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Big, Bold Tulips

Darwin hybrid tulips have big blooms on sturdy stems. With proper care, a bed of these vigorous tulips will bloom for many years.

'Akebono' Darwin hybrid tulip
'Akebono' Darwin hybrid tulip

Do you want a brilliant landscape next spring? Think tulips! No other flower in spring can match tulips for their bright and showy colors.

The biggest challenge with growing tulips is they can die after a couple years. That’s why I like the biggest, boldest, “baddest” tulips around: the Darwin hybrids.

Darwin hybrids boast the biggest blooms on the sturdiest stems. These hybrids are extremely vigorous. With proper care, they’ll bloom for many years; longer than any other standard tulip.

The biggest bulbs will give you the most vigorous plants. For tulips, the biggest bulbs will be 12+ cm in diameter (look on the package for size). The 11/12-cm tulips are fine. Avoid the small 10/11 cm in size; these bargain bulbs produce weak plants that fade out after one year.

To maximize impact, plant six or more bulbs of each cultivar. Plant bulbs in clumps or drifts, not in rows.

Early autumn is the best time to plant bulbs. We can delay planting until the ground freezes, but earlier planting leads to stronger roots and healthier growth in the future.

'Pink Impression' Darwin hybrid tulip
'Pink Impression' Darwin hybrid tulip

Tulips demand a well-drained soil. I like mixing in an inch of organic matter (peat moss, compost) to the bed before planting. Set tulip bulbs about eight inches deep. Sprinkle a bulb fertilizer containing timed-release nitrogen over the soil surface and work it in. A garden fertilizer such as 5–10–10 can be used as a substitute. Bonemeal is not recommended since it is not a complete fertilizer and attracts varmints that dig up the bulbs. Water the bulbs thoroughly to start them growing.

There is an amazing array of colors to choose from. The ‘Apeldoorn’ and ‘Impression’ series are popular and there are many more award winners to choose from. Go online and explore!

While exploring you’ll notice many classes of tulips besides Darwin hybrids. Some look like water lilies, others look like peonies, and still others look like parrot birds. They all have their strengths (personally I love them all!), but none can match the Darwin hybrids for bloom size and durability.

Speaking of durability, the life span of your tulip bed will depend on how you take care of it. Clip off the flower stalks once blooms begin to fade. We don’t want plants to waste energy on producing seeds; instead we want plants to refill their bulbs for next spring.

After bloom, sprinkle fertilizer over the bulbs to encourage the foliage to stay green and produce lots of food for next year’s blooms. Do not trim the foliage until it yellows. 

Written by Tom Kalb, Extension Horticulturist, North Dakota State University. Published in the NDSU Yard & Garden Report, September 12, 2016. Photos were made available under Creative Commons licenses specified by the photographers: Ryan Somma and Alexey Ivanov.

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