11 Tips For Growing Tulips in Pots or Containers
Are you looking for a little advice on growing tulips in containers this spring? Tulips are well-known garden flowers, as well as great border plants. But they are also fantastic container flowers in just about any location. In this article, certified master gardener Liz Jaros provides her top tips for growing beautiful tulips in pots or containers.
Few sights are as welcome in spring as a sprawling bed of bright, beautiful tulips waving hello in the front yard. But tulips can greet the winter weary gardener just as cheerfully from pots and containers. They can even greet us from pots inside the house, if we give them a little extra encouragement.
Many of us are accustomed to growing tulips in the ground. So much so, that some gardeners have the process down to a science. But there are still a handful of reasons why we may choose to grow them in containers. Some gardeners just don’t have the yard space, and some of us just don’t have the energy to dig a few dozen holes in the ground. Some of us would like to brighten up a balcony or porch, and some of us just can’t wait for spring.
Whatever the reason you’ve decided to explore growing these classic perennial bulbs in containers, you’ve come to the right place for information on how to plant, time, care for, and enjoy a pot full of spring blooming tulips. Here are 11 tips for getting it done properly and beautifully.
Start Thinking Ahead
Anyone who’s planted bulbs, either in the ground or in a container, will tell you with conviction that it’s a true act of optimism. In most zones, the time to plant tulips coincides with plummeting temperatures and whistling winds. It’s hard to think about spring when winter’s on its way.
But that’s the drill, when it comes to tulips. You plant in fall and you wait for spring. Those of us in northern climates will wait a long, long, time for spring. Our friends in more temperate regions won’t have to wait quite as long, but they’ll still have to wait.
Tulips require a period of vernalization in order to flower, which means you’ll have to give them about 14 weeks of temperatures around 40 degrees. So order or purchase bulbs early enough that you can plant them in pots by late October, early November.
Use a Large Container
Tulips are prone to rot and fungal conditions, and they do not like wet roots. Since terra cotta planters ‘breathe’ better than plastic or ceramic and will encourage good drainage, they are typically recommended for bulb plantings.
If you’ve got your heart set on another, less porous container, that’s fine too. Just make sure you don’t overcrowd or overwater. And make sure they are not so heavy that you can’t move them around. You’ll likely need to relocate them several times throughout the season.
Generally speaking, tulips will fare better in larger containers that are roughly as tall as they are wide. This will make them less likely to tip over when they are flowering, and less vulnerable to freezing temperatures. Choose pots that have a width and height of at least 12 inches, and you’ll be off to a good start.
Pick the Right Varieties
You should begin seeing bulbs at your local garden centers in the month of September. You can also order from catalogs or web sites at any point during the season and they will be delivered in early fall.
When buying online, only purchase from growers that have a solid reputation for high quality, disease free tulips. Healthy bulbs should be firm and large, without any blemishes or soft spots. And make sure there is no mildew or chalky coating. Prices may be higher than those in discount or big box stores, but you’ll likely get what you pay for.
While just about any type of tulip can be grown successfully in containers, those with shorter stems are always a good choice, since they will be less likely to break or tip over in high winds. Choose varieties from the Double Early, Kaufmanniana, Triumph, or Greigii categories for beautiful blooms with modest height.
Although a simple pot of the same cultivar is often the most striking container planting, if you want to get a little fancy, you can time your arrangement so that something is blooming all spring long. Start with early season bloomers like ‘Pinnochio,’ ‘Purple Prince,’ or ‘Exotic Emperor,’ work in mid season charmers like ‘Big Love,’ ‘Mariette,’ or ‘Flaming Baltic,’ and finish up with ‘Big Smile,’ ‘Blue Parrot,’ or ‘Yosemite.’
Prepare Containers Before Planting
Always begin with a clean, disinfected container. Make sure it has adequate drainage holes and a saucer to catch extra water. Several small holes are preferable to one large hole in the center, but either will do the trick. Just make sure the soil will drain completely and your container will not hold standing water.
You can place a few rocks or a light layer of gravel at the bottom to discourage holes from clogging, but this isn’t totally necessary. And it may make your container too heavy to move around as needed. So use your best judgment here.
Fill your containers with potting mix purchased from a nursery, not with soil from your garden. Potting mix will give your tulips a nutritional boost, the best possible drainage, and a manageable container weight. Garden soil will be sticky, heavy, and most likely lacking in tulip-friendly nutrients. Choose a mix that has a blend of perlite and vermiculite to encourage good drainage.
Plant Them Correctly
Package instructions typically recommend planting tulip bulbs at a depth that’s roughly twice their height. In pots, however, you’ll want to keep them relatively close to the surface, covering them just barely with your growing medium.
Spacing recommendations should be ignored for container plantings as well. Start in the center of the pot and work outward, leaving an inch or two between each bulb. Just make sure they’re not touching. Always plant with the pointy side up, as this is where the stems and leaves will emerge.
Most bulbs have one side that’s flatter than the others. This will be its earliest and most prominent leaf growth. As you plant toward the edge of the pot, make sure these flat sides face outward so the largest leaves will drape over your container’s side.
Chill Them Out
Again, your tulips will need to remain dormant for about 14 weeks in a space that’s roughly 40 degrees. A fluctuation of 5 degrees up or down will be just fine, but monitor them for extreme weather changes and move them if necessary.
The chilling process can take place in your yard, garage, cellar, attic, or refrigerator, depending on your space and dedication to the task.
If containers will remain outside, gardeners in colder zones should give them some protection from extreme winter conditions by clustering them with other pots, insulating them with mulch, placing them in a wind-reduced location, or storing them in the garage.
If you’re planning to let your bulbs chill in a refrigerator that contains produce, cover them with a plastic bag that has some air holes. This will protect them from ethylene gas that may impact their bloom quality. If you’re planning to store them in the basement or attic, monitor the temperature periodically to make sure it’s consistently around 40 degrees.
Before you send your tulips to bed for winter, give them enough water to moisten but not drench the soil. Tulips that are being stored outside will not likely need supplemental irrigation, but those in refrigerators or shelters will need to be watered every so often. Check the moisture level twice a week, and give them a drink if soil feels dry.
As soon as they wake up in spring, resume a regular watering schedule that will keep them moist but not soggy. Continue this schedule until blooming is complete.
Force Them Inside
If you’d like to get a head start on spring, you can get your tulips to break dormancy as soon as their 14 week nap is complete. Bring your pots out of storage, remove plastic covering if necessary, and place them in a location that receives low to medium light and slightly cool temperatures (about 50 to 60 degrees).
You should be seeing some yellow shoots at this point, if everything is going well. Once shoots have turned green, typically after about a week, move your containers to a sunnier location that gets temps of about 70 degrees.
Water evenly and rotate their containers regularly as they will tend to bend toward the sun. You can expect to see blooms about 3 or 4 weeks after your containers were removed from cold storage.
Wake Them Up Outside
Your tulips will begin breaching the surface once their 14 week dormant period has ended and exterior temperatures have reached about 60 degrees. Depending on where you live, this might happen in March or it might happen in May.
At this point, place your containers in a sunny location and begin watering regularly. You should begin to see blooms in 1 to 3 weeks, depending on which variety you’ve planted and how the weather behaves. If you learn that a cold snap is coming, move them back into a protected area or bring them inside until the risk of freezing temperatures has passed.
Skip The Fertilizer
Tulips conserve and store most of the nutrients they need in their bulb systems. While some gardeners will recommend applying bone meal or a 5-10-10 fertilizer to field grown plants, but container grown tulips will have received all the nutrients they need from their potting medium. So you can skip this maintenance task and save some money for future plantings!
Nurture After Blooming
Unless you’re planning to treat your tulips like annuals and discard them after one season, you must wait until their foliage has completely died back and turned brown before cutting them down. Tulips use this post-flowering period to store energy for next season’s growth, and photosynthesizing foliage is vital to that effort.
However, container grown tulips are not likely to flower again in the same pot. And they may have been so stressed by the unnatural growth cycle that they may never bloom again. So you’ll definitely be rolling the dice.
If you do want to give it a go, their best chances of survival will involve replanting them in the ground. So dig bulbs up after their leaves have died back, dry them out completely for a week or so, and store them in a cool, dry location until fall, when they can be planted again.
Temperature management is by far the trickiest part of growing tulips in containers. But if you’re a nurturing person and an eternal optimist, the task can be completed with great success. And the results can be extremely rewarding. Get your timing right, give your bulbs a healthy foundation, and keep an eye on them while they sleep. You’ll thank yourself in spring.