Tulips have long held a deep fascination for mankind.
Originating in the mountains of central Asia, where Tibet meets Russia and China, they were first cultivated on a large scale by the the Ottomans, dominating the Sultans’ gardens and becoming an important motif in Ottoman culture (see Anna Pavord’s wonderful book ‘Tulip’ for the full history).
Subsequently, the opening up of trade routes brought tulips to Northern Europe. They became so popular in the 1630s in Holland that they commanded ever increasing prices, creating a price bubble until the market collapsed, supposedly creating huge economic repercussions and leaving many tulip dealers bankrupt.
The full extent of this market bubble is contested, and it is argued that there was minimal impact on the wider Dutch economy. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the tulip’s popularity as a garden plant was established and the Dutch have remained the world’s pre-eminent tulip growers ever since.
Key tulip growing facts
There is a step by step planting and growing guide below, but here are some key facts that are important in informing how we go about growing tulips:
- Tulips require good drainage. If you think about where they originate from – rocky, mountain slopes – you can imagine the kinds of conditions they thrive in. They’ll rot in waterlogged soil.
- Tulips reproduce by seed or by the production of bulbils, small bulbs which develop around the mother bulbs. It takes several years for tulips grown from seed to flower, so in commercial production tulips are cultivated to re-produce by bulbil. Bulbils will take two to three years to reach flowering size.
- Once the tulip begins to produce bulbils, the plant’s energy goes into developing the bulbils, the main bulb will lose its strength and cease flowering.
- Some hybridized tulips won’t produce bulbils but, in any case, tulips are less likely to produce bulbils if planted deeply.
- Tulips are hardy and the bulbs will survive underground through cold winters. Although, like dahlias, they may rot if left over winter in waterlogged soil.
- In fact, tulips need a period of winter cold to induce flowering the following spring.
How to plant and grow tulips
Here is you complete guide to planting and growing tulips.
- Plant tulip bulbs in October/November
Tulip bulbs are best planted late in Autumn, when soil temperatures have fallen. This protects the bulbs from viruses or diseases that may be active in the soil at warmer temperatures.
- Plant the bulbs at a depth of 15 to 20cm
Most instructions will tell you to plant bulbs at a depth equivalent to twice the height of the bulb. For tulips, this would be a depth of around 8 to 10cm. However, bulbs planted more deeply (15 to 20cm) are less likely to to produce bulbils. Therefore the main bulb will continue to store the energy derived from photosynthesis in the leaves, enabling it to flower year on year.
So, dig out a hole to 15 to 20cm deep, using a trowel or bulb planter and plant the bulb, pointy end up. But first …
- Add some grit to the planting hole
Because tulips need good drainage, if you are planting into heavy soil, add some grit or washed sharp sand to the bottom of the hole.
- Add some bonemeal to the planting hole
Bonemeal can encourage flower production. If you don’t have bonemeal add a balanced organic fertiliser, such as fish, blood and bone.
Backfill the planting hole. You can add some more grit or sand into the soil as you backfill to help with drainage if the soil is heavy.
- Plant bulbs 8cm apart
Plant your bulbs in groups, drifts or rows according to your design. But make sure you plant at least 8cm apart to allow room for the foliage to grow.
- Deadhead after flowering
After your tulips have flowered and the petals have fallen, cut off the remains of the flower or, if you prefer, the whole flower stem. This ensures that none of the plant’s energy goes into producing seeds, but instead goes to strengthening the bulb for next year’s display.
- Don’t cut back or tie up the remaining leaves.
Allow the plants leaves to die back naturally. This is because the leave produce energy through photosynthesis which the plant uses to produce the following year’s embryonic leaves and flowers which develop on the bulb. The dying leaves can be unattractive, so it is a good idea to have planted up perennials or annual around the tulips which will hide the dying foliage as they grow.
- Clear the dead leaves
Once the leaves have died back, clear them away and mulch the surface.
All being well you’ll have a beautiful display again the following spring.
What you’ll need
If you are planting lots of bulbs, a long handled bulb planter is the best tool.
Otherwise, a short handled bulb planter or a decent trowel will do the job. I’ve also featured one of the drill-bit planters below, although I’ve never used one. So I’d be interested in any thoughts you have on them if you used one. Let me know in the comments.
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