Growing tulips is a treat for gardeners who love a big splash of color in the spring. No plant ushers in the start of warm weather in a more dramatic way than tulips, so it is worth going the extra mile to have them growing in your garden.
Tulips, native to Turkey and then imported into Holland, are now harbingers of spring around the world. They are members of the lily family and can be found in single, double, fringed, striped and many other varieties.
Who doesn’t like to walk out into the garden in spring and be greeted with cheery tulip bulbs in bloom?
Tulips are considered a true bulb. Not all flowering bulbs are actually a bulb. See my article on flower bulbs to help tell the difference between bulbs, corms, rhizomes and tubers.
Tulip flowers are nyctinastic. They open and close at night and when it rains, to protect the reproductive parts of the plant.
Tulips are the perfect harbinger of spring. Plant them in fall for early spring blooms. Find out how to grow tulips on The Gardening Cook. 🌷🌷 Click To Tweet
Tulips require full sun for the best display, which means at least 6 hours of bright, direct sunlight each day. They also prefer fast-draining soil.
Try to plant a variety of tulip bulb types. The flowers of each plant do not last long. However, there are varieties that bloom at different times in the spring, so it is worth seeking them out.
If you plant early, mid and late-season types, you will have a longer run of flowers to enjoy.
When to plant tulip bulbs
Tulips are planted in the fall for spring blooms. Plant 6 to 8 weeks before a hard, ground-freezing frost is expected in your area. This gives them the cold period that they need before flowering starts.
In the northern hemisphere, hold off on planting until November if you can. Cold temperatures help to fend off fungal growth.
Planting later also keeps bulbs out of reach during the hoarding season of many rodents.
Plant the bulbs 8 inches deep and about 4-6 inches apart with the pointed end of the tulip facing upward.
Some gardeners like to plant tulip bulbs even deeper – about a foot deep. They claim that there is less chance of them sprouting in the fall and also less chance of freezing and thawing in winter.
Planting deeper also keeps them further away from animals.
Fertilize at planting time and again early spring when growth starts.
Sunlight and soil needs for growing tulips
Tulips prefer a sunny location. At least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day is ideal.
If you can give them this type of location, you’ll be rewarded with the biggest flowers in both height and size.
In warmer climates, tulips also do well under the shade of deciduous trees. The flowers will last longer if they are protected from the hot afternoon sun.
Loose crumbly soil is best. Heavy compacted soil will hold on to water and the likelihood of bulb rot is greater. Be sure the soil drains well.
Water thoroughly at planting time in the fall. This will give the tulip bulbs a big root system before they go dormant in the winter.
Don’t water during the dormant period when moisture is abundant. Holding off on watering then will help to keep the bulbs from rotting.
If your spring is dry and hot, the bulbs may need regular watering in spring when they start to grow.
Growing habit of tulips
Tulips have an upright growth habit. Each bulb produces a single flower. Tulip stems are quite strong and normally do not need to be staked.
Hybrid varieties with extra large blooms may need some light support to protect them from winds and the heavy rain of spring.
The blooms of tulips are varied. You can find them with both single and double petals. There are varieties with smooth petals and those with fringed tops.
You can grow tulips in many colors, from plain to multicolored and sizes from 4 inch dwarfs to those with petals 30 inches tall.
Growing tulips for cut flowers
To enjoy tulips indoors, choose tulips with flower heads that are just starting to open. Cut the stems diagonally.
Wrap the upper 2/3 of the flower with newspaper and let them stand in cool water for a few hours. Recut the stems and they should has about a week.
Check the water level in the vase each day. For the longest lasting flowers, add some sugar and vinegar to keep down the bacteria and change the water every few days.
Keep the cut tulips in a cool room, away from warm windows and heaters. For more tips, see this post on keeping cut flowers fresh longer.
Tulips and critters
Moles, voles, rodents and squirrels love tulips. So do rabbit and deer. Be sure to check out my post for how to keep squirrels from digging up tulips.
Placing chicken wire over the bulbs will help to keep the burrowers away. The stems will grow up through the wire, but the wire will keep the burrowing animals from digging the bulbs up.
Spraying bulbs with deterrents like cayenne pepper, human urine, or covering with animal hair also helps to deter critters.
Planting tulips and daffodils together is a beneficial idea. The same goes for hyacinths, alliums and crocuses. These bulbs are less desirable to rodents.
8 foot fences help to keep deer away from the attractive flowers. Planting tulip bulbs in containers may also keep other critters away from them.
Tulip pests and diseases
Pests that like tulips are aphids and thrips. Be sure to inspect bulbs for evidence of bulb mites.
Fungal diseases that affect tulips are grey bulb and tulip fire. Evidence of this fungus can include mold like growth on the bulbs, brown spots on foliage, withered and distorted foliage and rotting spots on flowers.
Also look out for a fuzzy grey mold on dead foliage and black seed-like fungal spores.
If your bulbs suffer from these diseases, they will likely need to be destroyed. Controlling thrips and aphids helps to reduce the risk of these fungal diseases.
Do tulips come back year after year?
A common question from readers of my blog is “are tulips perennials?”
The tulip is considered a perennial, which means it should return the following year and bloom again. However, if you have tried to grow tulips you may have not found this to be the case.
Hybrid vs species tulips
The reason for the confusion is because of the different types of tulip bulbs. They can be either hybrid or species varieties, and each acts differently when it comes to flowering again.
Hybrid tulip bulbs
Most of the tulips that you see in gardens and for sale at garden centers are hybrid tulips. While a hybrid tulip can return the following year, this type of bulb is often replaced in the fall each year for the best show of spring flowers.
Hybrid tulips are showier and larger than species tulips with well formed blooms.
These hybrid bulbs have been bred to produce good sized flowers. However, after the first year of flowering, the mother bulb breaks into smaller bulbs at it reproduces.
Each of these smaller bulbs can’t store the energy to produce the same big flowers the next year.
They tend to become less vigorous with each passing year. Hybrid often have to be replaced after the second or third growing season to get the same show of flowers.
They are more readily available so gardeners are more likely to find them for sale.
Species tulip bulbs
Species tulips occur naturally in the wild and there are several varieties bred from them. They are smaller and shorter than hybrid tulips and have petals that are more pointed.
In the right conditions, species tulips are perennials in zones 4-7. They will thrive for several years. In Northern zones, they will even spread in a garden bed.
Species tulips like well drained soil and full sun. They bloom earlier than the hybrid varieties.
With a movement towards more native plants in gardens, this type of tulips is now more commonly seen in Western gardens.
Species tulip bulbs are a good choice for those who are looking for tulips that will over-winter.
How to grow tulips in warm climates
Growing tulips when your temperatures are hot can be a challenge for sure. Tulips are a bulb that really likes cool temperatures.
Tips for growing tulips when the temperatures are warm
Most tulips like to have at least 12-14 weeks of a “cold period” to develop their beautiful flowers. Normally, nature will give this cold period by having the temperatures down and stay below 55 degrees for an extended period.
In warm climates where the soil temperature doesn’t drop for long enough below 55 degrees, you may need to “fool the bulb” into thinking they’ve gone through this cold period.
Here are some tricks for growing tulips when the temps are warmer.
Storage of tulip bulbs
Store your tulip bulbs in your kitchen refrigerator. Give them 6 to 16 weeks in a ventilated paper bag.
Do not store them next to fruit, especially apples. All ripening fruit gives off ethylene gas that will kill or damage the flower inside the bulb.
Once the cold storage period has ended, take them directly from the fridge and plant them. Be sure to plant the tulips in the coolest part of the year, which is fall and winter in the warmer US hardiness zones.
Plant tulip bulbs deeply where the soil is cooler and mulch the ground over them heavily.
Shade gardens for tulips in warm zones
Normally, tulips like a very sunny spot but if your temperatures are warmer, try the opposite approach.
Plant your tulip bulbs in an area of the garden that has some partial or full shade. Not only do these areas receive less sun, but the ground is also cooler here and tulips will love this.
You can also keep the soil temperature lower by regular watering so that the soil is evenly moist.
Caring for tulips after flowering
Hybrid tulips have a short but dramatic flowering period. Although they may flower the following year, many gardeners treat them as annuals.
If you don’t plant to overwinter hybrid tulips, dig them up after flowering and plant again in late fall.
For species varieties, which act more like perennials, there are a few things that you can do to prepare the bulb for next year.
Deadhead (remove the old blooms) the tulips after they flower. Cut the stems close to the ground.
However, leave the foliage for about 6 weeks even when it starts to go yellow and looks droopy. This will give the bulb nourishment for the following year’s flowers.
Apply a liquid fertilizer weekly for about a month after flowering. Stop watering when the leaves are completely yellow and let the ground dry out. It’s also a good idea to add compost each year to provide nutrients needed for future blooms.
The plant is no longer adding nourishment to the bulbs at this time and the tulips need a dry period during the summer months.
With a bit of extra care, you may be lucky enough to enjoy your tulips for a few years before you need to replant the bulbs.
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Where to buy tulips
Most of the big box hardware stores have supplies of hybrid tulips in big bags at low prices in the fall. This is a good place if you plan to treat the bulbs like annuals.
You can buy tulip bulbs that have been forced at your local Farmer’s Market.
Many online retailers also sell tulip bulbs:
- Amazon has a nice range of tulip bulbs in many colors and varieties of petals.
- Check Etsy for tulip bulbs and also seeds for tulips.
- If you are looking for species tulip bulbs, check out Van Engelen, Inc.
Admin note: This post for growing tulips first appeared on the blog in April of 2013. I have updated the post to add new images, a printable growing tips card and a video for you to enjoy.
Pin this post for growing tulips for later
Would you like a reminder of this post for planting and caring for tulips? Just pin this image to one of your gardening boards on Pinterest so that you can easily find it later.
- Bag of tulip bulbs (Choose early, mid and late season bloomers.)
- Organic matter or compost
- Chicken wire
- Watering can or hose
- inspect bulbs well for any sign of rot.
- Plant immediately or keep in the fridge until ready to plant.
- Plant in the late fall for spring blooms.
- Choose a spot that gets 6 hours of sunlight a day.
- Add organic matter or compost to the soil.
- Place bulbs 8 inches deep and 4-6 inches apart.
- Cover or surround with chicken wire to keep rodents away.
- Water well, then hold off on watering during the dormant season.
- Fertilize again in spring and water well when new growth starts.
- After blooming, cut the stems to ground level.
- Leave the foliage to go yellow to add nourishment to next season's blooms.
- Cut flowers will last about a week indoors.
- Be on the lookout for aphids, thrips and signs of fungal disease.
- Print out these tips and keep in your garden journal.