It is well worth learning how to plant and grow tulips, because they are outstanding spring bulbs that you can grow in garden beds, through lawns, in container, or even indoors.
We generally plant tulips in Autumn/Fall, although later than other spring bulbs, such as daffodils. As Sarah Raven points out in the video below, tulips should usually be planted in November, after the first frosts. I’ve planted tulip bulbs in December and even January – the only downside being the cold hands and feet I had to endure in the process.
Origins and history of tulips
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 tulip bulbs 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.
Are tulips annuals or perennials?
Tulips will regrow for more than one year. So, technically they are perennials. However, the modern tulip bulbs that we plant rarely flower well for more than one year. As noted below, they are bred to reproduce by bulbils and, as the bulbils develop, the main bulb diminishes. Therefore, most gardeners treat tulips as annuals and plant new tulip bulbs each year.
Some tulips will come back year after year, however, at least for a few years. Try Fosteriana or Giant Darwin hybrids or, most reliably the species tulips. Species tulips are smaller and more delicate, but they will naturalise, which means they clump up and multiply.
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 are spring bulbs – we plant them in autumn/fall, for a display of flowers the following spring.
- Tulips make wonderful displays of massed spring flowers in garden beds. Some varieties overlap with daffodil flowers (before the tulips) and alliums (after the tulips).
- They also, make for fantastic cut flowers – especially the long stemmed varieties like ‘Queen of the Night’.
- 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 bulb 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
Time needed: 5 minutes
Here is you complete guide to planting and growing tulips, starting with when to plant tulip bulbs.
- Plant tulip bulbs in 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 6 to 8 inches (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, when planting tulip bulbs, 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 2 inches (5cm) of grit to the planting hole
Because tulips need good drainage, if you are planting into heavy soil, add 2 inches (5cm) of 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.
Please note – these products are linked to merchants pages. As an affiliate of these merchants I earn a small commission on qualifying purchases. These link to Amazon.com, but if you are outside the US click on them they should take you to your local Amazon site.
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Last update on 2023-10-01 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
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Last update on 2023-10-01 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
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Martin Cole has been an avid gardener for more than 20 years and loves to talk and write about gardening. In 2006 he was a finalist in the BBC Gardener of the Year competition. He is a member of the National dahlia Society.
He previously lived in London and Sydney, Australia, where he took a diploma course in Horticultural studies and is now based in North Berwick in Scotland. He founded GardeningStepbyStep.com in 2012. The website is aimed at everybody who has been bitten by the gardening bug and wants to know more.
Gardening Step by Step has been cited by Thompson and Morgan, the UK’s largest mail order plant retailer, as a website that publishes expert gardening content.
Check out my comprehensive step by step guide, with plain language explanations and ultra-useful images and illustrations. This is for you if you love dahlias and want to the best out of the dahlias you grow.