How to Grow Tulips for Spring Color

Updated on January 29, 2019
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Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

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You know that spring has arrived when the tulips burst into bloom. They come in many colors and sizes. There are early bloomers, mid-season bloomers and late-season bloomers so the show just seems to go on and on.

What are Tulips?

Tulips are perennial bulbs that are native to eastern Turkey and surrounding areas. They are members of the lily family. In the US they are hardy in zones 3 through 8. The original species tulips were small, but after being introduced to Europe in the 16th century, eager gardeners hybridized them and created the large, colorful flowers that we are familiar with today that grow to 12 to 24 inches in height. The so-called “species” tulips that are available these days are actually hybrids of the original tiny tulip plants. They usually only grow 3 to 6 inches tall.

So-called species tulips are smaller than the showy hybrid tulips.
So-called species tulips are smaller than the showy hybrid tulips. | Source

Depending on the variety, tulips bloom in the early, mid- or late-spring. For the longest display of flowers, plant different kinds of tulips that will bloom at different times in the spring.

Why do Tulips Only Grow For a Few Years?

Many gardeners are puzzled as to why their crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths and other spring blooming bulbs come back year after year but their tulips come up great the first year and then peter out the second and third years. The secret is in the growing conditions.

Their native climate has cold winters and hot dry summers. In some places, it doesn’t rain at all during the summer. Here in the US, it is too wet during the summer and the bulbs lose their vigor or even rot from all the moisture.

Some gardeners get around it by treating their tulips like annuals and plant new ones every year. Other gardeners dig up their tulips after the foliage has died and store them in mesh bags over the summer. And some of us try planting our bulbs deeper than recommended, 8 to 12 inches, to get the bulbs below most of the moisture during the summer.

Another solution is to purchase bulbs that have been bred to be more likely to survive for more than a few years. The most popular hybrids are the Darwin tulips, especially the red, the yellow and the orange. I had some that lasted 10 years. Other good choices are smaller varieties such as the Fosterianas, Greigiis, and Kaufmannianas.

Darwin tulips in 2006 that were planted in 1996.
Darwin tulips in 2006 that were planted in 1996. | Source

When to Plant Tulips

Tulips grow from bulbs that are planted in the fall. They need the chill of winter and then the warming of the soil in the spring to prompt them to germinate. In zones 7 and north, they should be planted one month before the soil freezes which is said to be September or October. In my own zone 6 NJ garden, I wait until November when the soil has cooled to plant my tulip bulbs. The soil is so warm in September and October, that I have had instances where my spring bulbs start to germinate, so I wait.

In zones 8 through 10, the winters do not get cold enough to provide the chill that the bulbs need. Gardeners in those zones need to fool their bulbs into thinking that they have experienced winter by chilling them in their refrigerators for 10 weeks before planting them in December of January.

Parrot tulips, among my favorites.  They are characterized by large ruffled flowers and multi-colors.
Parrot tulips, among my favorites. They are characterized by large ruffled flowers and multi-colors. | Source

How To Plant Tulips

Location is very important. Tulips like to be dry, so choose a spot that does not retain a lot of water or is near an irrigation system such as drip irrigation or soaker hoses. Too much water will rot your bulbs.

Tulips need full sun, so pick a sunny spot with no shade trees. If you live in the south (zones 8 through 10), a sunny spot that gets some shade in the afternoon is preferable to protect your plants from the hot afternoon temperatures.

Planting depth is also important. The larger bulbs should be planted 8 to 10 inches deep and the smaller tulip bulbs and species bulbs should be planted 5 to 6 inches deep. Plant your bulbs at 4 to 6 inches apart, depending on the size of the bulbs. The bulbs should be planted with the pointy end pointing up. That’s where the plant will grow from. If you look at the bottom of the bulb, you see some dried up roots. That’s where the roots grow from.

Tulip bulbs only produce one flower per bulb, so you need a lot of them to show them off to their best advantage. That’s a lot of holes to dig! Here’s a trick that I use when planting a lot of bulbs. Instead of digging individual holes, I plant my bulbs in groups and using a shovel, dig one large hole for each group. I position each bulb in the hole keeping them 6 inches apart. Then I carefully cover them with the soil that was dug out. You have to do this carefully because you want the bulbs to stay pointy end up and not fall over as you cover them with soil.

Lily flowered tulips, another interesting flower shape.
Lily flowered tulips, another interesting flower shape. | Source

How to Care For Your Tulips After They Have Bloomed

Once your tulip flowers have finished, cut them down before they go to seed. You don’t want your bulbs putting all of their energy into making seeds. You want them to be storing that energy for next spring’s blossom. The leaves should be left uncut until they have turned yellow and died. They look ugly without their pretty flowers, but they have an important job to do. They make the food which is stored in the bulbs that will feed next year’s flowers. It will take about 6 weeks for the foliage to die, so you need to be patient. Do not braid them or tie them up in bunches. This will prevent them from being exposed to the sun. Exposure to sunlight is important. It’s how the leaves make the food the bulbs need to survive. You can use other methods to hide the leaves such as planting perennials around your tulips that will grow and hide the leaves.

Bicolor tulips are striking
Bicolor tulips are striking | Source

How to Grow Tulips From Seed

It is possible to grow tulips from seeds rather than buying bulbs. The seeds will eventually produce bulbs. You will need to allow some of your flowers to go to seed. This puts the bulbs at risk because they will be working to make seeds instead of storing food for next year so they may or may not survive.

Once your flowers have made seeds, you can collect and dry it like you would any other flower or vegetable seed. Sow the seeds in the fall in a cold frame, barely covering them with soil. Keep the soil moist but not wet. The seeds should germinate in March or April.

Leave your seedlings in the cold frame through that year’s growing season and winter. Do the same thing again the following year. This means that you will be growing your seedlings for two years in the cold frame. It takes this long for them to make their bulb.

In the second fall, you can move them to your garden. Before planting them, examine the bulbs. They should be dark brown and feel solid, not mushy. Just like the bulbs that you purchase. Plant these new bulbs the same way that you plant bulbs that you purchase using the same planting depth and at the same time that you normally plant your tulip bulbs.

If you have done everything right, your new bulbs should grow and bloom the following spring.

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