Up Close: Designing with Tulips

Cottage, contemporary, formal and even exotic garden designs can play host to an amazing array of tulips. Your aesthetic, and in some cases your house, will inform how you incorporate tulips into the design and what kind of tulip you choose.

In all gardens, the flowers look their best when planted en masse. Groups of three or four, or (gasp) singular tulips, can turn what should be a riotous herald of spring into a tiny toot. Let your bulbs sing when their time comes by planting in larger groups of nine to twelve, or more. 

It’s not unusual to plant dozens of bulbs, even hundreds, where space (and budget) allows. For the truly ambitious, you can go full Victorian by planting vast swaths of intricate patterns. For the rest of us, blend your tulips into your existing garden style with a few tips on designing with tulips.




Cottage gardens are characterized by an informal design. Pretty perennials, flowering annuals and edible plants are densely planted so that gardens overflow with life. 

In established beds with lots of visual competition even large tulips can lose their colorful impact when planted onesie-twosie. Put larger groupings in the mid-foreground so that annuals can be used to camouflage the ensuing post-bloom mess.

GARDEN GUIDE: Try double-petaled or peony style tulips for large, frothy displays in soft pinks, yellows and purples. The standard tulip also looks comfortably at home in a cottage garden.



Contemporary or modern garden design refers to a style that uses grasses, small trees and native plants to create an efficient yet beautiful landscape. 

For a natural look, try replicating the bulb’s native mountainsides by planting on a slope or rocky outcrop. 

For a fresh take on a tulips-only bed, plant a variety of bulbs that bloom at different times. There’s added drama in a bed that doesn’t put on a synchronized display. 

GARDEN GUIDE: Species tulips are smaller and closer to the “original” tulip. They also naturalize well. For avant-garde tulips in a traditional shape, parrot tulips offer ruffled petals and a looser, more open flower head.


formal tulips



Houses with a formal aesthetic have clean, sometimes symmetrical, garden designs. As such, planters and urns look especially nice in formal settings. 

Since this style of garden is characterized by cleanliness and control, the turnover rate of plants is much higher than in informal gardens. 

If you plan on removing the flowers long before the foliage becomes ragged and yellow (a necessary step for re-blooming), use more than 5 bulbs per square foot and pack your planters full. 

GARDEN GUIDE: Try fringed tulips for a traditional shape with a dramatic flair. The standard tulip in unexpected colors also looks quite striking. Try black (or nearly black. It’s actually a purple!), or all white.



Exotic may be less a design style and more an aesthetic but plants with bright colors and strong lines elevate Northwest gardens into jungle oases.

With tropical and tropical-looking plants, there’s going to be competition for sun, making tulips an ideal understory plant. Flowers in partial shade hold their blooms longer than those in the sun. 

Ferns and other groundcovers can be used to hide the scraggly foliage that's destined to come.

GARDEN GUIDE: Lily-flowered tulips have petals that reflex into points. The sharp lines transform a traditionally soft and cushy flower to a veritable plant weapon that could only evolve in a jungle.

exotic tulips