Buying Tulip Bulbs - Size Matters!

By Andy McIndoe

Get ready for your Spring flowers, here's what to look for when buying tulip bulbs.

Shining brown tulip bulbs are in the shops now. In late summer and early autumn the selection of bulbs is at its best, but don’t plant them yet; wait until the summer bedding has finished and plant for spring flowers in late autumn at the earliest.

If you don’t get round to it they can still be planted without any adverse effects as late as mid winter.

The results you get from tulips and any other flower bulbs depends on what you plant.

When buying tulip bulbs always look for the largest, best quality bulbs you can. Do not be tempted by cheap bulk packs of mixed bulbs which tend to make false promises for spring flowers. They produce smaller flowers on weak stems; that’s if they flower at all.

Offers of large quantities of flower bulbs at a bargain price are usually small bulbs of inferior quality – avoid them. Two things are worth remembering: buying tulip bulbs is inexpensive because ten tulip bulbs cost less than a bunch of cut flowers, and in Holland they feed the smallest tulip bulbs to the cattle!

Tulip bulbs are harvested in midsummer and graded according to their size. The size of the bulb is expressed as the girth of the bulb in centimetres. In other words a 10-12 tulip bulb is between 10 and 12 centimetres in girth at its broadest point.

Small grade bulbs are either replanted to grow on, or disposed of depending on variety and value. As part of the grading process sample bulbs are cut in half or x-rayed to ensure the bulbs are free from disease, and that flower buds are present in the hearts of the bulbs.

When buying tulip bulbs, varieties of Darwin, Triumph and Single Early tulips that is, size 10-12 or 12+ (12 up) are the sizes to look for. However if 14+ (14 up) bulbs are available choose those, you will get fantastic results.

The ‘Impresssion’ varieties of tulips are good examples of strong, single tulips that can usually be bought as extra large bulbs.

However not all varieties produce the same size bulbs, and this does not always relate to flower size either. Lily flowering tulips, such as ‘Ballerina’ and parrot tulips, such as ‘Black Parrot’ tend to produce smaller bulbs than simple single varieties. 8-10 is a good size bulb of one of these types of tulip.

Buying tulip bulbs early in the season, but not planting until later, means that you have to store the bulbs carefully. Take them out of any packaging, and lay them out on trays in a cool, airy place, out of direct sunlight. If you leave them packed up they tend to sweat

I tend to grow many of my favourite spring flowers, especially tulips, in pots that I start close to the walls of the house, under the shelter of the eaves. This helps to prevent the pots from becoming waterlogged in excessively wet winter weather. It may also afford some protection against severe cold.

Prolonged periods of sub-zero temperatures can be challenging for tulips: their ancestors are natives of the Eastern Mediterranean – so they are used to warm wet winters and hot dry summers. However this does not mean that I keep the tulips I have grown in pots from year to year.

Occasionally I plant a good variety into the open ground after flowering to see what happens the following year. However in most cases I put the bulbs on the compost heap at the end of the flowering season and start again the following year.

In my opinion buying tulip bulbs is one of the great pleasures of gardening with spring flowers, and I want to enjoy it every year.

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