Everything You Need to Know About Growing Tulips

Growing tulips can be an exercise in delayed gratification, but all the hard work is worth it when your flowers bloom in spring. Here, you’ll find a comprehensive guide to growing tulips in your own garden, along with answers to frequently asked tulip questions. 

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How to Plant Tulips

Tulips are rather fussy. They like lots of sunshine and well-drained, light soil. They hate getting their roots wet and grow best in spots with at least 6 hours of daily sun. Tulips grow happily in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3-8, and with proper care, some varieties will perennialize in such climates. In colder or warmer areas, you’ll have to make some special accommodations.

Once you’ve chosen a sunny spot, the next thing to know is that tulips can only be planted in the fall, with enough time before really cold weather sets in that the bulbs have a chance to develop some roots before the ground freezes. Ideal soil temperature for planting is about 9⁰C/50⁰F. Plant your bulbs at a depth roughly twice their height, and water thoroughly to encourage root development. 

In colder climates, it’s best to plant the bulbs deeper, at a depth three to four times the height of the bulb, watering the bed and then covering it with some mulch. After being planted in the fall, the bulbs develop roots. When the temperatures start to go down, they settle in for a period of dormancy.

If you have a lot of squirrels in your area, consider covering your tulip beds with hardware cloth or chicken wire, and then dressing the top with mulch for a finished look. Squirrels love eating tulips but will not touch daffodils and some other bulbs, so consider planting them if you have a critter problem.

In warmer climates, it’s necessary to pre-chill the bulbs prior to planting to guarantee proper flowering the following spring.

How to Pre-Chill Bulbs

Pre-chilling can be tricky.

If you want to chill bulbs yourself, in mid-September to October, place the bulbs in the refrigerator in something that will allow for air flow like a paper bag or a cardboard egg carton. DO NOT PUT IN A SEALED PLASTIC BAG. BULBS ARE ALIVE AND NEED TO BREATHE. Be careful not to store near any fruit (particularly apples) as ripening fruit emits ethylene gas that can kill the tiny flower inside the bulb. Keep the bulbs cool for at least 12 weeks, then plant them outside during the coldest time of the year. 

It is very important that the bulbs go directly from the refrigerator into the ground. If they warm up, they will start sprouting stems early, but this is a problem because they won’t have roots yet. Plant the bulbs 3-4 inches deep in well-drained soil. Unlike in cooler climates, they won’t need full sunlight to get the energy they need, so partial shade is okay. Remember, even with proper care, these tulips are still outside of their preferred environment. It is very unlikely that they will re-grow the following year. It is a one shot deal.

Tulip Care

You can fertilize your tulip beds with a slow-release organic fertilizer as soon as the first leaf shoots appear in the spring but it is not necessary.

Once your tulips drop their flowers, deadhead them by cutting the stem pistil off. This prevents the plant from producing seeds, something that requires a lot of energy that typically comes at the expense of the bulb. Leave the foliage in place until it dies back naturally. This allows maximum energy to go into the bulb, replenishing its stores of starch and maximizing the chances that it will flower again next year. The bulb can develop another tiny embryo in preparation for the coming spring.

It’s fine to interplant tulips with later blooming perennials, or to tuck young annuals in among the withering foliage so they can take over for summer. 

If you wish to move tulips to a new location, the period of summer after all the foliage has died back is the best time to dig the bulbs up. Be sure the bulbs stay cool and dry, otherwise they may die. 

How to Care for Cut Tulips

When you buy tulip flowers or take cuttings from your garden, you will want to enjoy them for as long as possible. Here are some suggestions to help prolong your blooms:

  • Before placing flowers in their final location, wrap them up in an old newspaper and leave them for an hour in a vase with clean water and nutrients meant for cut flowers.
  • Always use a clean vase and clean water to lower the risk of harmful compounds or other factors that can reduce the life of the cut flower.
  • With a sharp knife, cut the end of the stem on an angle before arranging the flowers in the vase.
  • When arranging, keep in mind that tulips will continue to grow in the vase.
  • Place the cut tulips in a cool spot in the evening, because warm rooms during the night will reduce the flowers’ lifetime.
  • Daffodils should not be placed in the same vase as tulips. They produce a toxic material that has a negative influence on other flowers if they are in the same vase.

Why Don’t Tulips Return Every Year?

Most types of tulips don’t bloom reliably a second year, so many gardeners prefer the certainty of planting fresh bulbs each fall. A few types of wild tulips in regions with a cold winter and a warm summer will return year after year, a process known as perennialization. Beds of returning tulips may look more natural, more varied and less formal, whereas the first flowering of fresh bulbs tends to be more uniform and predictable.

Why Do Tulips Need a Cold Period to Bloom?

Tulips originated over a thousand years ago in the mountainous, high-plain regions of Central and Southwest Asia. In such climates, the flowers would be exposed to cold winters, rapidly draining soil, strong winds, and lots and lots of sun.

Soil temperatures below 13ºC/55ºF trigger a natural biochemical process in the bulb that breaks down stores of starches and carbohydrates into glucose. This helps the bulb withstand the colder temperatures, as water filled with glucose is less likely to freeze. This process typically requires 12 to 14 weeks of cold soil, and is why tulips don’t grow well in hot climates. When the temperatures begin to rise, this glucose is the primary energy source used by the bulb to bloom and flower. 

Can You Grow Tulips in Pots?

Yes, tulips planted in containers make for beautiful displays. However, they take some special considerations. Make sure to select a large pot (at least 15 inches/38 centimeters deep) with good drainage. Plant your tulips in the fall with potting soil. It’s OK to plant the bulbs very close together. If squirrels are an issue, consider covering the top of the container with chicken wire or a similar barrier. 

Don’t leave your pots out all winter, because repeated freeze-and-thaw cycles will damage and possibly kill the bulbs. Instead, move the pot into an unheated garage, basement or shed. In the spring, move your pot into a sunny spot, and water lightly. 

Can I Wait Until Next Year to Plant My Bulbs?

No, you cannot wait until next year to plant your tulip bulbs. (Unless you live in a warm climate and are planning to properly pre-chill them.) All spring flowering bulbs, including tulips, must be planted before the winter, as this allows them to go through an annual dormancy period necessary for their growth. Otherwise they will just dry up.