Unbreakable Rules for Tulip Care
Tulip care is (luckily for us) a fairly simple
thing. This plant really isn't bothered by any serious insect pests so
we can pretty much forget about that. They are bothered by deer who
think that tulip flowers are prized gourmet treats (see below).
So what is it that you have to do to ensure you have great tulips from
year to year?
Rule of Leaves
- Grow the leaves not the flowers. If you concentrate on making sure your
gardening grows great leaves on your tulips, then those leaves will
produce superior flowers year after year.
- You do that by not cutting the leaves down, tying them up, or doing
anything else to them until they turn yellow.
- Yellow leaves on your
tulips are a sign that the bulbs have stored enough energy and are now
ready to go dormant until next spring.
- If you cut the leaves off before they go yellow, the bulbs will not get
enough energy to produce a large flower. They may get enough energy to
survive a winter and produce a smaller flower. And every time you cut
the leaves off too early, you weaken the bulb so it either doesn't
produce flowers or it simply dies.
Allow the leaves to go yellow before doing anything to them.
Rule of Watering Bulbs
Watering bulb gardens in the summer is a major cause of tulip death.
You think you're doing a good job of tulip care because everything
needs water. Right?
Tulips are genetically designed to grow on high mountain slopes where
there is adequate spring water but absolutely no water during the
They go dormant to preserve water inside the bulb and
get ready for the following spring.
When you water them, they rot.
Tulip 'Lilac Wonder'
So folks who plant annuals over top of bulbs and then water to keep the
annuals flowering can expect this damp soil to rot out their tulips.
This is why many gardeners have a short lived tulip bulb show. Too much
Rule of Feeding
There isn't too much plant food available up in the mountains on steep
slopes and bulbs have developed so they do not require a lot of plant
A feeding of compost over top of the bulbs in the spring or fall is all the
average bulb requires.
Some folks like to feed their bulbs bone meal thinking the phosphorus
is good for bulbs and roots.
Given that phosphorus is relatively insoluble and relatively immobile
in the soil, putting bone meal on the soil surface means it not only
doesn't break down but what does break down stays on the surface. Tulip
roots are a good 8 inches below the surface so the fertilizer doesn't
Applying bone meal to the surface of the garden makes the gardener feel
better (and the garden center that sold the product) but doesn't really
help the bulb. It's a good feeling though.
And no. Do not put fertilizer down the planting hole.
This only burns
the roots. Trust me on this one, a feeding on the soil of compost in
the spring is all the tulip care you need to do.
When To Plant Tulip Bulbs
Tulips should be planted 6-8 weeks before freezeup in your area. Any sooner and they stand a good chance of starting to grow instead of staying dormant. This early growth means they'll likely freeze and die during the winter.
They require 10-12 weeks (minimum) of cold/freezing soil temperatures to set their flower buds. This is why Southern gardeners who don't have this kind of cold have to purchase pre-chilled bulbs in order to obtain blooms. This is why the bulbs simply won't set flowers after this first year unless they are dug up and pre-chilled.
Tulip 'Beauty of Spring'
I Want To Move My Bulbs and Replant
Here's an article on moving flower bulbs
that deals with many questions.
Rules For Planting
Never water them or the plants growing on top of them. In their native Turkish mountains, they get lots of spring and fall rain but almost no summer rain. They go dormant during the summer and if you water them too much (because they're in a flower bed) you'll rot them off and they'll disappear from your garden.
The recommended planting depth is two times their height. I've had them buried 3 feet deep and they still came up and bloomed.
The interesting thing about tulip bulbs is how they figure out the depth they require. When started from seed (that's how the species propagate themselves) the tiny seeds sit on the soil surface. Once they start to germinate, a special root goes down into the ground and then contracts, pulling the rest of the bulb down along with it.
This root grows a bit every year and as the bulb matures and increases in size, the root eventually pulls it to its proper flowering depth. Once the proper depth is reached, this root is no longer produced by the bulb but rather flower buds are produced.
I note that tulips don't seem to care whether you plant them
upside down or right-side up. They'll grow fine in either
Tulip 'Magic Lavender'
Growing Your Own Tulip Wedding Bouquets
This is a tough thing to tell brides and mothers-of-the-bride but here's my two best bits of advice on growing your own flowers for the wedding.
The reality is that flowers in the garden have a mind of their own and between the weather and pests and other problems, hitting an exact date with flowers in the peak of perfection is tricky for the pros growing in greenhouses. It is impossible to guarantee anything growing in a garden - and bulbs are particular weather sensitive.
Obtaining or growing out of season bulbs like tulips is a tough thing to do at the best of times and forcing a spring flower bulb for a fall wedding is likely to bring tears to your eyes at some point (and you don't want tears of frustration)
Having done the kid-marriage thing four times now, I can tell you there's enough stress on family and friends without having to hit specific dates with unreliable flowers - particularly tulip wedding bouquets
Second bit of advice
Flowers tend to rise in price when they're for weddings. It's a fact of retailing. When my daughter was married, the flowers (ordered by a sister and no I didn't even try to grow them) were ordered for a family reunion and were priced accordingly lower.
How To Buy and Care For Cut Flower Tulips
Fresh tulips are a wonderful way to brighten up your home and if you can stand to harvest some from your garden, here are a few tips for keeping them alive for a long time.
- Always buy or cut your tulips when the buds are just showing a bit of color.
- Do not buy them closed tightly (they might not open if they've been stressed) and don't harvest them that early (you have to wait for them - they'll grow better outdoors)
- Always recut your tulip stems when you bring them indoors. The cut end of the stem will dry out surprisingly quickly and a layer of dead cells at the bottom of the stem stops water from being absorbed up the stem. This in turn reduces the life of the fresh tulips you've just paid good money for or harvested from your own garden.
- Recut them under running water and immediately put them into a vase of fresh, lukewarm water. The warmish water will help the stem transport water and because the cells weren't exposed to the air, they'll be more than happy to pass water along.
- When in the vase, you have a choice of adding plant food (a good idea) or simply changing the water every day.
- Changing the water daily is the single most important thing to do with keeping fresh tulips and if you do nothing else, take this simple step once a day. Change the water! Use lukewarm water.
Generally, you should get at least 7-10 days from a cut bouquet of tulips if you get them at the nice tight, bud stage. (but change the water!)
Forcing Your Own Tulips
The trick with forcing tulip bulbs is that you have to chill them if you want to see flowers. Without that chilling temperature time (see below for details) of temperatures less than 48F, the flower buds will not form.
The alternative is to purchase pre-prepared or pre-chilled bulbs that have been chilled. These will flower in only a few weeks for you after planting if you keep them in full sunlight and 70F temperatures.
If you live in southern areas, using pre-chilled bulbs is the only way youll be able to force bulbs unless you use your refrigerator for chilling. I used to use a back porch that isnt freezing but isnt heated and it does an excellent job. Now, I have a cold room that I use for storing plants (it doesnt freeze but it doesnt stay warm either).
If you want tulips for Christmas...
If you want tulips for Christmas, then you really have to watch your timing. Purchase the normal bulbs as soon as you can, pot them up and get them into the cooler. Here's an article on the general care of potted tulips
that may help with keeping them alive.
It will take approximately 3 weeks of 70F temperatures and full sunlight to bring them into bloom after that. For Christmas tulips use the following varieties:
Tulips that require only 10 weeks of chilling
- 'Brilliant Star', scarlet, Single Early
- 'Christmas Dream', rosy red, Single Early
- 'Joffre', yellow, Single Early
- 'Merry Christmas', carmine red, Single Early
Note these are all single, early varieties. You can experiment with this early, single bulb in other varieties as well.
Tulips that require 14 weeks of chilling
- 'Abra', dark red with yellow edge, Triumph
- 'Coquette', creamy white, Triumph
- 'Flair', red, Single Early
- 'Leda', rose with yellow edge, Triumph
- 'Leen van der Mark', red edged white, Triumph
- 'Libretto', blue rose rose, Triumph
- 'Lustella', bright china rose, Triumph
- 'Orange Cassini', red flamed delft rose, Triumph
- 'Orange Monarch', orange, Triumph
- 'Pax', pure white, Triumph
- 'Preludium', carmine red, white base, Triumph
- 'Prominence', dark red, Triumph
- 'Snowstar', pure white, Triumph
While you can succeed with forcing tulip bulbs and using other varieties, these will give you the most consistent results under difficult conditions (for a bulb). :-)
Questions and Answers About Growing Tulips
Will Watering Really Stop Flowering
Yes. No question about it. As I said above, the plant is genetically adapted to hot, dry summers. Give it anything different and they'll be very short lived.
Do I Really Have To Grow The Leaves
The single most important bit of
advice is to grow the leaves and not the flowers.
means that your job is to do a good job of growing the leaves, and the
flowers will take care of themselves. Do not cut
off the leaves of tulips until they are yellow and fading!
leaves of this plant are responsible for taking sunlight -
it into energy and
sending that energy down to the bulb so
the bulb can
produce another flower bud.
If you cut off the leaves before they have
done their job, the bulb will not have produced another flower bud. You
may find you get leaves the following year but no flowers.
Yes I know that sometimes you want to
plant annuals and the darn tulips
are still growing.
The solution to this is to only plant early tulips
and they'll be done by the time annual planting is supposed
Late tulips will always be in the way.
Yes, I know that you don't like the look of tulip leaves and
to tie them up.
Tying them up only means the leaves will take longer to
gather energy (they don't do so well if their leaves are not
collecting the sunshine).
In generally, growing tulips is pretty
easy and fun stuff. If you follow the directions above,
you'll be fine.
Feeding Tulips For Great Growth
There isn't too much plant food available up in the mountains on steep slopes and bulbs have developed so they do not require a lot of plant food.
A feeding of compost over top of the bulbs in the spring or fall is all the average bulb requires. Some folks like to feed their bulbs bone meal thinking the phosphorus is good for bulbs and roots.
Given that phosphorus is relatively insoluble and relatively immobile in the soil, putting bone meal on the soil surface means it not only doesn't break down but what does break down stays on the surface. Tulip roots are a good 8 inches below the surface so the fertilizer doesn't get there.
Applying bone meal to the surface of the garden makes the gardener feel better (and the garden center that sold the product) but doesn't really help the bulb. It's a good feeling though.
And no. Do not put fertilizer down the planting hole. This only burns the roots. Trust me on this one, a feeding on the soil of compost in the spring is all the tulip care you need to do.
Tulip 'Margareth Herbst'
You'll often find a tulip has produced seed, here's an article on starting your own tulips from seed.
Planting Tulip Bulbs Late
I see this question or variation on it more than you'd think. "I had a busy Fall and didn't get any of my tulip bulbs in! Some of them are sprouting in the paper bags that I have stored them in. A local landscaper told me to get them in the ground now. Is that right?
My take on 'stored" bulbs is that you have nothing to lose by planting them as they won't grow if you don't. I suspect many will be dead but what the heck... Go for it.
Spring - plant them -what the heck.
Very late fall - plant them through the semi-frozen soil. Water heavily after planting to thoroughly soak the soil and perhaps thaw it out a bit. Anything helps. Rule of thumb, if you can dig in the soil - plant them even if it is January. :-)
The only caveat to all of this is that the bulbs have to be firm and rock hard. If they're soft - they're rotting.
I Got A Great Deal This Spring On Bulbs The Garden Center Kept Over The Winter
Congratulations. Plant them right away if they're rock hard. If they're soft - don't bother. They may live or they may not. Bulbs that sit in a cupboard over the winter are usually dead.
But hope springs eternal.
Tulip 'Peach Blossom'
Speaking of Tulip Bulb Storage
Tulip bulb storage is fairly straightforward. There are two ways you'll store these bulbs depend on the purpose for doing so.
If you're storing the bulbs for summer.
You've dug them out of the ground because somebody told you to (a waste of time and energy to me but what do I know) and you need to keep them for the summer.
Store cool and dry but the temperature isn't critical. Dry is. In the wild, the species tulip would live in a place where it seldom got a summer rainfall. The bulb is genetically programmed for hot dry summers in baking ground. So dry and in regular temperatures wherever you live will be fine.
If you're storing the bulbs for winter
There are two reasons you have bulbs in your possession during the winter months.
The first is that you forgot to plant them last fall. If this is the case, then ask question #1 - is the ground frozen solid? If so, then you're going to kiss your bulbs goodbye as they dry out. If the ground isn't frozen or is only slightly frozen, then you can plant them. Break through the small frost layer, put the bulbs at the bottom of the hole and water heavily and thoroughly. The water will stop the ground from freezing for just a while longer and the odds are your bulbs will be fine.
Or #2, you can try the technique below.
If you live in the South and you need to give your bulbs a dormancy period. You need to give them 14-16 weeks (16 is better) of 40F temperatures to get them to set a flower bud. You can do this by storing them in the crisper of the refrigerator (no, don't freeze them) for this time and then plant them.
Most fragrant tulips have a "fresh" smell to them if you stick your nose well into the flower but will not perfume a tulip garden nor really be considered fragrant.
The following bulbs are those with a definite fragrance to them: 'Angelique' and 'Ballerina'. There are a dozen others but these two are the best and most easily found in retail shops.
Tulips - if you let the leaves grow until they yellow and never water them will last 3-5 years before they fade way and need replacing.
So that's the deal on tulip care. It may not have been what your average garden center wants to sell you but treating your bulbs with casual respect (allow the leaves to grow) and benign neglect (don't water) will give you big healthy flowers.
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You can read other articles about flower bulbs right here
Sources Resource for This Article
Tulip bulbs - all colors - from multiple suppliers to choose from
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