Planting tulip bulbs with great anticipation of their colourful spring flowers is one of the rites of autumn. Outdoor critters steer clear of daffodil bulbs since they contain toxins, unlike tulips. Tulip bulbs and their leaves and flowers are sweet and juicy, making a convenient snack for rodents and deer. From the time of planting until the flowers wane, any number of animals chew on tulip plant tissues, ruining the garden display.
Because gardeners plant tulip bulbs in larger, concentrated numbers and in easily dug topsoil, a wide array of animals take advantage of the situation for a meal. Chipmunks, squirrels, voles and pocket gophers dig into soil to eat bulbs. These rodents smell the bulbs to locate them. Once tulips pop up from the ground in early spring, rodents may still eat bulbs or green shoots depending on availability of other foodstuffs in the landscape. Deer tend to focus on chomping off the flower buds on tulips but will eat green stems or leaves as well.
Rodent damage on tulip bulbs can be tricky to determine, especially on underground burrowing beasts like pocket gophers and voles. Squirrels, mice and chipmunks leave digging mounds and scattered soil. Even if you over-plant a tulip bed with pansies, the above-ground critters still manoeuvre their paws around the plants to access the tasty underground tulip bulb. Bulbs go missing or any left will have chunks of tissue missing where the animals' teeth punctured. Rabbit, mice, and deer damage looks like someone tore off the tops of emerging leaves, like a lawnmower ran over the plants. Or, the entire tulip plant looks perfect, except the plump flower bud is plucked from atop a slender stem by deer.
A determined, hungry rodent will attempt to eat tulip bulbs even if you try to deter it. However, a few tricks make getting to the bulbs more challenging. After planting tulip bulbs in a widely dug area, you can place a piece of 1/4-inch wire mesh over and around the bulbs. Backfill the planting basin so 2 inches of soil lays over bulb tips, and place the mesh down, then fill the rest of the hole with remaining soil. Curve mesh edges downward so rodents cannot easily burrow under the mesh sides to get to the bulbs. Or, create a wire cage box to plant bulbs inside. Deterring rabbits and deer is more difficult, but fences help keep them off your property on the whole. Moth balls and hot pepper spray sprinkled immediately around or onto foliage and buds may prevent the animals from eating. Make repeat applications after rain or heavy dew.
Denny Schrock, author of "Ortho Home Gardener's Problem Solver," mentions that placing 1/4-inch hardware cloth atop the soil immediately after planting tulips can also deter burrowing rodent issues. Promptly remove the cloth in late winter so it doesn't block or maim emerging tulips. An additional large piece of 1/2-inch mesh chicken wire laid atop the soil also lessens chances of rodent burrowing. The larger sized mesh still lets shoots to grow through in spring. Deer, rabbits and mice need physical barriers, such as a dome-like chicken wire covering or box. An sly outdoor cat or dog may be worth their weight in gold to keep these nuisances away.