Is January too late to plant tulips?

Tiffany Daneff / 20 January 2014

The short answer is not quite, but I’ve had to get my skates on. Ideally, they need to be in by the middle of the month.

Why hadn’t I planted them earlier?  Mainly, because I am making  a new border which had to be dug first and then the plants decided upon and just when I was all set to order the plants the rain rained and the attic developed a leak.  And guess where the scaffolding had to be erected? Bang on my newly dug border.  It’s almost spooky.

From past experience I have learned that once scaffolding goes up it stays up.  Always for weeks, sometimes for months.  No doubt there is some fantastically sensible reason for this but the bulbs don’t care.  If they don’t go in by the end of this week I doubt they will be up for Spring.

So what? 300 bulbs is what.

100 each of:

  • T. Angelique – blushy pale pink and almost peony like
  • T. Maytime – an impossibly elegant, lily flowered mauvey violet
  • T. Black Hero  - imagine mashed up red and blackcurrants

How do you plant tulips in a border?

First, the questions to ask yourself:

1.   How big is your border? The border is split into two halves on either side of the front door, about 20 foot long by 5 foot deep.  

2.   What effect do you want to achieve? The idea is that the tulips will be first up in the spring and emerge through the other planting.

3.   Create a wave My plan is to plant them in single species blocks and weave these through the planting, alternating colours across both borders.

Now to the work:

1.   Mark out the blocks on the soil. I placed flowerpots in a wide W shape so that the blocks weave across the border from front to back.  I did this by eye.
2.    Divide the 300 tulips into 10 lots of 30 bulbs, keeping them in blocks of one colour.  (Mathematicians will note that the final block will have to be a mixture.  This doesn’t bother me too much but if you are a bit OCD over such things I recommend working out how many blocks you’ll need before you order.)
3.    Dig a hole.  It’s got to be at 6-8 ins deep (you don’t want the squirrels to dig them up again.)  And you need to allow three inches between the bulbs.  In other words it’s going to be at least 2 foot square.  
4.    I had some gravel in the shed and sprinkled this over the bottom of the hole to help with drainage before placing the bulbs, shoot upwards and three inches apart, and then backfilling with the soil.
5.    Mark the centre of the block with a cane or whatever you have to hand.

Tips for a bad back:  I’m no expert so don’t blame me if this doesn’t work for you but I like using a very light spade and, not being very tall, I often use a child’s spade (a proper one like this steel one from Joseph Bentley’s Apprentice range).  To avoid bending all the time I also kneel or squat to dig.   It takes longer but at least my back’s okay.

The husband however just stuck to the traditional standing method and on stretching his back knocked his head on the scaffolding.  (But he dug a lot more holes.)

The best laid plans….

The tricky part was remembering which bulbs went in which holes.  No doubt sensible people write down this kind of thing but I tend to wing it with the result that I got in muddle.  For a start the bulbs had been stored in the barn so long their labels were illegible.  So I separated them by container rather than species into Tulipa Tin Bowl, T. Cardboard Box and T. Net bag. 

My plan was to have T. Tin Bowl balance each other on the far right and left hand sides and then to have two blocks of T. Net Bag on either side of the front door.  But as the light faded and the husband dug faster and banged his head more frequently there was a noticeable breakdown in order as he planted up his blocks and I did mine.  Not that we realised anything had gone awry until we had finished the right hand border.  Turned out he was planting from L to R in a pattern of 12312 whereas I assumed that we were planting 12321. 

By that point neither of us was even thinking of digging the blighters up and starting again.  Hoping to remedy matters I decided that we would just do the mirror opposite in the Left hand border. 
As I say, it was getting dark... so who knows what really went in where.  

We’ll find out in four months though.

Tiffany Daneff is also the editor of the award-winning intoGardens app - the world's first magazine app for gardens. Visit the appstore to download a free sample or go to the website for more information.  Gardening has never looked better or been more exciting. Visit  for more info. 
The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.