Tulips

How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Tulips

Tulips with Hyacinth

Long live the tulip! This brightly colored jewel of spring grows best in areas with cold winters and dry summers. The bulbs are planted in the autumn before the ground freezes.

Although tulips are a perennial from a botanical perspective, many centuries of hybridizing means that the bulb’s ability to come back 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 our western mountain regions come closest to this climate. 

There’s a tulip for every setting, 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.

By planting varieties with different bloom times, you can have tulips blooming from early to late spring. Some types are good for forcing into bloom indoors. Most are excellent for cut flowers, too.

Planting

  • Plant tulip bulbs in the fall, 6 to 8 weeks before a hard frost is expected and when soils are below 60 degrees F. (See our frost dates.) This is usually during September and October in the north, and October and November in the south. To find the best dates, see our fall bulb planting chart.
  • Nature never intended for bulbs to loll about above ground, so don’t delay planting the bulbs after purchase.
  • In southern climates with mild winters, you need to buy pre-chilled bulbs or chill them yourself in the refrigerator for about 12 weeks before planting. 
  • When selecting a site: Tulips prefer a site with full or afternoon sun. In Zones 7 and 8, choose a shady site or one with morning sun only. Soil must be well-draining, neutral to slightly acidic, fertile, and dry or sandy. All tulips dislike areas with excessive moisture. Tall varieties should be sheltered from strong winds.
  • 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.
  • You’ll want to space bulbs 4 to 6 inches apart, so choose an appropriate plot size.
  • Plant bulbs deep—at least 8 inches, measuring from the base of the bulb. And that means digging even deeper, to loosen the soil and allow for drainage, or creating raised beds. Remember, the bigger the bulb, the deeper the hole it needs.
  • 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.
  • 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 a buried wire cages.
  • If you’re planning to raise perennial tulips, feed them a balanced fertilizer when you plant them in the fall and again in the spring. 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.
  • Don’t lose hope if you’re planting your tulips late in the season—just use these tips.

Yellow tulips

Care

  • Water tulips during dry spells in the fall; otherwise, do not water.
  • Rainy summers, irrigation systems, and wet soil are death to tulips. Never deliberately water a bulb bed. Wet soil leads to fungus and disease and can rot bulbs. Add shredded pine bark, sand, or anything to foster swift drainage.
  • Compost annually to provide nutrients needed for future blooms.
  • Deadhead tulips as soon as they go by, but allow the leaves to yellow for about 6 weeks after flowering before removing.
  • Large varieties may need replanting every few years; small types usually multiply and spread on their own.

Pests/Diseases

Recommended Varieties

Wit & Wisdom

  • Did you know: If you dig up a tulip bulb in midsummer, it’s 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.
  • To get the longest vase life, cut tulip stems diagonally, then wrap the upper two-thirds of the flowers in a funnel of newspaper and stand them in cool water for an hour or two. Then, recut the stems and the tulips will last at least a week.
  • In 17th-century Holland, the new tulip was such the rage and fashion that a handful of bulbs was worth about $44,000.
  • Red tulips symbolize a declaration of love. Explore more flower meanings here.

Botanical Name: 

Tulipa

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