Can You Plant Tulips in Spring? When’s The Best Time To Plant Them?

Are you thinking of growing some tulips but aren't sure what time of year is the best to grow them? Are you thinking that spring might be the ideal time of year to freshen up your garden with some new flowers and colors? In this article, Taylor Sievers examines if tulips can get planted in the spring, and when the best time of year is to plant them.

Plant Tulips in Spring

Thinking of planting your tulips in the spring instead of the fall? While this might normally be something to avoid, there are some steps you can take if you get moving a little late into your Tulip planting season. So, you forgot to plant that batch of tulip bulbs in the Fall! Now, what do you do? 

Never fear! We have some bulb gardening secrets to share with you. With those secrets, you’ll be able to plant tulips and catch up on some lost ground to still yield a decent amount of mature flowers in your garden.

In this article, we’ll give all the information about tulip bulbs and tips for planting them in the Spring. You’ll be on your way to having one of the most beautiful tulip patches on the block. 

Can You Plant Tulips in Spring? 

Bulb in the Ground
It is possible to plant them in the spring using a method called forcing.

Yes, you can plant them in the spring, but you’ll have to do something special called forcing in order to have those beautiful blooms. Read on to learn more about these beautiful flowers and how to force them to bloom when you want them to bloom! 

What Are Tulips? 

Yellow Flower in a Patch
These stunning flowers come in a variety of colors and shapes.

Tulips are flowers with fleshy green foliage that are members of the Tulipa genus. People have been fascinated by these flowers for hundreds of years! In fact, some people went literally crazy over these plants in the 1630s during the famed, yet controversial, Tulipmania.  

The plants reproduce mainly from structures called bulbsTulipa bulbs are considered true bulbs. They share this designation with Asiatic lilies as well. Other bulb-like structures include corms, rhizomes, and tubers.

Corms are compressed, underground stems. An example of plants with corms would be gladiolus and crocus. Dahlias grow from tubers, which have leathery skin and “eyes” that are buds (think of potatoes). Lastly, rhizomes are underground stems that grow at or just below the soil surface. You can break these up to make new plants, and a common flower that grows from rhizomes would be irises.  

Some bulbs are hardy, meaning they flower in spring, while others are tender, meaning they flower in the Summer. Hardy bulbs require a cold period in order to break their dormancy and begin to grow. This is why it is usually recommended to plant hardy bulbs like tulips and daffodils in the Fall

Tulips are difficult to identify taxonomically due to their long history of cultivation, hybridization, and selection. For this reason, plants known as tulips are categorized into 15 different groups based on their flower shape and origin.

These groups can be early-blooming or late-blooming, single-petalled or double-petalled, single-colored or multi-colored. They come in a wide vareity of colors, including green. The petals can have different shapes or characteristics (like the frilly-edged parrot tulip petals). Over 3500 plants ascribe to the name tulip.  

Life Cycle of Tulip

Three Bulbs Sitting on Soil
The tulip life cycle starts with a bulb.

Tulips are considered perennials, meaning they come back each year. However, many gardeners and professional growers prefer to treat them as annuals, as they’ll decline in vigor and production after a few years. There are certain types of tulips that perennialize better than others, so if your goal is to have a perennial tulip garden you will need to plant tulip types such as Darwin hybrids, Fosteriana, and “species” (a.k.a. “wild-type”) tulips.  

It all starts with the bulb―an underground, fleshy storage structure. Bulbs store nutrient reserves for the plant to survive. The three different stages that bulbs undergo are dormancy, growth, and flowering, and then the cycle repeats.  

Tulip bulbs require 12 to 16 weeks of 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures in order to break their dormancy. After the dormancy needs have been met, then you’ll start to notice a small, yellow spike-like shoot emerge from the pointed tip of the bulb. After the green foliage has emerged, the bulb will send up a flower bud that will subsequently bloom.  

When several weeks have passed and the blooms have all faded, the foliage will begin to yellow and die back. It is very important to leave the foliage after blooming has occurred if you are wanting to perennialize your tulips.

What’s occurring as the foliage begins to fade is that all the nutrients and sugars that the plant has obtained throughout the growing season are being transported back down into the bulb. This stored energy will be the driving force for growth during the following spring. After the foliage has completely yellowed and faded, it is safe to remove it. By this time, most of the energy has already been transported back into the bulb for the next season. 

Now that you know the life cycle of a tulip bulb, you can see why planting tulip bulbs in the Fall is the best way to grow them in your garden or landscape. The bulbs will naturally receive the required weeks of chilling to break their dormancy in spring if they are planted into the ground in the Fall. If you are dead set on planting flowers in the spring, tubers like the Golxinia are your best bet.  

How to Force Tulips to Bloom 

Freshly Blooming Flowers
For Tulips to properly be planted in the spring, you will have to force them to bloom.

Do you know what’s really cool about tulips, though? You can mimic nature and force your tulips to bloom any time you want them. Yes, that’s right!  

The first thing you’ll need to do is acquire healthy, firm tulip bulbs. There are several reputable bulb companies that you can order from. Sometimes you can even find bulbs at a local hardware store, gardening center, or even a big box store.  

Select a deep pot with drainage holes in the bottom. Fill the pot within a couple of inches of the top of the pot with a loose mixture of peat or coconut coir-based media and/or compost. Place the bulbs pointy side up in the pot. Fill the rest of the pot until just the pointy tips of the bulbs are sticking out. Make sure to water the bulbs. Then place the pot in a cool area, such as a cooler or refrigerator. Keep the area dark. These bulbs will need 12 to 16 weeks of chilling in order to begin growing.  

Another option is to place bulbs in a paper bag. You can then store them in the refrigerator for 12 to 16 weeks to mimic the chilling period, also. Plant the tulip bulbs into a pot or into the garden after the chilling requirement has been met. You can read more about planting directly into the garden below! 

Once you have met the chilling requirements, you can bring your pots out of cold storage. You can then slowly acclimate the tulips to their new location.

Place the pots in an area of low to medium light at first with cool temperatures (around 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit). Regularly water your tulip pots. When the shoots begin to turn green, move them to a brighter area. Make sure temperatures are between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. You can either keep the them in the pot or gently transplant them into the garden, whichever you prefer! 

For successions of blooms indoors, you can remove pots from cold storage every few weeks. 

How to Plant Tulips Into the Garden 

Egg Crate Method
The egg crate method is widely used to plant tulips.

Regardless of whether you were able to plant your tulip bulbs in the Fall or if you are transplanting the bulbs into the garden after chilling them yourself, you’ll want to make sure you are planting the bulbs in an area of full sun (6+ hours of sunlight per day) and adequate drainage. Tulip bulbs can rot easily if the soil is too wet. Plant the bulbs 4 to 6 inches deep (or a depth of 2 to 3 times the size of the bulb). 

There are two different methods to the spacing of your tulip planting, and this depends on how you are going to treat your tulip bed. Are you treating the bulbs as annuals or perennials? If you desire to treat your tulips as annuals (meaning you will buy new bulbs each year), then you can plant the bulbs fairly close together using the egg crate method. With this method, you will dig a trench and place the bulbs only an inch or two apart, literally as close as eggs in a carton. This makes for a beautiful display come springtime. 

If you desire to have a perennial bed of tulips, you’ll want to plant your tulip bulbs further apart. Eventually, these bulbs will produce several bulblets off of the main bulb, so you’ll need room for the bulbs to expand as they mature and for the expanding root system. Plant tulip bulbs in your perennial bed about 4 to 6 inches apart, depending on the size of the bulb. And remember, no matter which method you use to plant―pointy side up! 

Adding 2 to 3 inches of compost to your tulip patch site will help increase drainage and improve soil structure. Most of the time fertilizer is not necessary if you are treating the bulb as an annual. However, a perennial tulip bed will require some fertilizer. Mix in a small amount of well-balanced fertilizer in the Fall (like 10-10-10), and in the spring apply a quick-release high nitrogen fertilizer (like 30-0-0) to give your tulips an extra push.  

Here’s another awesome gardening tip! Make sure you cut back all the faded blooms (leaving the foliage, of course) in your perennial tulip patch. You don’t want the plant to spend all of its energy developing seeds. You want your tulips to be putting all of their energy into their bulbs for next year.  

Harvesting Tulips

Whether you want to grow tulips for fresh cuts or just to admire them in your landscape, there are a few things you’ll want to know about harvesting or caring for your tulip planting! 

Fresh Cut Tulips 

Fresh Cut Flowers
It is best to cut tulips a little shorter than you like as they grow while in the vase.

Fresh cut tulips are absolutely beautiful in a vase, and they can be incredibly long-lasting. Fun fact―tulips actually grow in the vase! Yes, after you cut the flower stems from the plant, make sure you trim the stems a little shorter than you desire because they’ll grow up to an inch or more in the vase! Cut the flower stems when the buds are still mostly closed but starting to loosen and show a little color. You’ll be rewarded with a long vase life if you cut early!  

Professional growers that treat tulips as annuals will often pull the entire tulip plant out of the ground and store the tulips with the bulb still on the plant. These stems will be laid flat in crates or wrapped in newspaper as bundles and stored in a cooler or refrigerator.

When they’re ready to sell them as fresh cuts, they’ll pull them from the cooler, trim the bulb and a few inches off the stem, and place the stems in warm water to rehydrate. If you want to try this at home, make sure to wrap a bundle of stems in newspaper to keep the tulip stems straight as they rehydrate.  

Cut the flower buds early if you want to try either method for fresh-cut tulips! The buds should still be tight but starting to loosen and/or color. You’ll get to see your tulips unfold before your eyes. It is a remarkable experience! 

Harvesting Tulip Bulbs 

Harvested Bulbs
Use a paper bag to store tulip bulbs to keep them dry so they won’t rot.

If you want to harvest bulbs to share with friends or if you need to move your tulip patch, then here are some tips on how to do just that! 

If you are simply wanting to move your tulip bulbs, whether moving to a new spot in your garden or sharing with a friend, then you’ll want to wait until the foliage has completely died back. This means that all the nutrients have been replenished and stored back into the bulb to jumpstart growth for the next season.

Carefully dig up the bulbs, trim the roots, and clean the bulbs, removing the loose papery husks on the bulb. Dry the bulbs for at least 1 to 3 days. Choose only firm bulbs to keep. You don’t want any bulbs rotting while in storage! Store the bulbs in a paper bag in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to plant them.  

If you are digging in your perennial bed and notice that your tulip bulbs have started to produce offsets or little bulblets attached to your original bulb, you may be able to divide these and increase your tulip bulb stock. Be aware that these small bulbs will not produce flowers for a few years. It will take time (sometimes up to 6 years) for the bulblet to mature enough to produce flowers. 

However, if you’re eager to flex your gardener’s muscles and give division a try, all you’ll need to do is divide the bulb where the old bulb and new offset meet. You can either snap the offset off carefully or use a pair of snips. If the bulblet is still rather small, you may consider waiting another year until it is larger to divide your tulip bulb.

Division can be done any time after the foliage has died back until the ground freezes in the Fall. Just make sure to mark the spot where your tulip bulbs are planted because when the tulip foliage has died back you may have trouble finding your bulbs! 

Final Thoughts 

Tulips are a beautiful addition to any garden because of their unique shapes, bright colors, and overall stunning display in the landscape or in a pot. They bring much-needed cheer after a long Winter. We’ve established that these bulbs are best planted in the Fall. But, you can plant tulips in spring or later as long as you give them the required 12 to 16 weeks of chilling.  

Tulips are fun to force into bloom, and by planting multiple pots of tulip bulbs and bringing them out of cold storage in successions, you can have a long-lasting display of tulip blooms. You don’t want to miss one more season without these lovely spring blooms!  

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