The Tulip is one of the most recognized spring bulbs in the world. Once you know how to grow Tulips you can add almost any imaginable color to your garden as extensive hybridizing has led to a wide selection of color options.
One of the oldest cultivars around today, there are thousands of Tulip varieties. A staple in the garden, tulips also make beautiful cut flowers.
Types of Tulips
Tulips are divided into 15 different groups based on characteristics such as size, blooming time, flower shape, and genetic origin. Some of the most popular varieties available are:
A very early bloomer, these Tulips bloom in a pale yellow that fades to white as the bloom matures.
A variety with a strong fragrance, the Ballerina Tulip features flared, pointed petals in orange.
Those looking for bold color combinations in their Tulips will enjoy the orange petals streaked with burgundy this variety offers.
For gardeners that prefer a clean, classic flower bed the Spring Green Tulip offers white petals with green center stripes. This variety is a late-bloomer and long-lasting, making it a great choice to mix in groupings with other Tulips to prolong blooming in that spot.
From the fringed Tulip group, this variety features large, fringed white petals with a red flame. This type also makes a great, long-lasting cut flower.
A double-bloom Tulips with a 5-inch flower. The blooms are yellow with an outer layer of green petals that appear in late May.
A mid-spring bloomer featuring creamy white petals edged in bright pink.
When to Plant Tulip Bulbs
Tulips are grown from bulbs that are planted in the fall six to eight weeks before the ground freezes. Once night temperatures are consistently around 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit this is a good time to plant your fall Tulip bulbs. While original Tulips were always perennials, extensive hybridization over hundreds of years has weakened the plant’s ability to survive winter. The Western mountainous regions of the United States closely replicate the Tulip’s original climate so plants grown there have the best chance of surviving the winter months. In other climates bulbs may have to be planted each fall to replenish bulbs that will not come back in the spring.
Selection and Preparation of the Planting Site
All Tulips prefer full sun for at least some part of the day. In USDA zones 7 and above, choose a planting area with morning sun and afternoon shade to avoid the extreme, mid-day heat that stresses Tulips. When choosing areas of your garden to plant your bulbs, do consider that most Tulip varieties will bloom and die off before deciduous trees have leafed out. This means areas that may be shaded by trees in mid summer will actually receive enough sunlight early in the spring to accommodate Tulips.
Tulips prefer growing in rich, well-draining soil with a pH level of between 6 and 7. Use a soil test kit to determine your soil’s pH level if necessary. To increase the acidity of your soil add acidic materials such as coffee grounds or citrus peel and work them into the soil.
To ready the soil for planting, use a shovel or garden fork to loosen the top 12 inches of soil. For heavy soils, lay a 2-inch layer of compost on top of the soil and work into the soil to improve drainage and increase nutrients.
Planting Tulip Bulbs
When planting your bulbs, dig multiple holes to a depth of between 6 and 8 inches, preferably in groupings of between six and 12 holes. Space each hole 4 to 6 inches apart. Place one bulb in each hole with the pointed end of the bulb facing upward. Cover the bulbs with soil and pat the soil down firmly. Spread a layer of balanced, slow-release fertilizer or compost over the planting area. Water the area until the soil is thoroughly moist to set the bulbs and set the fertilizer into the soil.
If you experience damage or loss of bulbs due to rodents it may be necessary to protect your bulbs at planting time. Laying something spikey or abrasive on top of the bulb, before you cover them with soil, will help deter bulb thieves. Use holly leaves, kitty litter, or crushed gravel as this barrier. If your local rodents are particularly persistent, create small cages out of chicken wire for each bulb and place them into the cage then plant the bulbs as directed.
Companion Plants for Tulips
Tulips are very early bloomers and benefit from companion plants to either complement the Tulips when they are in bloom or to emerge and bloom in that area after the Tulips have died off. Feel free to include both plants that bloom simultaneously and plants that bloom afterward to create a more interesting garden throughout the season.
Crocus: An early-spring bloomer, the Crocus will emerge just slightly ahead of the Tulip in the late winter or early spring. As the Crocus is shorter than the Tulip, at around 6 inches tall, these flowers are perfect to plant around the outer edge of a Tulip grouping to add color and interest at the base. Crocuses, along with Tulips, also grow well in containers for those who like to create their own arrangements in pots outdoors.
Grape Hyacinth: Another early spring bloomer, the Grape Hyacinth grows to a height of between 6 and 9 inches tall. The flowers are available in blue, pink, purple, white, and yellow. As with Tulips, Hyacinths prefer full sun to partial shade and also grow well in containers.
Daffodils: Also a perennial spring bulb, Daffodils grow to approximately the same height as mature Tulips. The trumpet-shaped blooms in yellow and white add visual contrast to the cup-shaped bloom of the Tulip.
Allium: From the onion family, Allium grows to a height of between 1 and 4 feet with a round puff of purple blooms on top of a slender, green stem. The plant will bloom from late spring to early summer, overlapping the Tulips and then continuing on later into the season.
Snapdragons: Depending on the climate, Snapdragons may be annuals or perennials. These flowers bloom from spring to mid summer and grow to a height between 6 inches and 4 feet tall and 6 to 12 inches wide. The plant features multiple blooms at the end of a single stalk and makes a great backdrop for your Tulip groupings.
Shasta Daisy: A classic perennial with white flowers atop a slender stem. Daisies grow up to 3 feet tall and bloom from mid to late summer. The Daisy’s bushy foliage is perfect for filling in bare spots left by faded Tulips once spring turns to summer.
Caring for Tulips
Tulips have very low water needs and are prone to bulb rot when soil conditions are too wet. The bulbs are watered thoroughly in the fall when planted but during the growing season manual watering is only recommended if rainfall levels are very low. If rainfall is less than once per week, supplement by watering your Tulips no more than once per week until the soil is moist but not soggy.
To harvest Tulips to use as cut flowers, use a pair of sharp and sterile shears to cut blooms that are showing 50 to 75 percent of their color. Early morning or late evening, when the temperatures are cooler, are the best time to harvest your Tulips. Once the flowers are cut, and before you place them in their vase, remove any browning leaves to avoid rot issues later on.
Overwintering Your Tulips
Once your Tulip blooms have dried up, snip off the flower only using sharp and sterile shears. Allow the foliage to dry up on its own as the bulbs will be reabsorbing essential nutrients and energy to survive the winter. Once the leaves have died off completely, cut the dead foliage back to soil level.
Tulips are a staple in most gardens and are a welcome sign that spring has arrived. These blooms do not last as long as some other flowering plants but the wide array of colors, shapes, and textures make them a prized addition to any garden. Best of all, Tulips make excellent cut flowers and allow you to bring their colorful beauty inside to enjoy.
Growing Tulips FAQ
Tulip bulbs require several weeks of ground exposure to temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit ( around 13 degrees Celsius) to trigger blooming in the spring. If your local climate doesn’t provide this cold season you will need to dig up the bulbs and store them in the fridge or freezer for several weeks before spring.
If your Tulips emerge in the spring as all foliage but no flowers it means the bulb is in distress. Either the bulb was not exposed to cooler temperatures before spring or the bulb was damaged somehow and did not retain enough nutrients to create a bloom.
Yes, Tulips are considered toxic and should be kept away from pets and small children.
Look for bulbs that are dry and free of dark spots for best results.
Tulips are fairly low maintenance once cut. Use cold water and change it often to keep the water clean and fresh.