November 1, 2012

Planting Tulip Bulbs: How and Why

This beautiful photo is of the sunken garden at Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire, UK where some 6,000 tulip bulbs pop up every spring. It graced the cover of the March 2007 issue of The English Garden magazine and was my first inspiration to plant tulip bulbs en masse in the fall. I have read the article and drooled over the pictures dozens of times, and it still inspires me. 

I had planted tulips before seeing this fantastic display and knew what hard work it can be to get even a few dozen bulbs into the ground, so a stunning masterpiece of garden like this one immediately draws my admiration for the minds and hands that create it.

Along the top of the sunken garden at Chenies Manor, a low red brick wall and a pleached hedge of limes (lindens) run the length of the garden providing protection from prevailing southwest winds. You can read my post on the garden art of pleaching HERE.The tulip bulbs are planted in monochromatic blocks. Bedding plants like wallflowers, primulas and forget-me-nots keep color once the tulips have flowered and faded; the remaining sharply-pointed tulip leaves provide a structural contrast to the soft underplanting. Box topiary, yew hedging and wide lawns provide a framework for the spectacular tulip display.

The Chenies Manor gardens are the work of Alistair and Elizabeth MacLeod Matthews. The gardens extend to around 5-1/2 acres and are all extensively cultivated. Elizabeth had no formal training but has loved gardening since she was a child. She talks of starting with marigolds and growing sweet peas for showing as a teenager. Clearly, her love and skill have blossomed into something spectacular.

If the images above seem to announce a post that's a bit ahead of its time, after all, spring doesn't come to the Northern Hemisphere for five more months, the ones below will bring you firmly to the here and now. In many growing zones, November is the perfect time to get tulip bulbs into the ground. Where I live, US growing zone 6a, November is cool, but the ground is not yet frozen, which is just right for planting.

The bulbs of the Darwin hybrid 'Pink Impression' tulips, one of my favorites for cheery color after the gray of winter.

From the English Garden article on the Chenies Manor tulip display, here is a list of planting tips from Elizabeth McLeod Matthews that I have used and found to be really helpful.

  • We plant our bulbs about 5in (13cm) apart, and only about 4in (10cm) deep, as we lift the bulbs each year. We give the bulbs to our volunteer helpers, and start again afresh each year - we have to do this because we are a display garden and need the flowers to be in tip-top condition each year.
  • Plant tulips from October to late December. We tend to plant ours in November, when the ground is still warm but the weather is beginning to get cold.
  • We start lifting the tulip bulbs on 18 May and, to avoid tulip blight, ensure no bulbs are left in the ground.
  • Some tulips, such as Darwin hybrids and 'Apeldoorn' varieties, can be kept in the ground for a few years, in which case, plant them 6in (15cm) deep. (Note: I have tried this, but in the clay-like Missouri soil, was not happy with the results.)
  • Small flowering tulip species will naturalise if planted about 5in (13cm) deep and left undisturbed. 
  • We cut the tulips down to the lower leaves, which then add an architectural aspect to the soft underplanting.
There are so many varieties of tulip bulbs from which to choose. I have always purchased mine locally, but there are a number of great online sources as well. Try ColorBlends or Brent and Becky's Bulbs; both are rated as Top 5 companies by Dave's Garden.

I am planting around a hundred bulbs this year, nowhere near the thousands that Chenies Manor does, but that's ok, because visual impact is based on scale, and in a small-ish space such as mine, even a block of twenty tulips of one color can have a great affect. I am again planting the Darwin hybrid 'Pink Impression' and, for the first time, 'White Triumph'. The stems of 'Pink Impression' are sturdy and tall and the blooms are enormous and excellent for cutting.

From my past experiences planting tulips en masse, here is a list of likelihoods should you try it:
  • Passing cars will slow down. Watch closely and you'll see a camera furtively lifted from the lap of the passenger who snaps a picture before they pull away.
  • The necks of all neighborhood walkers will be firmly tilted in the direction of your house during the blooming season. 
  • Silver-haired ladies and gentlemen with sweet smiles will stop to tell you how much they love your garden. (A few years ago, while I was putting in the bulbs, one such gentleman stopped to tell me about his days living in Holland, and how excited he would be watching for the tulips in the spring.)
  • Perfect strangers will stop and make friends.
  • Within your community you may gain the quirky title, "Tulip Lady/Man".
  • If you plant bulbs that bloom in mid-spring, you will have something to break the gloom of Tax Day. (My 'Pink Impressions' seem to always bloom on or just before April 15.) 
Worth it? I definitely think so. But even if you're not up to putting in dozens and dozens, or don't have the space, planting a few small masses, even in pots, will give you a terrific spring display.

You know where I'll be the next few days-- with my hands four inches into the soil!

Until next time!


  1. KERI MY DEAR! It is so refreshing to see you and with such a warm post filled with hope for the new year! You know, there is nothing more stunning than to see an army of tulips, standing at attention in multi-colored rows. And this garden, oh my, that château next to it and the lush bushes are what I love the most about any garden!

    It really is good to see you. I hope you are well and WE ARE GETTING SNOW this weekend! ARE YOU? Did you ivy finally turn color? Our weather is eerily warm but it is going to change overnight. That is what we can always expect here in Minnesota!

    Hugs to you, Anita

  2. Keri, I was so happy to see your post! The tulips are just fabulous! We planted them en masse at one of our previous homes; but, have not gotten around to it here. This may be just the inspiration that I need!
    They really are beautiful in the Spring!

  3. HI, KERI! So happy to see you back! Especially with this post since I am a nut for tulips. As the wacky weather here in southern California wavers around the 80's we can only imagine lovely autumn bulb planting in the rest of the world.

  4. You really can't help but smile when you see the bulbs pop up from the ground in the spring, it's always a good feeling. I like the blend of colour and variety of bulbs in this garden, it's fresh and happy.

    One thing I do with my bulbs is put them in a brown paper bag with moth balls for a couple of days before planting them. I crush moth balls with a rubber hammer - place them in a double plastic bag to crush them. I add the crushed moth balls to some of the soil around the bulbs. The Reason: it keeps the squirrels from digging them up. {and keeps stray cats out of the garden}.

  5. Hi Keri, Thanks for the inspiring post! I have my tulips already ordered and plant them in pots each year. Come spring I'm always happy that I did.

    1. Hi Anne,

      I'd love to see photos when they bloom in the spring. I love potted tulips!

  6. Good morning Kari....lovely gardens! I think I will plant bulbs this year. Thanks for the how to.

  7. Keri,
    I am so impressed...I've planted tulips in the past but since they don't naturalize in our area (too warm) I gave up growing them. 100 blubs! Wow, I can see why they would be show/car stoppers. I hope you'll take a picture next spring for your readers. Happy planting this weekend. I'm planting grape hyacinth bulbs and English primrose.

  8. Tulips are near and dear to my heart. I actually lived in The Netherlands for a few years. Thanks for this wonderful article! Janey

  9. Hi, Keri - What a glorious garden!! Thanks for all the inspirations and planting tips. We'll be planting bulbs this weekend. Was out of the country....just got back last night. Hopefully the weather won't be frigid on Saturday and Sunday. (Quite cold last night.)

  10. Hi Keri, so nice to see this beautiful post from you...I love the images here, the tulips and box and everything.....! I wish I could have them in my garden, but our squirrels love them too! Last year I thought I might out fox them by planting them in my tall planters on our terraces, but no luck ...I could see them from my windows munching away...!
    I wish you good luck for a beautiful Spring show! N.xo

  11. Hi Keri, I am just imagining you planting right this minute, however, as dawn has not yet broken on your side of the planet I hope you are still sound asleep (no doubt dreaming of tulips!!). I have usually planted tulip bulbs and tried to do them in blocks of the same color for effect. Never had cars stop and take photos though!!! I'm afraid I have been neglecting my garden this fall since I am very busy preparing for a crafts show. Perhaps this post will get me motivated to take a break from the sewing machine; after all, I dug my bulbs up last spring and they are patiently waiting in the cellar to be replanted. Perhaps I can round up a few little hands who might want to help me....xo K.

  12. I have always planted tulips in my garden everywhere we have lived but here in Phoenix. They just won't grow. :(

    They are one of my favorites.

  13. Gorgeous!! Gardening is one of those skills that I admire in others and wish that I had a green thumb. This is the girl who can't even keep cactus alive. I've succumbed to the fact that I should not waste any money trying to hone a skill that escapes me. xoxo

  14. Good morning my sweet one!

    Oh my friend, thank you for coming over for a little chat and hopefully, a little escape. Life IS stressful and that is why I PLAY. I hope that things will calm down for you and that each day you can slow down enough to really enjoy the season of growth. I wish you peace and calm; you know, that is all I really want!!!

    Peace in your cozy cottage my dear, Anita

  15. Love Tulips!! Love your images! Thank your for sharing. My first year in my current ome I planted over 1,000 bulbs, the second year 800, the third year 400 and this year almost 600. I try to plant in color blocks as well. I also did one large container with all Orange tulips. I am told in the Spring each year that I have the prettiest home & garden. Hard work does pay off! My grounds include tulips, daffodils, Alliums, hyacinths, rhodos, azealas, pear trees, magnolias and crabapples. I have found the most inspiration from P. Allen Smith & Carolyn Roehms Gardens. I look forward to seeing your images come next spring!

    1. Wow!! That will be such a spectacular show! I would love to see photos. Feel free to email me at
      Thanks for your comment!


  16. KERI!!!!

    Dearest one, thank you for your visit today! I hope that your celebration will be a joyous one, at home, or wherever you may be. There is much to be thankful for, isn't there? LOVE! Anita


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