When Should You Plant Tulips?
How to plant tulips for success
Tulip bulbs should be planted in the fall or early winter, depending on your USDA hardiness zone. Whether they are early, mid-season, or late tulips, you can expect them to bloom anywhere from four to five weeks after their first shoots appear aboveground until your peonies do the same.
Tulips should be planted in the middle to late fall in most regions.
The optimal time to plant tulips is between the date of the first light frost and the average date of the first heavy freeze in your area. In that time frame, you can expect nighttime lows in the 40s and low 50s, with soil temperatures hovering around the 60-degree mark. Zone 1 through 3 gardeners should plant in September or October, Zone 4 and 5 gardeners in late September through early November, and Zone 6 and 7 gardeners in October through mid-December.
Gardeners in USDA plant hardiness zones 8 through 10 should buy pre-chilled tulip bulbs so that they can be stored at 40 degrees for the full three and a half months necessary for the bulbs to bloom. Gardeners also have the option of chilling their own bulbs in a refrigerator set to between 35 and 45 degrees for 10 to 14 weeks prior to planting.
Check the soil temperature before planting in September to make sure it is cool enough.
In most zones, early September is still too warm to plant tulip bulbs, but in zones 1–3 it is possible. And tulip bulbs are notorious for being unable to establish themselves in soil with a temperature above 60 degrees. Wait until the nighttime lows consistently dip below 50 degrees.
Buy tulip bulbs in the middle to the latter part of October if you garden in USDA hardiness zones 8 through 10, then store them in the refrigerator in a perforated plastic bag until early January. In this way, the bulbs can have a sufficient pre-chilling period before being planted. Since the ethylene released by fruits and vegetables can be harmful to flower embryos, the best place to keep them is in a refrigerator in the garage that is stocked only with cold drinks.
Where and when to plant tulip bulbs
When possible, we advise waiting until November to plant tulip bulbs because, in cooler soil, the bulbs are less likely to be affected by fungal diseases. Your local rodent population may have already stored enough food for the winter, so they won’t be as motivated to dig up your tulip bulbs. Growers in USDA hardiness zones 8 through 10 should postpone planting prechilled tulip bulbs until at least November, and possibly until early January. Bulbs that have been properly stored and chilled usually bloom within four to six weeks of being planted, and their blossoms remain beautiful for a longer period of time when kept cool.
Late in the month of January is an acceptable time to plant if the ground is not frozen.
Don’t lose hope if the ground freezes before you can plant your bulbs or if you discover bulbs you forgot to set out in the fall during the winter. Put them in a dry, cool spot with temperatures between 50 and 70 degrees and cross your fingers that they’ll thaw out. If that happens, you have until the end of January to plant the bulbs, provided they haven’t dried out. Keep in mind that bulbs need time to establish their roots before they can start growing leaves, so late-planted bulbs may take longer than usual to bloom.
Cozy up the bulbs for the winter.
Now that you know when to plant tulip bulbs, select a spot in full sun and well-drained soil if you live in a USDA hardiness zone lower than 7. When you want your flowers to last as long as possible, plant them somewhere that gets morning sun but afternoon shade. Plant the bulbs, pointed ends up, at a depth equal to three times their height. Tulip bulbs typically need to be planted between 6 and 8 inches underground. Put some distance between each one, say 4 or 5 inches, and try to avoid making perfectly straight rows.
Tulips aren’t true perennials, so it’s best to plant fresh bulbs every year. You can force them to bloom again by cutting the flower stalks when they’re done but leaving the foliage in place until it dies off on its own.