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Tulip Tips from Chicago Gardeners

Welcome spring with a riot of color! Here’s how two Chicago gardeners energize their yard with early-season bulbs. Follow their tips to grow your own bright blooms.

Color mix

A wagon elevates pots of bleeding-heart and creeping phlox above a mob of ‘Pink Impression’ tulips.

'A pleasing chaos'

Designer Marcia says the garden was done in stages. After shrubs and perennials went in, the Christensens requested a few hundred tulips and daffodils. The next year, says Marcia, “I just handed them the catalog.” Hank and Leah add more nearly every year, with big plantings every two years. Today, more than 10,000 bulbs are tucked among groundcovers and in every available cranny between perennials. “I love the abundance,” Leah says. “It’s a pleasing chaos.” 

How to maximize impact

The couple’s top tip for growing bulbs: Don’t skimp. For impact, you need at least 10 to 15 of the same variety. And don’t line up bulbs like little soldiers. Mass them in a clump, then add more to create drifts (clusters of flowers that gradually thin out toward the edges). For a longer-lasting gala, group bulbs with matching colors and sequential bloom times.

Keep planting

Most showy tulip hybrids rebloom for two years before their blooms start to decline. The Christensens don’t mind—they just plant anew. In a small garden, Marcia prefers understated botanical (or species) tulips, such as pinkish-mauve ‘Lilac Wonder’. They return each year and multiply. She favors hardy daffodils for the same reason. To create contrast, combine them with crocus and grape hyacinths, Marcia says. Want a big hybrid tulip with staying power? Choose a member of the Darwin group, says Boyce Tankersley, a bulb specialist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “They seem to thrive in our climate and survive the moles and voles,” he says. “I have some that are nearly 11 years old.”

Bulb care

The better you treat bulbs, the longer they’ll repay your investment. Don’t cut the foliage too soon; yellowing leaves power next year’s bloom. Most bulbs need sun and well-drained soil. Bulbs rot if kept wet during summer. Plant them next to dry-loving plants, such as ornamental grasses or black-eyed Susans. After 3–5 years, dig up bulbs and divide them. “It cuts down on disease and allows you to improve the soil,” Boyce says. If deer or rabbits nibble on your garden, plant bad-tasting daffodils and allium around tulips to discourage pests. To ensure bulbs arrive at the optimum planting time in the fall, place orders in the summer.

Click ahead for more photos from this garden.

Matching colors

 Pink and white blooms complement painted finery on this 1895 home. 

Color mix

A wagon elevates pots of bleeding-heart and creeping phlox above a mob of ‘Pink Impression’ tulips.

'Big Smile' tulips

‘Big Smile’, prized for its tall stems and deep yellow blooms, looks astounding in a mass, Leah Christensen says.

‘Ollioules’

Pink ‘Ollioules’ has a lovely yellow base inside.

'Shirley'

Purple flecks adorn ‘Shirley’ tulips.

'Jackpot'

Grape-and-cream 'Jackpot' tulips offer a lovely color combo.

‘Meissner Porzellan’

Rose-pink edges highlight ‘Meissner Porzellan’.

'White Emperor'

‘White Emperor’ has a yellow flush, a nice complement to yellow daffodils.

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