Everything You Need to Grow Great Tulips

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In this blog, I will discuss Tulip blossom times, Tulip flower characteristics, the best time to plant Tulip bulbs, how to plant Tulip bulbs, spring care of Tulips, and why Tulips can be difficult to grow in zone 3 and zone 4 gardens.

Tulips have been celebrated for centuries and have a fascinating history. In the early 1660s, tulips were the world’s most valuable flowers. There was a unique variety, called Semper Augustus, that sold for the same price as a home in Holland at the time. This tulip was rare and it sported dark red streaks on snow-white petals. This period of history was known as ‘Tulipmania’, one of the world’s first economic bubbles.

Tulips are a member of the lily family and are native to dry mountainous areas of central Asia. Their growth habitat extended from as far west as Spain and France in Europe to as far east as China. The foothills of the Himalayas and dry grassland areas of eastern Turkey and Eastern Europe have cold winters and hot, dry summers – a perfect scenario for tulip growth.

Tulips are a beloved flower in many countries. This flower that closes up at night is the national flower of Holland, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iran. It is thought that the word ‘tulip’ originated from the word ‘turban’ because their buds resembled the shape of a turban. Tulips can be tricky for our zone 3/4 gardens, so they require particular love and care. 

So, let’s talk about tulips. 

Tulip Bloom Times 

The entire umbrella of Tulips is organized in a couple of different ways. They are classified based on bloom time and according to flower characteristics.

Tulips are all spring bloomers; some bloom early in the spring while others are mid-season and late spring bloomers.

It’s important to know when the Tulip varieties flower when you purchase bulbs. Accompanying labels and descriptions should supply that information. When purchasing Tulip bulbs, take a mental note to buy bulbs in each of the flowering times. Buy some early, mid-season, and late-season bloomers so that you can get a show of Tulip blossoms for up to 6 or 8 weeks in your garden. If you only plant one type, like an early spring bloomer, you will only get a quick 2-week show of blossoms.

Tulip Flower Classifications

Here is a quick rundown of some of the most common Tulip classifications. This list isn’t exhaustive simply because there are numerous kinds out there in the Tulip world. Always check packages or listings for zone ratings, heights, and bloom times so that you get the right ones for your garden.

  • Single Tulips (early and late bloomers) — this is the most familiar tulip shape, having one layer of 6 petals in the classic cup-shaped flower.
  • Double Tulips — also known as Peony flowered tulips, these have large multilayered blossoms, with both early and late spring blooming varieties available. 
  • Fringed Tulips — these are single-flowered with fringes on the edges of the petals. Another name for them is ‘Crispa’ Tulips. Check variety labels for heights, bloom times, and zone hardiness.
  • Darwin Hybrid Tulips — these are also known as cottage Tulips. They were developed in Holland by DW Lefeber and boast strong stems and large, long-lasting flowers, and they tend to bloom later in spring. Darwin Hybrids make good landscape Tulips and are likely the best perennial Tulip for our area because of their ability to handle the weather and come back for a few years. These also work well as cut flowers.
  • Lily Flowered Tulips — this class had slender blossoms that flare out at the top. These are mid-late spring bloomers, with heights around 16-18″ (40-45 cm).
  • Kaufmanniana Tulips — these single tulips have unusual colours. When they open, they have a star-shaped pattern in the middle. They come in early and mid-spring varieties. 
  • Rembrandt Tulips — this class has two-toned tulips sporting coloured streaks on white petals. The Semper Augustus tulip of Tulipmania was a Rembrandt tulip.
  • Parrot Tulips — these tulips have strikingly unusual blossoms consisting of single, bicoloured, and three-toned varieties. They are late spring bloomers that have fringed and scalloped edges,
  • Triumph Tulips — these are the largest of all the tulip classes. THey have the most colour choices, and are slightly taller in growth habit than many of the Tulips.

When is the Best Time to Plant Tulips?

Tulips are hardy fall bulbs. Fall bulbs need to be planted in autumn so initial rooting and flower structures can get partially established before a cold period of a minimum of 16 weeks to initiate flowering in the spring. Fortunately for us on the Zone 3 & 4 prairies, this is easy to accommodate. See my blog called ‘The Ultimate Guide to Fall Bulbs in Canada‘ for more discussion on other fall bulbs. 

It’s not a good idea for Tulips to grow so much in the fall that stems peak out of the soil, so timing is essential. 

To make this happen, the soil temperature needs to be cool, ranging around 5-10° Celcius. If you’re not sure of how to check soil temperature, an instant-read thermometer works great for this.

Mid to late September is a safe time of year for us in Zone 3 & 4 to get tulips in the ground with enough time to get some root and early flower structures growing.

What does a Healthy Tulip Bulb Look Like?

Tulip bulbs.

For Tulips and other hardy fall bulbs, bulb health is critical. Tulip bulb size often correlates to flower size — the bigger the bulb, the larger the flower. Tulip bulbs have a resemblance to onion bulbs. They have a pointy top from where the stem emerges and a basal plate where the roots grow. This basal plate also holds the scales (or layers) together.

Here are things to look for in a healthy Tulip Bulb:

  • It should feel firm like a potato — squishy and oozy bulbs won’t grow.
  • There should be no scarring or indents on the bulb.
  • The basal plate also needs to be firm.
  • The covering skin (tunic) should be dry. If it is loose like an onion skin gets, that’s okay, it won’t affect the Tulip development, but intact tunics are best.

Store Tulip bulbs in a dry, cool place to avoid premature sprouting before placing them in the ground. It’s best to plant Tulips as soon as possible after purchase. And always handle bulbs gently.

How to Plant a Tulip Bulb

Planting a tulip bulb requires a few different things: suitable soil, site selection, planting depth, and hydration.

The Best Soil Quality for Planting Tulips

Tulip bulbs grow best in well-draining soil rich in organic nutrients. Tulip bulbs hate to have wet feet, so soggy soil that doesn’t drain well is an excellent recipe for rotting bulbs.

  • For soils that are more clay-based and hard, add organics like compost and mixed mulch.
  • For sandy soils, add peat moss or compost to add water holding capacity.

Regardless of your soil type, work it well to a depth of one foot (30 cm) to make it easier for the bulbs to develop root systems.

As with many topics in horticulture, there is mixed discussion in the literature on whether to add fertilizer to the soil for Tulip growth or not. Some sources say that bulbs do not need additional nutrients because they are all stored in the bulb, and if you are only using the bulbs as annuals, there is definitely no reason to augment soil.

Other sources suggest that adding a slow-release fertilizer, like 10-10-10, a natural or organic fertilizer of your choice, or bone meal will aid in root development. For more information on fertilizer, see the blog called ‘How to Understand Fertilizer Labels’.

The Best Site for Growing Tulips

Tulips need a full sun location with 8 hours or more of direct sunlight to optimize photosynthesis.

Many deciduous trees haven’t leafed out in the early spring when Tulips bloom, so you could plant near deciduous trees. However, avoid evergreens because they block sunlight, and the ground below them is parched because evergreen trees have high demands for water.

How Deep to Plant a Tulip Bulb

As mentioned earlier, Tulip bulbs resemble onion bulbs. Plant tulip bulbs with the pointed side up. The flatter end called the basal plate (where the roots form) needs to be placed on the bottom. Plant tulips bulbs at a depth of 2-3 times their largest width. 

To translate that guideline into a measurement, Tulips are generally planted 4-6 inches (10-15 cm) deep. The bigger the bulb, the deeper it needs to be planted.

Soil characteristics also play a role in planting depth. In harder soils, place the bulbs a little shallower, and in soft soils, plant just a little deeper.

How to Organize Tulip Bulbs for Planting

As you consider planting tulips, remember that the more tulips you have growing together, the more colour power they offer. In addition, tulips can be arranged several ways. Depending on how you plan your garden, you can plant them in singles, doubles, triples, or more. 

When planting in multiples or clusters, space them 4-6″ (10-15 cm) apart.

Organize the tulip bulbs on the top of the soil to get an idea of how wide of a hole is needed. If you are doing more than four bulbs, consider planting a bulb in the center. Place one in the middle and three or four surrounding the central bulb.

A Step by Step Guide to Planting Tulip Bulbs

Here’s a step by step guide for planting Tulip bulbs:

Step 1: organize the Tulip bulbs on the top of the soil.

Step 1: Organize the tulip bulbs on the soil surface, so you know how wide to dig the hole. If you are doing single plantings, that’s easy. If you are planting clusters, check that they are at the correct distance (4-6″ or 10-15 cm).

Step 2: dig the hole 8-12″ (20-30 cm) deep

Step 2: Dig the hole 8-12″ (20-30 cm) deep. Work the soil so that it is soft and malleable.

Step 3: add fresh potting soil to the correct depth for planting – usually 15 cm.

Step 3: Add fresh potting soil to the correct depth. Tulips should be planted twice as deep as they are wide, which would come to about 6″ (15 cm). Add fertilizer or bone meal, if you wish. Bone meal encourages root development and works best if it is indirect contact with the tulip’s basal plate.

Step 4: place Tulips stem side up, basal plate down.

Step 4: Arrange the Tulip bulbs in the hole, stem side up, basal plate down.

Step 5: cover bulbs and fill the hole up half way.

Step 5: Cover the bulbs and fill the hole up 1/2 way, in this case, using a 6″ (15 cm) depth for the bulbs; this would be 3″ (7cm) from the top.

Step 6: saturate with water until it penetrates to the bottom of the hole.

Step 6: Saturate the soil with water until it penetrates to the bottom of the hole.

Step 7: fill the hole until it is even with the surrounding ground – don’t add more water.

Step 7: Fill the remainder of the hole with soil until it is even with the surrounding ground. Do not add more water to this.

Step 8: when the weather gets cool, cover the site with a 10-15 cm (4-6 inch) layer of mulch.

Step 8: When it gets cool in zone 3-4, cover with a 4-6″ (10-15 cm) layer of mulch for insulation through the winter.

Step 9: remember to label your tulips.

Step 9: Remember to label your Tulip clusters to know what you have planted. If you’re anything like me, you won’t be remembering these details with the same accuracy 7 or 8 months later!

Caring for Tulips in the Spring

Tulips are an easy-care plant in spring – they usually show up before we even notice them.

Here are a few things that you can do to promote the best health for your Tulips once they have emerged:

  • As the weather warms, check for green shoots or stem development. 
    • When the stems are at 1-2″, remove the mulch to make it easier for the stems to grow.
    • You could add bulb fertilizer at this time.
  • Deadhead, or remove the old Tulip blossoms as they die so energy goes into bulb growth, but let the Tulip leaves die back naturally. The leave continue to photosynthesize, which strengthens the bulb and flower structures for the following spring begin to form. Cutting the leaves back will result in smaller bulbs and flowers.
  • For cut flowers, cut the Tulips while they are in the bud stage — for more on cut flowers, see my blog called ‘The Best Secrets to Making Cut Flowers Last’

Why do Tulips Stop Flowering Over Time?

Here’s where Tulips start getting tricky for us. Tulips ARE by all sense of the word perennial bulbs. The vast majority of Tulips are rated for horticultural zones 3 to 8.

So why don’t the clumps get more extensive and more vigorous in our gardens as the years wear on? Most perennials are beefed up and lovely by their 3rd year in the garden. And as far as hardy bulbs go, daffodil clumps get larger, as do lilies and all the others.

But not Tulips.

The reason is that Tulips have precise requirements for the bulb to bulk up. It all goes back to their heritage. They do best where they have cold winters and hot, arid summers. Unfortunately, most gardens of North America can’t provide enough of this to get the bulbs to reproduce. Because we don’t have the right conditions, they decline over time. Eventually, they don’t store enough nutrients to get the flower structures initiated in the fall, which results in no blooms in the spring. 

So why do they reproduce so well in Holland? It’s hardly known for hot and dry summers like in Central Asia.

Well, the Dutch have been at it for 400 years and have developed techniques to treat the bulbs with the correct temperatures and humidity to get the Tulips to think that they are in Central Asia.

Many people treat tulips as annuals and then they plant more bulbs in the fall for a show the next year.

Which Tulip Bulbs are you Going to Plant this Fall?

I’m going to look for Darwin and Parrot Tulips this autumn because the Darwin bulbs should last more than one year, and I simply love the Parrots’ unique color combos and petal shapes.

Which ones will you try this fall?

A special thank you to Kathy Lawther from petalandpollen.com for the use of her tulip photo as the main feature photo for this blog. Thank you, Kathy!

©Sharon Wallish Murphy ©Gardening with Sharon

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