Long live the tulip! These beautiful jewels brighten our days in spring. We truly look forward to seeing those blue-green leaves start to emerge as the earth awakens from its winter sleep! Here are our tips on how to grow and care for tulips in your garden.
Tulips typically begin emerging from the ground in late winter or early spring. If unseasonably mild weather causes premature growth in winter, the danger is not as great as it may seem. Tulips (and daffodils, too) are quite cold-tolerant. If freezing winter temperatures return, it may delay growth, however. Snow is actually helpful in this case, as it can insulate the foliage from extreme cold.
Plant in the Fall for Spring Blooms!
Tulip bulbs are planted in the autumn, 6 to 8 weeks before the ground freezes. You can have tulips blooming from early to late spring by planting varieties with different bloom times. Some types are good for forcing into bloom indoors, and most are excellent for use as cut flowers, too.
Tulip flowers are usually cup-shaped with three petals and three sepals. Every setting has a tulip, from small “species” tulips in naturalized woodland areas to larger tulips that fit formal garden plantings from beds to borders. The upright flowers may be single or double and vary in shape from simple cups, bowls, and goblets to more complex forms. Height ranges from 6 inches to 2 feet. One tulip grows on each stem, with two to six broad leaves per plant.
Are Tulips Annual or Perennial Bulbs?
Although tulips are technically perennial, many centuries of hybridizing means that the bulb’s ability to return year after year has weakened. Therefore, many gardeners treat them as annuals, planting new bulbs every autumn. The North American climate and soil can’t replicate the ancient Anatolian and southern Russian conditions of their birth. Gardeners in the western mountainous regions of the U.S. come closest to this climate and may have more success perennializing their tulips.
Tulips prefer a site with full or afternoon sun. In Zones 7 and 8, choose a shady site or one with morning sun only, as tulips don’t like a lot of heat.
The soil must be well-draining, neutral to slightly acidic, fertile, and dry or sandy. All tulips dislike areas with excessive moisture. Prepare the garden bed by using a garden fork or tiller to loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 15 inches, then mix in a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost.
Tall varieties should be sheltered from strong winds.
When to Plant Tulips
Plant tulip bulbs in the fall, 6 to 8 weeks before a hard, ground-freezing frost is expected. The bulbs need time to establish themselves. Planting too early leads to disease problems. See local frost dates.
A good rule of thumb is to plant bulbs when the average nighttime temperatures in your area are in the 40s.
In colder northern climates, plant in September or October. In warmer climates, plant bulbs in December (or even later).
Nature never intended bulbs to loll about above ground, so don’t delay planting the bulbs after purchase.
In southern climates with mild winters, plant bulbs in late November or December. The bulbs will need to be chilled in the refrigerator for about 12 weeks before planting. (Bulb suppliers often offer pre-chilled bulbs for sale, too.)
If you miss planting your bulbs at the optimal time, don’t wait for spring or next fall. Bulbs aren’t like seeds. Even if you find an unplanted sack of tulips or daffodils in January or February, plant them and take your chances. See more about planting tulips in winter.
How to Plant Tulips
Plant bulbs fairly deep—8 inches deep, or about three times the height of the bulb. Dig a hole deeper than that in order to loosen the soil and allow for drainage. In clay soils, plant 3 to 6 inches deep instead.
Space bulbs 4 to 6 inches apart.
Set the bulb in the hole with the pointy end up. Cover with soil and press soil firmly.
Water bulbs right after planting. Although they can’t bear wet feet, bulbs need water to trigger growth.
If you’re planning to raise perennial tulips, feed them a balanced fertilizer when you plant them in the fall. Bulbs are their own complete storage system and contain all of the nutrients they need for one year. Use organic material, compost, or a balanced time-release bulb food.
To deter mice and moles—if they have been a problem—put holly or any other thorny leaves in the planting holes. Some gardeners use kitty litter or crushed gravel. If ravenous voles and rodents are a real problem, you may need to take stronger measures, such as planting bulbs in buried wire cages.
Don’t lose hope if you’re planting your tulips later in the season—just follow these tips.
If it rains weekly, do not water. However, if there is a dry spell and it does not rain, you should water the bulbs weekly until the ground freezes.
Rainy summers, irrigation systems, and wet soil are death to tulips. Never deliberately water a bulb bed unless in a drought. Wet soil leads to fungus and disease and can rot bulbs. Add shredded pine bark, sand, or any other rough material to the soil to foster swift drainage.
Apply compost annually to provide nutrients needed for future blooms.
In the spring, when leaves emerge, feed your tulip the same bulb food or bone meal you used at planting time. Water well.
Deadhead tulips as soon as they go by, but do not remove the leaves!
Allow the leaves to remain on the plants for about 6 weeks after flowering. The tulips need their foliage to gather energy for next year’s blooms! After the foliage turns yellow and dies back, it can be pruned off.
Large varieties may need replanting every few years; small types usually multiply and spread on their own.
Tulip flowers may be single, double, ruffled, fringed, or lily-shaped, depending on the variety.
‘Cracker’ tulip: purple, pink, and lilac petals; midseason bloomer
‘Ile de France’: red blooms on stems to 20 inches tall; midseason bloomer
‘Spring Green’: creamy-white petals feathered with green; late-season bloomer
‘Renown’: hot pink, egg-shape flower; late-season bloomer
Wild, or “species,” tulips are small in size, ranging in height from 3 to 8 inches. They are tougher than hybrids. Rock and herb gardens are ideal places to plant them. They look stunning when planted in large groupings.
For early to midspring bloom time: Tulipa bakeri, T. batalinii, T. humilis, T. kaufmanniana, T. turkestanica
For later blooming time:T. linifolia, T. neustreuvae, T. sprengeri, T. vvedenskyi
For multicolor varieties:T. biflora, T. greigii ‘Quebec’, T. praestans ‘Fusilier’ and ‘Unicum’, T. tarda, T. turkestanica
For a container:T. kaufmanniana ‘Goudstuk’
For (mottled) foliage:T. greigii (mottled or striped), T. fosteriana ‘Juan’, T. kaufmanniana ‘Heart’s Delight’
For fragrance: T. aucheriana, T. biflora, T. saxatilis, T. sylvestris, T. turkestanica
For warmer regions: Lady tulip (T. clusiana), Candia tulip (T. saxatilis), and Florentine tulip (T. sylvestris) overwinter in the South or mild-winter areas of the West (Zones 8 to 10) without the need of a chilling period
There are so many beautiful varieties of tulips. Explore catalogs and experiment in your garden!
Cut tulips just before the buds fully open. Leave some of the foliage behind to build up energy in the bulb for the next year’s growth. Recut the stems at an angle before placing them in a vase. Tulips continue to grow after being cut and are “phototropic,” reaching toward the light. Rotate the vase daily to keep stems upright.
Change the water daily, and tulips will last about 7 days in a vase. To get a long vase life of at least a week, cut stems diagonally and wrap the upper two-thirds of stems (with flowers) in a newspaper funnel. Stand in cool water up to the funnel for 1 to 2 hours, recut stems, and set in fresh water.
Wit and Wisdom
Tulips, and the word for them, come from the Far East: “Tulip” comes from the Turkish word for “turban,” tülbent, comes from the Persian word dulband, meaning “round.”
Did you know: If you dig up a tulip bulb in late summer, it’s probably not the same bulb you planted last fall. It’s her daughter. Even while the tulip is blossoming, the bulb is dividing for the next generation.
In 17th-century Holland, the new tulip was such the rage and fashion that a handful of bulbs was worth about $44,000.