Hardy Tulips That Bloom for Years
For most of the country, the beloved, regal tulip is one of the most frustrating bulbs to grow for more than just one season.
Truth is, most are best planted as one-shot annuals. Luckily, new tulip bulbs come ready to bloom their hearts out the first season, and are priced affordably enough to toss into the compost after they finish flowering.
To survive and bloom again the next year as true perennials, they require cold winters, moist springs, perfectly well-drained soil, and no water at all during hot, baking summers. Miss any of these, and the bulbs will rot, fail to split into new bulbs, or refuse to form new flower buds.
Still, there are several groups of tulips which can survive for years in USDA Zones 3-9 as long as summers are dry and winters are chilly if not downright cold.
Give Them Their Best Shot
Tulips can tolerate frost and moderate late freezes; as long as the buried buds aren’t hurt, even those with frozen leaves can go on to bloom.
But one thing tulips will not tolerate is staying wet. The bulbs must not – repeat, must not – be planted in heavy or clay soils, or they will simply rot. No way around this except to amend the soil with organic matter, or plant shallow in raised beds with several inches of soil piled above them. Or simply plant them deeply in containers set on top of heavier or clay soils, which can be moved out of the way of summer rains.
When planting, add a scant handful of all-purpose bulb food – not just bone meal – to the soil underneath the bulbs. Plant tulips deeper than other bulbs – up to five or six inches deep – and cover the planting area with mulch. Water deeply, and let ‘em go!
Recreate “Back Home” Conditions
All that said, there are still hurdles to getting tulips to survive more than a year or two. Most are native to the hills and mountains of eastern Europe and central Asia where soils are gritty, winters are cold, and summers are brutally hot and dry. Emphasis on dry.
If tulips stay wet while dormant in the summer, they rot, often with fungal diseases. If they don’t get enough cold in the winter, or their leaves are cut before they turn yellow, they will fail to divide into new bulbs or set flower buds for the following year.
Best Shots at Perennializing
While most fancy tulips bloom well for only 1 or 2 years, Darwin and Fosteriana hybrids, and the smaller “species” tulips, usually form new flower buds early, making them probably the best candidates for reblooming.
The “sylvestris” group of tulips will grow even in light shade under deciduous shrubs such as althea and Forsythia which are not watered a lot in the summer. This foot-tall, fragrant European woodland tulip has naturalized for decades in old American gardens.
My favorite hardy tulips, the clusiana hybrids, are not as showy as the larger-flowering kinds but are super durable when planted in summer-dry or neglected spots.
Cold is not an issue unless your garden gets none at all, in which case the bulbs should be dug after the foliage dies down in the spring, stored dry all summer, then refrigerated for a couple of months (crisper, not freezer) before replanting in the fall.
All this without even mentioning voles and chipmunks. Savvy gardeners plant in sunken baskets made of half-inch “hardware cloth” to foil burrowing critters.
But as long as you stick with the types I mentioned, plant in sunny, well-drained soils, and leave them alone all summer, you can enjoy the glory of tulips for years to come.