All tulips seem alike, but one soon realizes that there are differences.

The flowering period of tulips in southern Ontario is from late April to early June–the magnificent season of spring. While bulbs such as crocus and snowdrops bloom slightly earlier, with a little planning you can have tulips blooming throughout spring. The first step is to read what’s printed on the package, which should quickly identify whether the tulip is a species, double, parrot, early, mid- or late-season variety.

The early ones

Generally speaking, the species tulips (easily identified because the package will list the Latin name), as well as the Greigii and Kaufmanniana varieties, are the earliest to bloom. They are also the shortest and often the most natural looking.

The mid-season bloomers

The Fosteriana, single early and double varieties, are the next to bloom. They’re slightly taller, varying from a foot or a little taller (30 to 50 cm). All are sturdy and suitable for unprotected areas of the garden. Generally they’re red, yellow and orange, which combine well with the emerging greenery of perennials.

Late-season tulips

These tulips strut their stuff toward the middle of May.   They include lily flowering, single late, double late, Viridiflora and parrot tulips, which grow to up to two feet (40 to 60 cm) tall. They come into flower when many perennials and trees are in bloom, so it’s advisable to co-ordinate their colours with those of the similarly timed blooming perennials.

Planting tulips

Tulips planted among emerging perennials show to better advantage than tulips planted in a bed of their own. En masse, they show as a block of colour, but showcased against a backdrop of greenery the look as though nature has spot-lit each one.

* Tulips need four to six hours of sunlight per day. This is most critical during their post-blooming period, when the bulbs, through the process of photosynthesis, are renewed by the fading leaves for the following year’s blooms.

* Tulips need to be planted deeper that most packaging says. As a rule of thumb, plant them three times as deep as the bulb is high. (This same advice applies to all spring-blooming bulbs.) Deep planting helps protect the bulbs from severe frost, late-winter thawing and re-freezing, and the ravages of summer heat waves.

* For the best effect, group three to 15 bulbs in one planting, and a little farther away plant one or two on their own—they’ll appear to be drifting off into the nearby perennials.

* If you want a riot of colour, go wild. Use as many colours and varieties as your heart desires. For something a tad more subdued, use three carefully selected colours or varieties in a border about, say, 16 by six feet (five by two metres). For the best effect in a border that size, you need about 100 tulips planted here and there among perennials. Better to do one border fabulously than to have dribs and drabs of colour throughout the garden.

*Tulips perform best when planted early enough in the fall to establish a strong root system before winter sets in. Soil temperature at planting time should be between 5 and 10 degrees centigrade, which in most of Canada is somewhere around Halloween.