Planting and Caring for Tulips
Tulips bring some of the earliest color to the late winter garden. Learn how to plant and care for these flowers that signal warmer, better days are on the way.
Tulips are an iconic spring flower, one of the first blooms to pop up in the garden in late winter or early spring. Those colorful blooms signal that the season of gray and cold is nearly over and warmer weather is in sight. Tulips are hope on a stem.
Tulips come in just about every color, and their cup-shaped blooms on strong stems form the backbone of spring gardens. Tulips look good in borders and containers. They're also striking when massed in a flower bed or scattered in naturalizing sweeps across a landscape. Here's what you need to know about growing tulips.
Tulips are native to Central Europe and Eastern Asia, but they're cultivated and hybridized all over the planet. They've been cultivated for more than 1,000 years, and now are there are more than 150 species of tulips and more than 3,000 varieties. They're categorized into 15 groups defined by characteristics like size, bloom time, petal shape and color.
Tulip flowers are usually are cup-shaped, but some are star- or goblet-shaped. The blooms may be single, double, ruffled or fringed, and the tulip plant ranges in height from 3 inches to 28 inches, depending on the variety. Tulips only produce flowers for a week or so, but that week is a glorious one if you're a tulip lover.
Are Tulips Perennials or Annuals?
Tulips are perennial bulbs, botanically speaking, but centuries of hybridizing have weakened the bulb's ability to come back year after year. Most tulips bloom well for only one or two years. Tulips have the best chance of establishing themselves as perennials in the western mountains of the United States, where there are gritty soils, cold winters and hot, dry summers similar to their ancestral homelands in Russia and Turkey. Those of us in the rest of the country should treat tulips as annuals, planting new bulbs every fall. Luckily, 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.
Botanical Name: Tulipa
Common Name: Tulip
Bloom Time: Spring
Hardiness Zones: 3 to 8
Tulips require a chilling period to bloom, a process called vernalization. If you live in a warmer climate where temperatures are not consistently in the 30s, buy pre-chilled bulbs.
Plant tulip bulbs in the fall, six to eight weeks before the first frost. A good rule of thumb is to plant tulip bulbs in September or October in northern climates and in December in warmer climates. This gives the bulbs time to establish themselves before winter hits. Planting bulbs too early or too late can cause them to become diseased.
Tulips prefer full or afternoon sun. If you live in the southernmost growing regions for tulips (Zones 7 and 8), choose a shady site that gets only morning sun since tulips don't like a lot of heat.
The soil must be well-drained and loose. Tulips do poorly in heavy or wet soils. They will not tolerate staying wet. The bulbs must not — repeat, must not — be planted in heavy or clay soils, or they will rot. There's 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 plant them deeply in containers set on top of heavier or clay soils, which can be moved out of the way of summer rains.
Plant tulip bulbs deep, around 6 to 8 inches beneath the surface of the ground. Set the bulb in the hole pointy end up, cover with soil and press the soil down till firm.
Space bulbs 4 to 6 inches apart. This gives them room to grow and allows ventilation around the foliage, key to avoiding fungal diseases of the leaves.
If you are growing tulips as perennials, fertilize the bulbs with bone meal and bulb food. They have nutrients in the bulb to tie the plant over till spring, but if you want them to come back year after year, you'll need to feed them.
Caring for Tulips
If you get weekly rain in the fall after planting the bulbs, you don't need to water. Excess water is the tulip bulb's enemy. If you hit a dry spell, though, water the bulbs weekly till first frost.
Fertilize them with bulb food or bone meal in the spring when the leaves emerge. If you are growing your tulips as perennials, add compost after they bloom. This will give them the nutrients to come back next year.
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Allow the leaves to stay on the plant for six weeks after they bloom. The tulips need the leaves to make nutrients for the bulb to store for next year's flowers. Strip those leaves off as soon the tulip is done blooming and you won't see another flower from that bulb.
Cold isn't a problem unless your garden doesn't get any. If that's the case, dig up the bulbs after the foliage dies down in the spring, store them in a dry, cool place all summer, refrigerate them for a couple of months (crisper, not freezer) and replant them in the fall.
We'll say it one more time: Lots of rain, irrigation systems, and wet soil are death for tulips. Don't water your bulb bed unless you're in a drought.
Pests and Diseases
Too much water will lead to a slew of fungal diseases including:
Fusarium oxysporum is a major disease of tulips that shows up as brown spots on roots or pink or white fungus on the bulbs. Basal rot will also cause deformed flowers. Treat affected plants and bulbs with a fungicide.
Botrytis tulipae shows up in the form of distorted shoots and masses of gray spores on infected bulbs. It can also cause streaking and spotting on blooms. Tulip fire is a serious disease and spreads quickly. Treat diseased plants with a fungicide.
This soil-borne fungal disease shows up as masses of white fungus on bulbs that turn into soft spots. Infected leaves turn a reddish color and wilt. Treat the soil with a fungicide and throw out all diseased bulbs.
Tulips also get the usual garden pests: aphids, slugs, snails and nematodes. Deer, squirrels and other rodents find tulip bulbs tasty and will dig them up and eat them. Savvy gardeners plant bulbs in sunken baskets made of metal hardware cloth to foil burrowing critters.
Recommended Tulip Varieties
Tulips are technically perennials, but most bloom for just one or two years. Here are some of our favorites.
'Cracker Tulip' is a midspring bloomer with violet purple petals that grows 20 inches tall.
'Ile de France' is a midseason bloomer with intensely red blooms on 22-inch stems.
'Abu Hassan' has rich, warm tones of mahogany-red petals with orange-yellow edges.
'Calgary' is a midspring bloomer with white petals and blue-green foliage.
'Prinses Irene' looks like a classic Rembrandt tulip, with orange blooms tinges in purple. It blooms in late April on 16-inch stems.
'Ballerina' has pointed orange petals on lily-shaped blooms. It's a good choice for cut flowers.
'Café Noir' has deep, chocolatey maroon blooms that appear in midspring.
Some varieties of tulips are better candidates for reblooming than others:
Darwin Hybrids are known for their big blooms and sturdy stems that grow up to 28 inches tall. They're grown for use as cut flowers and bloom for up to five years. They're a great choice for naturalizing. 'Acropolis' has red-pink blooms and grows to 24 inches tall. 'American Dream' has humongous golden-yellow blooms tinged in red-orange that measure 6 inches across. 'Light and Dreamy' has large, sugar pink flowers with lavender centers.
Botanical Tulip (Tulipa sylvestris) Commonly known as the Woodland or Florentine Tulip, this wild or 'species' tulip is a foot-tall plant that grows in the forests and meadows of Europe. This heirloom has been naturalized for generations in old American gardens, and is long-lived with the right care and growing conditions.
Clusiana Hybrids, known as lady tulips or Persian tulips, aren't as showy as Darwins but are super durable when planted in dry or neglected spots. They are tiny, growing just 4 to 8 inches tall.