Tulip Guide: Planting, Care & Frequently Asked QuestionsDiscover the do's and don’ts of planting tulip bulbs and get design ideas for incorporating these flowers into your garden
Tulips, a spring icon, are prized for their vast array of colors. Easily grown in borders or containers, many gardeners consider tulips a staple flower that they anxiously await each year.
In the shadow of a church steeple lies the tulip collection of Hortus Bulborum in Limmen, Netherlands, where the tulip crop is rotated with other historic bulbs. Arranged alphabetically, 2,300 tulip varieties are planted every year for display to the public between April 6 and May 16. For information, go to www.hortus-bulborum.nl Photo by: Rob Cardillo.
3-8; Tulips require 14 to 15 weeks of winter temperatures below 48 degrees to perform, faring best when springs are long and balmy with temperatures between 45 and 60 degrees.
Varieties 6 inches to 2 feet.
Full sun—in the shade, they’re weak and spindly with small flowers. But keep in mind that tulips perform before most deciduous trees leaf out.
Varieties available with different bloom times from early to late spring.
Large variety of single and multi-colored types. Popular tulip colors include pink, white, red, orange, purple and yellow.
Types of tulips:
There are many varieties of tulips to choose from. Some have single flowers, others have double flowers, some have solid color foliage, others have variegated foliage, some bloom early, others bloom late—and the list goes on.
Tulips can be classified into 15 cultivar groups, which are as follows:
- Species tulips (sometimes called wild or botanical tulips)
- Parrot tulips
- Fringed tulips
- Rembrandt tulips (the modern, virus-free version of broken tulips)
- Darwin hybrid tulips
- Triumph tulips
- Lily-flowered tulips
- Single early tulips
- Double early tulips
- Single late tulips
- Double late tulips
- Viridiflora tulips
- Kaufmanniana tulips
- Fosteriana tulips (also known as Emperor tulips)
- Greigii tulips
Plant your tulip bulbs in a spot where the soil drains well. Photo by: OlgaPonomarenko / Shutterstock.
When to plant tulips:
As a general rule, tulips should be planted in the fall. More specifically, plant bulbs September to early October for zones 4 and 5; October to early November for zones 6 and 7; November to early December for zones 8 and 9; and late December to early January for zone 10. In zones 8 to 10, bulbs should be refrigerated for 6 to 8 weeks before planting.
Where to plant tulips:
Plant in a location that will receive full sun, with good drainage. If planted in the shade, they’ll be weak and spindly with small flowers. If planting taller varieties, make sure they are in an area protected from strong wind.
How to plant tulips:
Tulip bulbs should be buried 6 to 8 inches below the soil line, pointed end up, spaced 4 to 6 inches apart. To ensure that bulbs planted together will bloom at the same time, make sure they are planted at exactly the same depth.
Because tulip bulbs are primed and ready when the bulb is planted and then whisked away after the show is over, soil isn’t a major issue. But given their druthers, tulips prefer a sandy loam soil and excellent drainage, and detest being sunk in soggy beds.
Learn more about planting and storing bulbs:
If you must lift bulbs immediately after flowering, place them in trays until the leaves become yellow and straw-like, then remove the foliage and store them until you’re ready to replant. Photo by: Tim Gainey / Alamy Stock Photo.
Water when planted, but don’t water again until foliage appears. Bulbs don’t like wet feet.
Deadhead tulip flowers after the petals have dropped. After flowering, the plant will continue to grow and store nutrients for next year, so leave the foliage intact until it has completely died back.
If left in the ground, smaller varieties may multiply and spread on their own, while larger varieties may need replanting every few years.
Fertilize them in the fall when they are planted and establishing their roots and again when growth appears. Don’t fertilize after flowers have bloomed.
Digging up tulips:
The best time to lift tulip bulbs is approximately six weeks after flowering, once the leaves have turned yellow. If necessary, use a garden fork to gently loosen the bulbs from the ground. If you want to lift earlier to avoid the unsightly foliage or make room for new plants, RHS recommends placing them in trays until the leaves become yellow and straw-like.
Any soil, old leaves or roots should be gently removed from the bulbs. Separate any new bulbs that have formed. Make sure the bulbs are totally dry before storing or they will rot. Provide good air circulation, warm temperatures, and darkness until you are ready to replant. Many gardeners use trays or mesh bags for tulip storage.
Diseases and pests:
Gray mold, slugs, snails, aphids, and bulb rot. Squirrels, rabbits, mice, and voles are frequent pests to tulip bulbs, but can be deterred by placing holly or other thorny leaves in with the bulbs.
Additional care tips:
- Don't expect all tulips to come back—hybrids should be replanted annually.
- If refrigerator chilling prior to planting is necessary in your zone, don’t store bulbs in the same drawer with fruit as gases emitted from ripening fruit can cause bulbs to sprout.
- Store bulbs in a cool place in a paper bag (not plastic) before planting.
Designing with Tulips
Although an ocean of tulips is one way to go, there are many other creative ways to use tulips in your garden. Here are some ideas to try.
- Integrate tulips with spring-blooming perennials in herbaceous borders.
- Tulips also play well with other bulbs, such as late-blooming daffodils, hyacinths and crocus.
- Blend tulips that bloom simultaneously, pairing complementary colors and harmonious shades for riveting displays (since it’s all in the timing, try a professionally crafted blend from www.colorblends.com).
- Conversely, plant tulips with different bloom times to extend your tulip blooming season.
- Don't limit yourself to solid colors—try striped varieties or ones with subtle color-changing nuances.
Tulips to Grow
Whether you've never grown a tulip in your life, or you're a collector who likes rare, heirloom varieties—these tulips will grab your attention.
Ombre is having its moment in the garden! 'Cash' is an early-blooming tulip that creates a painterly effect in the garden.
Class: Darwin Hybrid
From John Scheepers
'Pink Impression' - Buy now on Amazon
Boasting large flowers that are long-lasting in the garden, this tulip is a showstopper. The color of the petals matures from a luminescent, soft rose to a deep pink. Blooms mid-spring.
Class: Darwin Hybrid
Any flower that’s described as a "giant scoop of strawberry vanilla sherbet" will stop us in our tracks! Burpee’s new 'Cool Crystal' fringed double tulip ought to be in Willy Wonka’s garden so we could actually taste it.
Noted as a Breck’s "Gardener’s Favorite" variety, another edible-named bulb is worth a second look. We like its tall, dark stems that set off the purple-blue flames of color.
These are one of Baker Creek's top fall bulb picks. Parrot Tulips finish off the season with a bang after most other tulips have already bloomed and gone. They offer bright flames of color with frilly, twisted or wavy petals.
'Little Beauty' - Buy now on Amazon
Vigorous and fragrant, ‘Little Beauty’ will form colonies over time. At night, the flowers close up and may not open on overcast days.
Singled out for its reliable performance in gardens across America, the 'Affaire' tulip gets the “Park’s Picks” designation for its early season color and vigor. We like the angular shaped ivory and violet blooms for a soft but vibrant effect.
One of Ken Greene’s favorite fall bulbs, the 'Paul Scherer' tulip has petals so dark they appear almost black—a striking accent plant in borders or containers.
Class: Single Late
The oldest Double Late variety in cultivation, this light violet peony look-alike dates back to 1750 or before, and it remains a stunning example. With a tutu of petals and an extended staging, it became an instant sensation in the 18th century. Then why was it forsaken by the bulb industry? ‘Blue Flag’ ran aground commercially because it doesn’t propagate easily.
Class: Double Late
Not only do the plus-size petals of this flaming starlet prove that big is beautiful when it comes to tulips, but the subtle nuances of color from mustard through to magenta with hints of purple render this Single Late tulip, first introduced in 1984, worthy of preservation. Part of its charm is the flared petals.
Class: Single Late
Because certain tulips are emblazoned with brush strokes of color, they were dubbed “Rembrandts” in 1925. Sparking Tulipmania, striped (or “broken”) tulips were the darlings of the Dutch, the most sought-after (and expensive) versions being those with strong contrast. This striped sensation in scarlet and white (often described as strawberry and cream) was originally introduced in 1620, later to be reclassified into the Rembrandts. Due to its disarming charm and strength, it’s still available on the tulip market.
‘Royal Sovereign’ (‘Charles X’)
It was the short, stout, cup-shaped form inherent in the Rembrandts that won hearts in Holland as much as the streaks of color in each petal. Although the introduction date for this Rembrandt type is lost to history, its ruby rays against a brilliant yellow background were incentive for the preservation of this “golden oldie.”
The ruffled petal edges as well as the fiery combination of orange with green blotches and a yellow base in the petals are the keeping qualities of this simmering 1930 introduction. Parrot tulips can be weak, so it is the strength of the bulb that also renders it worthy. Plus, ‘Orange Favourite’ inherited a divine aroma reminiscent of freesias—the sort of antidote you crave in spring.
Although true blue isn’t in the tulip’s spectrum, purple is well-represented. And this 1929 Rembrandt type features the color purple in all its nuances, streaked over snow white. Staged when shock appeal is the best tool to break out of the doldrums, the drama of unfolding is part of a tulip’s titillation. With ‘Columbine’, the outer petals dramatically part to reveal more white within.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are tulips perennials?
Technically tulips are perennials and should be repeat bloomers, but they often fail to flower well beyond the first spring. Here is an excellent explanation of why your spectacular tulip display declines to little or nothing. Because most tulips are not reliable perennializers, many gardeners choose to replant fresh bulbs each year. If you are looking for tulips that will give you two or three years of flowers, consider species or naturalizing types. Under ideal conditions, Darwin Hybrids can also last a few years.
Why didn’t my tulips come back?
The jumbo bulbs sold to gardeners are really the end of the line—grown with great skill under ideal conditions and to a size that is about as big as a tulip bulb can get. These large bulbs split into several smaller bulbs, so their second-season flower show is inevitably reduced.
Here are some more reasons why tulips stop blooming:
- You live in a climate where the temperature doesn’t fall below freezing. Grow them as annuals instead.
- The bulbs rotted due to too much moisture in the soil. Pick a well-drained location or dig up the bulbs and store them.
- Your tulips didn’t get enough sun. Plant in a full sun location.
- You removed last year’s foliage before the bulb stored enough energy. Wait until all the leaves have died.
- Your soil is lacking key nutrients. Fertilize your tulips in fall and spring with a low-nitrogen fertilizer.
Should I plant tulip bulbs or seeds?
Make sure you are buying bulbs, not seeds. Tulip seeds can be tough to start and will take a few years to produce flowers.
Are tulips poisonous?
Tulips are known to be toxic to humans when ingested, and the ASPCA lists tulips as being toxic to dogs, cats, and horses. Then main concentration of toxin is in the bulb, however, all parts of the plant except the petals are poisonous. See Common Poisonous Plants for Dogs and Cats.
Are tulips deer resistant?
Unfortunately, tulips are on deer’s most favorite snack list. Some tips to help your tulips avoid being eaten by deer are to position them amidst strongly-scented or prickly plants, near something that makes motion or noise, placing other strong-smelling items near them (mothballs, garlic, onions, etc.), or setting sprinklers to go on near dawn and dusk times (breakfast and dinner time for deer).
This article was adapted from its original version for use on the web.