How to Plant, Grow and Care For Tulips
Tulips are one of the most popular flowers in the world. Their beautiful colors and ease of care make these early bloomers a favorite of gardeners everywhere. In this article, certified master gardener Liz Jaros explains everything you need to know about growing tulips this season and their care.
After a grueling, gray winter in temperate parts of the world, the sight of tulips breaking ground in spring delivers a thrill like few others. Graceful and beautiful in color and form, tulips come in thousands of varieties and pack a punch in the garden right when we need it the most.
Tulips are relatively easy to grow and care for if you prep the ground properly, get your timing right, and follow some basic planting rules. These popular flowering perennials are not particularly vulnerable to pests or disease, and many varieties will return faithfully year after year.
But growing tulips optimally does take a bit of time and dedication. So, keep reading for more information about growing tulips, their ideal environment, soil needs, classifications, and their care!
Tulip Plant Overview
Plant Type Bulb, perennial or annual
Native Area Asia, Europe
Hardiness Zone 3-8
Exposure Full sun to part shade
Plant Spacing 4-5 inches
Planting Depth 5-7 inches
Height 6 inches to 2 feet
Watering Requirements Moderate, supplemental
Pests Aphids, mites, slugs, small mammals
Diseases Rot, Tulip Fire, Tulip Breaking Virus
Soil Type Well drained
Soil pH (6.5) Acidic, neutral
Plant With Hyacinth, catmint, sage, daylily
Attracts Bees, small mammals
Plant History & Cultivation
While typically associated with the Netherlands, the tulip is actually a native of Asia, where it originally grew as a wildflower. It was first cultivated by the Turks in about 1000 AD, when the sultan of the Ottoman Empire demanded it be planted in his palace gardens. The word ‘tulip’ comes from the Turkish word for turban.
Turkish botanists introduced the them to Europe and the Netherlands in the late 16th century, where it became associated with high society and spurred an escalating market for rare and unusual variations. At the height of the craze, prices for certain rare tulips were as high as those for a basic home.
When Dutch botanists began experimenting with color and form, the tulip market eventually crashed and the plant became accessible to mainstream society. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Holland dominated the world’s tulip hybridization and production industry, leading to the roughly 100 species and 3,000 varieties we know today.
To manage the sale and categorization of so many different cultivars, the species are sorted into 15 major categories based on bloom time and physical characteristics.
The first to bloom in spring, flowers in this category have single-form petals, come in many colors, and grow on strong stems that are roughly a foot long. Most varieties have a sweet fragrance.
These tulips are semi-double to double-flower in form, with blossoms that resemble peonies. They come on short, 4-6 inch stems in a limited color range and last a very long time.
A hybrid of early and late blooming tulips, triumph varieties bloom in mid season on top of strong, medium length stems. This category features cone-shaped petals in the widest color range and responds well to forced blooms.
Extra large, cup-like flowers in shades of orange, red, pink and yellow bloom in mid season on strong stems up to 30 inches tall. Tulips in this category last for years longer than many of their peers.
Also tall atop 30-inch stems, tulips in the single late category have oval to square-shaped flowers late in the season and come in a wide range of colors.
The petals on this type are long and pointed, arching outward like a lily. Grown in colors of red, white, pink, and purple, some cultivars have bi-color edges. Lily flowered tulips can reach heights of up to three feet and bloom mid to late season.
Stem lengths vary in this category, but all have petals in single form with a feathery or fringy edge. They bloom mid to late season.
Tulips in this category have striking green streaks or markings on their petals and bloom for an exceptionally long time. There are only 50 or so viridiflora varieties, making them a unique addition to the late spring garden.
These long-stemmed tulips feature petals in shades of white, yellow, or red that are striped or ‘broken’ with shades of red, bronze, or purple. The original streaking was caused by a virus, but modern varieties are virus-free. Bloom times vary.
Easily identifiable with their feathered, curled, or twisted petals in single or multiple colors, parrot tulips have stems of variable length and flower late season. They are fragile and need some protection from harsh elements.
These tulips also feature peony-form blossoms in a variety of colors, but they are larger and open later in the season. Stems are typically between 12 and 30 inches tall.
With mature heights of 6-8 inches, some of the smallest varieties fall into this late blooming category. Petals in shades of white, pink, and yellow can be singular or multi-color and resemble a waterlily when opened by the sun.
Also known as ‘emperor’ tulips, fosteriana varieties feature medium to long stems and tall, slender petals that open into large blooms during the day. They often have striped or variegated foliage and bloom early in the season.
Short in stature at 6-8 inches tall, greigii tulips have brightly colored flowers and purple, striped or mottled leaves. They are late season bloomers and some of the longest living varieties.
A catch-all of sorts, this category features an assortment of tulips that are wild, hybridized, and cultivated. Most are short in stature. Color and bloom times vary.
While they can be successfully grown from seed, it can take up to 7 years for them to store enough energy to produce flowers. And that’s a long time to wait. Those of us who don’t have that kind of patience will likely plant them in bulb form, so that’s what we’ll focus on here.
Horticulturally speaking, a tulip is a ‘true bulb,’ meaning it is a plant with a complete life cycle contained in an underground storage structure. They are also perennial plants, meaning it will flower, enter dormancy, and then grow again next year.
A bulb has five parts:
The basal plate
This is the flat(ish), bottom side of a bulb. It separates the roots, which will sprout downward, from the shoots, which will sprout upward.
The fleshy scales
This is the primary storage tissue that houses the tulip and stores its food.
This is the thin, onion-like covering that protects the fleshy scales. It often peels and breaks away when a bulb is handled.
Located above the basal plate, this is the developing flower and leaf tissue.
The lateral buds
Located near the basal plate, baby bulbs that form here can be used for propagation.
Temperature is a major factor in determining the proper time to plant tulips, and it will vary from zone to zone. As a general rule, bulbs should be installed in late fall, but not recommended in the spring. You want to avoid the risk of a heat wave, but plant before the ground freezes.
Plan to plant when temperatures are consistently below 60 degrees, about 6-8 weeks before a hard freeze is expected in your region. This will give them enough time to grow some roots before entering dormancy but not enough to stimulate premature shoot growth.
Bulbs must be greater than 2.5 inches in circumference in order to flower, so discard any that are not at least 3 inches around to be safe. You can refer to your nursery’s variety-specific growing instructions for precise depth and spacing, but generally speaking, tulips should be planted 5-6 inches below soil level at a distance of about 4-6 inches apart.
Make sure you insert bulbs with the flat end sitting on the bottom of the hole and the pointed end reaching skyward. Backfill with the dirt removed from the holes, insulate tulip beds with mulch, and water periodically until the ground is frozen.
How to Grow
If you get the timing and temperature right, tulips are not difficult to grow. Get to know their basic requirements and you’ll be off to a great start. Let’s look at each important aspect you’ll need to become familiar with before growing these popular flowers.
Tulips need full sun, so choose a site that gets at least 6 full hours a day. The hours need not be consecutive but they do need to total 6. Anything less and they may bloom poorly or not at all.
Gardeners in colder climate zones will want to keep in mind that early spring varieties will be opening before the tree canopies leaf out. This gives you some flexibility in what would normally be considered a shady bed.
But also keep in mind that your tulips’ foliage will need some sunlight for photosynthesis and food storage after they’re done blooming. So don’t plant them under trees or shrubs that will throw dense shade once they’ve opened.
Gardeners in warmer zones may want to plant where they will get some relief from the afternoon sun, as tulips do not like intense heat.
After installation, tulips will need some supplemental watering until the ground freezes. This will help them establish roots and prepare for dormancy. But be careful not to flood them or drown the bulbs.
If a week passes with no rain, give your beds a slow soak with the hose. Monitor until the ground freezes, making sure the soil is never parched, but also never muddy.
After the initial growing season, established bulbs do not need supplemental irrigation unless conditions are really, really dry. Use good judgment and give them a drink if beds are cracking and stressed.
In spring, once shoots have emerged, the same rules apply. Water sparingly to keep things moist but do not overwater.
Proper drainage is key to healthy bulb growth and soil should be properly balanced before installation. Weed beds completely and turn over the top 12 inches or so of dirt to start. Work compost, peat moss, or some other organic material into the soil to amend clay-heavy beds or enrich loamy sites.
Tulips prefer a slightly acidic soil content and will grow best if pH is between 6 and 7. Test soil before planting and/or at the end of the season to see if any amendments should be made. Lime and bone meal can be added to increase acidity, while peat moss and sulfur will help tone it down.
Climate & Temp
In order to flower properly, dormant tulips need about 10 weeks of temperatures in the high 30s. In northern climates, this isn’t usually a problem. For gardeners in zones 7 or 8, it can depend on the season.
To work around a particularly warm or extended fall, southern gardeners can ‘trick’ bulbs into dormancy by refrigerating them for a few weeks before planting. This is also the technique florists use to ‘force’ a tulip to bloom off season.
Southern gardeners can also treat them like they’re flowering annuals, planting them during their region’s coldest months so that they bloom in spring, but disposing of them after they bloom.
In all zones, tulips will breach the earth in spring when temperatures exceed 55 degrees for several days in a row. Blooms will open when temps move steadily into the 60s.
To promote vibrant, healthy blooms, tulips should be fertilized once at time of planting and again in early spring. Choose a fertilizer with an even NPK ratio (10-10-10) and apply according to the manufacturer’s directions.
Fertilizer should be applied as a top dressing and never deposited directly into planting holes, as this will burn the bulbs. Water the product into your tulip beds immediately after application.
In early spring, when bulb foliage has breached the ground, repeat the process with the same fertilizer. Do not apply fertilizer after the blooms have opened, as this can overstimulate the bulb and negatively affect future blooms.
Although planting can be tedious (especially if you’re working with large quantities), maintaining them is not particularly challenging or time consuming.
After bulbs are installed, top dress beds with a 2-inch layer of hardwood mulch to help encourage drainage without causing mildew or puddling. And again, only provide supplemental water if the ground is severely dry or rains have been scarce.
In spring, after they have finished blooming and their petals are spent, cut just their flower stems down to the base. Leave foliage in place until it has turned completely yellow or brown. Your tulips will use this period of time to nourish their bulbs and prepare for next year.
Cut foliage down to ground level after it has completely died back. In zones where perennial growth is possible (3 through 7-ish), leave bulbs in place and work some compost or organic material into the ground above them. Cover with a light layer of hardwood mulch.
In warmer climates, where they have been grown as an annual, dig bulbs up and dispose of them.
Tulips can be propagated in two ways; by seed or by division. Seed can be harvested in mid summer after blooms have shriveled and small seed pods have formed at the sepals. Seeds removed from these pods can be dried on newspaper and stored in a cool dark room until planting time.
Again, propagating from seed requires great patience as there will be no flowers for at least five seasons. And there is no guarantee that new flowers will be genetically identical to the mother tulip. Some varieties are sterile and will not sprout at all.
So undertake this labor of love only if you’re feeling experimental and looking for a challenge. For the first few years, foliage growth will resemble blades of grass and new shoots will be highly vulnerable to the elements. Be prepared to dote on them, and you might be successful.
The most common and time-efficient method of propagation is division, which involves separating the mother bulb from the ‘babies’ that have formed near her basal plate. Once they have finished blooming, dig up the bulb and look for the ‘bulblets’ or mini bulbs that are attached to the base of the bulb.
These offsets can be broken off and planted as individual bulbs, just as you would a store-bought bulb. Keep in mind that they will not flower until their circumferences are at least 2.5 inches, so it may take a couple of years.
To bring them indoors for use as a floral arrangement, plan to cut them when stems have grown to their expected mature height and buds are still closed, but ready to pop. Blossoms will be dark and their color will be strong.
If you are planning to leave bulbs in place to perennialize next year, do not cut foliage, just the stems. If you are treating them as an annual flower and going to dispose of the spent bulb, cut foliage and stems off at ground level.
Trim to the desired length at a 45-degree angle with a pair of clean garden shears. If desired, wrap their base firmly in paper and store in the refrigerator for a half day to encourage firm, straight stems.
Trim away any unwanted foliage and insert tulips in a vase filled halfway with cold water. Replace water and trim a half inch off stems every day to extend their longevity. Display in a cool location, away from heat sources. Depending on the variety, your tulip arrangement should last anywhere from five to ten days.
With more than 3,000 registered varieties, choosing a few to try in the yard might seem like a daunting task. Color scheme, bloom time, and size are usually the biggest factors in making a selection. Here are some of my favorites:
Tulipa ‘Orange Emperor’
Cheerful and showy, with vivid orange petals and a buttercup base, orange emperor tulips bloom in early to mid spring atop sturdy stems that can reach heights of 2 feet.
This double late tulip has peony-like flowers that bloom in late spring on 1-2 foot stems. This is a pink tulip variety with petals that have a bit of white, and yellow whorls. Foliage is striking and variegated with white edges and dark green centers.
Tulipa ‘Exotic Emperor’
A fosteriana tulip, with fluffy, cream-colored petals and dramatic green streaks, exotic emperor blooms early on sturdy stems and tolerates volatile spring conditions well. Naturalizes easily and provides nice contrast to other, multi-colored spring bulbs.
Tall and elegant, this variety has a classic appeal with rich, rose colored blooms opening in mid spring. Acropolis grows somewhere between 1 and 2 feet tall on sturdy stems and gives the garden a traditional vibe.
This late season, fringed tulip variety features purple petals edged in white and has extra long stems. Its unique profile makes it a cutting garden favorite.
Pests & Disease
Tulips are pretty hardy and easy to grow, but they are vulnerable to a few different pests and diseases. Let’s take a look at the most common problems that you’ll likely come across during their care.
A sticky, honeydo substance on your tulip leaves can indicate the presence of aphids. These soft-bodied insects can cause discoloration and droopy leaves by sucking their sap. They can also attack a dormant bulb if not properly stored.
Use a harsh hose spray to physically remove aphids and discourage them from colonizing. Water evenly and space properly to reduce conditions where aphids can thrive.
Also sap suckers, mites are very small and difficult to see with the naked eye. A white or yellow speckled leaf is often the first telltale sign of their presence. Sticky white webs near their leaf bases and stems are also a mite indicator.
Physical removal/discouragement with a strong hose spray or insecticidal soap will be your best way to address the overpopulation of spider mites in the tulip garden.
These pests are found mainly below ground and will attack the tulip bulb itself, rather than its stems and flowers. They are small and pear-shaped, with a coloring that is clear to white. Overwatered bulbs are the most vulnerable to these pests, so take care to water evenly.
Feeding mostly at night, snails and slugs will make holes in your tulips’ leaves and blooms, leaving a slimy trail in their wake. Keeping your beds clean and not overly moist will help eliminate moisture and discourage inhabitation. Traps, slug bait, and toads will also help keep them in check.
Squirrels and Chipmunks
Attracted by the scent of fresh dirt and intent on storing enough food for winter, squirrels and chipmunks will often dig for bulbs immediately after they’re planted.
Some luck can be had with deterrents that feature strong odors such as garlic, cinnamon, or pepper. Laying a screen atop freshly planted bulbs, and excluding mammals with a physical barrier like chicken wire can also help address the problem.
Voraciously hungry in spring, rabbits can do major damage to emerging tulips by eating their buds, blooms, or leaves. Again, liquid repellant and physical fencing are going to be your best weapons with mammals.
Officially termed botrytis, tulip fire is a fungal condition that affects the entire plant. And it is the most common disease. Symptoms include twisted, discolored leaves that look scorched as well as buds with moldy spots. Eventually, the whole plant will collapse.
If tulip fire is suspected, dig up and dispose of the entire bulb and excavate the dirt around it. The condition will spread easily and can not be cured. To prevent botrytis from killing your tulips, always buy bulbs from a reputable source and take care to avoid overwatering.
Several kinds of rot can affect tulip bulbs. Pythium, basal, and bacterial soft rot are the most common. Some will prevent growth from ever emerging, while others will produce soggy, stinky stems and leaves. Rot diseases are usually the result of overwatering, and are almost always fatal. Remove bulbs along with their surrounding soil and dispose.
Tulip Breaking Virus
Transmitted by aphids, this fatal condition results in streaked or mottled tulip petals and/or leaves. Take measures to reduce and discourage aphid populations, and remove afflicted tulips and their bulbs from the garden as the condition is fatal.
Frequently Asked Questions
Will tulips grow through gravel?
They will usually grow if rocks that are less than 2 inches in diameter.
Which tulips bloom the longest?
Plants in the viridiflora category bloom the longest, for up to 3 weeks.
How do tulips multiply?
They are asexual and multiply from the base of the mother bulb
Do they bloom in the spring or summer?
These flowers are popular early spring bloomers, and their flowers usually start to fade once the heat begins to pick up.
An iconic symbol of perennial hope and perseverance, few plants exemplify the merits of delayed gratification like a yard full of budding tulips. They bloom in many beautiful colors, and come in many different varieties to choose from. Plant them in fall, when the time is right for your region and you’ll reap beautiful rewards next spring!