Garden centers have tons of tulips available for planting in the fall. There are countless hybrids on the market, including a seemingly endless parade of new introductions.
Tulips provide undeniably gorgeous blossoms, but they also present gardeners with the chill requirement, called vernalization. To set blooms, tulip bulbs must be exposed to temperatures below 45 degrees for six-to-eight weeks.
Tulips originate around the Mediterranean Basin and in central China, particularly in mountainous areas with climates like that of the Monterey Bay area, but with cooler winters that provide sufficient chill during the plant’s dormant period.
For gardening in climates with soil temperatures that provide a sufficient chill period, tulips are reliable perennials that grow, multiply and bloom with little difficulty.
For climates with more moderate winter weather, such as the Monterey Bay area, vernalization requires refrigeration. This can be provided by the supplier, or by the individual gardener, usually in the family refrigerator or second unit.
Apples and other fruit releases ethylene gas, which is harmful to tulip bulbs, so keep fruits away from the tulips.
After tulips have bloomed, and their leaves have yellowed, the gardener must lift the bubs and chill them again to promote blooms in the following season.
The easier alternative for many gardeners is to purchase already-chilled tulip bulbs, and treat them like annuals. Many mail-order nurseries will chill tulip bulbs and ship them to customers at planting time.
There are a couple other choices for creating a early spring display in the garden.
First, some species tulips require less chilling during their dormant period. Tulip species in this category include Tulipa bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’, Tulipa clusiana (Lady Tulips), T. saxatilis (Candia Tulips) and T. sylvestris (Florentine Tulips). Species tulips have smaller blooms and shorter stalks than hybridized tulips, but they produce demure, colorful blooms. The plants are still great garden perennials that do not need lifting and chilling every dormant period. I will plant a few species tulip bulbs this year to learn more about this option.
The other choice is to plant spring-blooming bulbs that do not require vernalization. There are many bulbs in this category, starting with the narcissus, which is most popular. Others include allium, colchicum, crinum, crocus, gloriosa lily, hyacinth, kaffir lily, muscari, snowflake, spider lily, and watsonia. Most of these are members of the large lily family (Liliaceae), which also includes the tulip.
Now is the time to produce a display of color for your spring garden.