Tulip bulbs, how to choose them right

Crate with tulip bulbs

True tulip bulb key facts

Botanical nameTulipa
FamilyLiliaceae
Type – flower bulb, true bulb

Planting – September to October
Soil – light, sandy, draining, rich
Planting distance – 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm)

Planting depth – 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm)
Exposure – full sun, part sun

A tulip bulb, once planted, will grow to bear fabulous flowers. Colors might be bright or subtle, depending on the variety, and when spring arrives they all enchant gardens, balconies, terraces and even the indoors of homes. Early varieties, or late ones? Botanical species or cultivated ones? Choosing the right bulb for this plant has been, for some, a quest dating back centuries. The aim? Getting that elusive colorful and abundant blooming! To date, over 5000 tulip bulb varieties exist for us to plant in our autumn gardens. Note that the ones you’ll find in garden stores usually come from the sandy plains of Holland.

What does a tulip bulb look like?

Description of tulip bulbs, with uprooted ones lined up on a tableThe tulip produces “true” bulbs, commonly called flower bulbs. The structure of these bulbs is that of a disc: on the underside, roots emerge, while on the topside leaves jut upwards. Roots spread without branching out; a root won’t grow back if it’s broken off. Practically, the bulb serves as a nutrient reserve for the tulip.

Its typical shape is formed by the swollen base of each leaf. At the center, you’ll find the main bud together with floral buds. To the side, you can uncover lateral buds: these will produce bulblets later on. A special, thin peel covers the bulb. It’s brown and dry, and it’s duty is to lock water inside the bulb to survive through drought. The tulip bulb also has central scales that grow above ground, forming true chlorophyll-filled leaves. During the blooming phase, the bulb consumes its nutrient reserves to feed the bloom. As a consequence, the thicker the tulip bulb, the higher the chance of getting a large flower.

How to choose a tulip bulb?

Appearance and caliber (or size) are the two criteria that will help you choose the right kinds of tulip bulbs.Tulip bulbs for sale in baskets

Selecting a tulip bulb: it should look nice

First of all, the tulip bulb must feel firm. If it feels soft, discard it. Check that it isn’t infected with mold. To find out, squeeze the bulb in your hand before choosing it. Noteworthy information: don’t worry if the bulb has lost its thin skin. Even though it doesn’t look as nice, it won’t influence the outcome.

Choosing a tulip bulb based on its size

The largest bulbs have gathered more nutrients than smaller ones. This alone will significantly impact the blooming, even if the weather doesn’t play along.

How to store and plant a tulip bulb?

To keep them from molding, bulbs must be planted quickly after having been purchased. If ever you’ve got to keep them for a long time before planting them, it’s best to store them in a cellar or cool, dry garage. Remove them from their packaging and wrappers.

In autumn, between September and October, plant tulip bulbs before the first frosts hit. This will give your tulip the time it needs to grow and spread its roots. Best find for it a sunny spot, or at least partly sunny, without any wind.

  1. Flip the soil layers with a spade.
  2. If your soil is often soggy, add some sand to it to lighten it up (detailed walk-through here).
  3. With a bulb planter, bury your tulip bulbs at a depth of about 2 or 3 times their height (this usually means about 4 inches/10 cm deep).
  4. Cover with soil, press down and water abundantly.

To learn more, read:

Smart tip

If you plant tulip bulbs in places of your garden that get different sun exposure, you’ll have staged blooming during spring. It can span a month if you plant from full sun to shade.

Selection criteria for tulip bulb include firmness, size, and health


Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Crate of bulbs by Davie Bicker under Pixabay license
Tulip structure by David Nisley under Pixabay license
Tulips for sale by Cornelia Gerhardt under Pixabay license
Some to keep, most, well… by Carola Engels under Pixabay license