the bottom and the pointy end at the top. Backfill the holes gently with the garden soil that came out of the hole. Water the planting hole area to moisten the bulb and help the surrounding soil to settle.
Planting tulip bulbs in pots
Tulip bulbs can also be planted in pots, whether for bulb forcing or simply for a planter tulip garden. While these bulbs can require a little bit more maintenance than in-ground bulbs, they have the benefit of portability (and also make splendid springtime gifts).
Start by finding a deep planter that’s at least 12″ (30 cm) wide. Tulip bulbs are generally planted 6″ deep, so shallow planters tend not to work well for these bulbs. Look instead for a planter that is more like 10″ deep so that a bed of 2″-4″ of well-draining soil can be placed in the bottom of the pot for the bulbs to sit on.
How to plant tulip bulbs in pots
Place a base of potting mix on the bottom of the planter pot before placing the bulbs. Usually, 2″ is sufficient, but more can be placed in the pot, which is particularly deep. Most potting soils contain a starter fertilizer, but if not, a bulb fertilizer can be mixed into the potting mix.
Tulip bulbs can be planted very close together in a planter pot, but they should not actually touch each other if possible. Fill the pot up with potting soil up to about an inch below the top of the pot. Water the planted pot thoroughly.
Tulip bulbs planted in pots in the fall require the same chilling as other tulip bulbs. In Zones 3-8, the planter can be placed in an unheated garage or buried in a hole for the winter. In Zones 9-10, chilling must be done in a refrigerator. Remove any fruits/vegetables and set the temperature to 45° (7°C) or lower. Chill the planters for 8-10 weeks (or longer) before removing the pots and allowing them to bloom.