Friday, May 09, 2008

What I've Learned About Growing Tulips in New Jersey: Protecting from Squirrels and Deer, Planting in Clay Soil, and Creating Colorful Combinations

One of my favorite spring flowers at this time of year is the tulip. Because of the squirrels, deer, and clay soil in my area of New Jersey, few of my neighbors grow tulips, but it can be done. Here are some lessons that I have learned over the past few years on growing these beautiful flowers in my less than ideal conditions. For me, it has been well worth the effort.

1. Protecting Tulips from Squirrels and Deer. In the fall, to protect the bulbs from being eaten or dug up by hungry squirrels, I soak them in deer repellent before planting. In the spring, to protect the tulips from being nibbled by the deer (my friend calls them rodents with antlers), I then regularly spray them with deer repellent as soon as the bulbs begin to emerge.
2. Growing Newer and Heirloom Tulips in Clay Soil. Because tulips naturally like dry, warm summers, there is a big difference between the newer varieties that have been bred mainly for commercial cutting and the heirloom varieties that were bred to actually be grown in people's gardens.
The newer varieties spoil if I keep them in my moist, clay soil year-round. To over-summer them, I remove the bulbs after the show is over to a less prominent area of the garden so the foliage can continue to make energy for the bulb. Once the leaves have died down naturally, I dig them up and store them in a dry cupboard until it's time to re-plant them in the fall.
In contrast, the heirloom varieties are much more tolerant of my less-than-ideal clay soil. I find that about three-quarters of them will survive the summers in the ground. In the areas where I grow them, like the Rose Garden (pictured), I simply plant enough new bulbs each fall to compensate for the expected loss. A mix of orange tulips including General de Wet, Orange Favorite, Princess Irene, Dillenberg are planted with Black Parrot as a dark purple accent.
3. Creating Colorful Combinations of Tulips. Inspired by the Granny Mix offered by Old House Gardens, the last two years I've been mixing up my own tulip combinations to remind me of the old mixtures found in cottage gardens or old time front door gardens. I have ten varieties of tulips chosen for a range of color, height, and form which bloom April and May. My own mix is planted in the front of our house (pictured). It consist of the following tulips: Ballerina, Queen of the Night, Couleur Cardinal, Princess Irene, Kingsblood, Mariette Cum Laude, Maureen, Mrs John T. Scheepers, and Dordogne.
Under a pink flowering crabapple outside the Children's Garden, I planted Christmas Dream, Big Smile and Menton. I must say that originally, I did not like the apricot color of Menton, but as it matures it is absolutely beautiful, particularly because it picks up tones in the red foliage of the crabapple as the leaves elongate.
On Lilac Hill, I planted the String of Pearls combination from White Flower Farm along with Lilac Perfection, Monte Carlo, Blue Diamond, and Violet Beauty. The String of Pearls collection contains Mount Tacoma, Maureen, White Triumphator, Spring Green, and Calgary.


Jane O' said...

Good advice on tulip planting. Thanks.

me said...

Definately worth the trouble. They're beautiful!

Leora said...

Thanks for sharing your beautiful garden. I put a link to your site on the Highland Park Environmental Commission news page (sort of a blog, as it's done in Word Press). Hopefully, the Env. Commission members will start writing more news soon. (

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great tips. I can't wait to plant tulips for next year.

What's the best source for heirloom tulips?

Julia Erickson said...


In my opinion, Old House Gardens is the best for heirloom tulips.

-Heirloom Gardener

healingmagichands said...

So have you discovered the species tulips yet? They are pretty wonderful, and I have pretty clayey soil here at The Havens and they return reliably year after year. Thank heavens I don't have a deer problem. We do have squirrels, and they seem to ignore the species tulips. Maybe they don't taste as good.

When we lived in San Francisco to protect my tulips from the gophers and mice we actually built a cage of 1" welded wire mesh and sank it in the bed, planted the tulips in it and the rodents were foiled. This worked well, but my tulip bed was only 2x10!

Nan Ondra said...

Great tips, HG! Thanks for sharing the link to this post, as well as the two other posts, for the GGW Design Workshop on bulbs. Question: What kind of deer repellent do you use to soak your bulbs before planting, and how long do you soak them?

Julia Erickson said...


I make home-made deer repellent with water, eggs and hot sauce. I'm not scientific about how long they are soaked--anywhere from an hour to a day, depending upon my availability to plant them.

-Heirloom Gardener

Jan said...

I love your photos! Tulips are a classic flower garden favorite. Your cottage garden ideas, featuring mixes of tulips are great! I appreciate the variety a lot. Again, your tulip pictures are really nice.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Lovely pictures. Please bear with my silly question as I don't know much about tulips.

I live in south NJ. My daughter's getting married next year (end of June or early July). Her favorite flowers are tulips. I plan to plant tulips all over our backyard to save on flower decorations. Will the tulips still bloom by then?

Do you know whether lilacs would also still be in bloom by then too?

thank you much,

Search Heirloom Gardener


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