Garden Detective

Tulip pointers for beginners

Tulip bulbs should be chilled before planting.
Tulip bulbs should be chilled before planting. Bigstock

Experts tackle readers’ garden questions.

Q: My sister brought me tulip bulbs from Holland. I don’t want to make a mistake in planting. Can they go in planters, or only in the ground? How deep do I put the bulb? Is there something I have to put with the bulb (fertilizer, bone meal)?

Lynda Rose, Rocklin

Bee garden writer Debbie Arrington: Lucky you! First, put the tulip bulbs in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. They’ll think they’re experiencing a Dutch winter. They need four to six weeks of chilling, so mark it on your calendar when to take them out. Make sure there are no apples or pears in the fridge; they release ethylene gas that will cause the bulbs to rot.

After that chill, you can plant the tulips outdoors directly in the ground or in a pot or planter. That container planting can be kept outside or indoors, as long as the tulips can get bright light after they sprout. Plant the bulbs three times deeper than the height of the bulb (about 4 inches, 6 inches for really big tulips). Make sure the pointy end is pointed up. If you want potted tulips to bloom indoors faster, plant them shallow, only an inch deep.

Add a little bone meal or bulb food to the soil before planting; that will help the bulb produce bigger blooms and come back again next year. Other than that, they need no additional fertilizer. As for irrigation, water them once when you plant, then wait to see the green sprouts before watering again. Then, water once or twice a week. If planted in a pot, water the unsprouted bulbs just enough to keep the soil from drying out, then water twice a week after sprouting.

In Sacramento (or Rocklin), you can plant bulbs in the ground right up to New Year’s Day and still have spring blooms. Or you can plant them in a pot (even in January) for blooms indoors or outside.

If planted outdoors in December, tulips usually bloom in late March or early April.

Sacramento Bee garden writer Debbie Arrington is a consulting rosarian and lifelong gardener. Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington.

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