How to grow tulips
Planted as bulbs, tulips provide spring flowers in dazzling colours and flower shapes. Grow them in borders, rock gardens and containers before summer flowers appear. Specialist tulips related to wild species often multiply in gardens.
- Cup-shaped flowers with attractive centres
- Easy to grow in borders and pots
- Bulbs are planted in autumn
- Grow in full sun, although some tolerate light-shade
- Nutrient-rich, free-draining soil is best
- Bulbs replaced annually for best displays
- Specialist tulips are likely to reflower and bulbs often multiply
All you need to know
This guide is to help you decide which kind of tulips to grow. Most tulips flower in mid to late spring. If you would like earlier flowering spring bulbs, daffodils and snowdrops are ideal choices.
Broadly speaking, tulips can be divided into two main categories: border tulips and specialist tulips.
Flowering in spring, this type are seen growing in gardens and parks as temporary displays of seasonal colour (bedding) in borders and containers. They have large colourful flowers, upright stems and wide strappy leaves.
There is a wide range of flower colour to choose from; including white-cream, yellow-orange, blue-purple, red-pink, even greens and dark black-purple. Flower shape adds to this diversity, with single-, double-, lily-flowered, viridiflora, fringed and parrot forms. Different tulip cultivars flower from early to late spring, so careful planning can give a succession of colour before summer flowers begin.
These also flower in spring, but are usually smaller in flower size and height. They are the wild species, or named cultivars closely related to them. They have a delicate appearance and will often naturalise (multiply) in gardens. A few benefit from a more sheltered location such as a greenhouse or cold frame.
A wide selection of border tulips can be bought as dry
These are fleshy, rounded, underground storage organs, usually sold and planted while dormant. Examples include daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, lilies, onions and garlic. The term is often used to cover other underground storage organs, including corms, tubers and rhizomes.
If you miss out on buying and planting bulbs in autumn, gardening retail outlets and supermarkets often have bulbs grown in containers available in spring. Ideally buy these before they come into full flower.
Also called English Florists' tulips, these have petals with multicoloured streaking, or flamed patterning. Their appearance is caused by the tulip breaking virus (TBV). They are less frequently available for sale, but can be grown by infecting 'breeder' tulips. To learn more see the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society here. If you like the look of these type, but don't want to breed them, flame varieties like Tulipa 'Olympic Flame', have the appearance but are not virus infected.
When to plant tulips
Dry bulbs are planted in autumn (September to November) when the plant is dormant. If you're not able to plant bulbs straight away, store them in a cool dry place. Plants bought in containers in spring from garden retailers are planted straight away and will bloom in a matter of weeks.
Where to plant tulips
These are grown for spring colour (as bedding plants), as they usually only flower reliably well in the first year. For bedding, it is not necessary to have perfect soil, as bulbs will flower fine so long as the ground is not waterlogged. The bulbs are dug up after they've finished flowering. However, there are a few tulip cultivars that last longer and can be left in the ground where they'll often flower for several years (see Tulips that last more than one year). In this instance, well-drained soilin full sun is more important as it will help the display last for more years.
Bulbs can be planted for spring colour in borders between perennial plants (which continue the seasonal display by flowering later in the year), and in containers to brighten up paved areas and act as vibrant focal points. Alternatively, use tulips with other spring-flowering plants in a bedding scheme. For impact use lower-growing plants that flower at a similar time to tulips inlcuding forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica), wallflowers (Erysimum cheiri), primoses and Polyanthus and pansies (Viola).
Border tulips make great cut flowers. Grow in rows to make picking easier. Cut flowers when the bud is showing some colour but before it has fully opened.
These usually require specific growing conditions. Some need very good drainage with full-sun and these conditions can be provided by planting in gravel and rock gardens (where soil is free-draining), and in pots in greenhouses (in free-draining compost). Other tulips prefer part-shade and damp soils, so plant beneath shrubs and trees (for shade).This list provides more detail for a selection of widely available specialist tulips:
- Tulipa orphanidea Whittallii Group, T. kolpakowskiana and T. saxatilis (Bakeri Group) like good drainage and full sun, they can be grown in the greenhouse but, being slightly larger in size, would also work well in a gravel or rock gardens
- Small alpine species like Tulipa turkestanica and T. hageri 'Splendens' are probably best grown in pots of free-draining gritty compost in your greenhouse. Here they will be protected from bad weather and their flowers appreciated at eye level on the greenhouse bench
- Tulipa sylvestris and T. sprengeri are species tulips that will grow in part-shade on moisture-retentive soil. In the garden, grow these in damp borders with some shade from decidous shrubs or trees (those that lose their leaves in winter). It's also worth trying to naturalise them in grass or meadows, where they can increase in number.
If you'd like to grow other kinds of alpine plants see the RHS Guide to rock garden plants. Joining the Alpine Garden Society is also good way to learn more about growing these plants.
How to plant tulips
Border and specialist tulips are planted using the same technique, whether in the ground or containers. Space bulbs at least twice their width apart, and at a depth of two to three times their height. The pointed end of the bulb should be uppermost.
In areas with very cold winters, tulips benefit from deeper planting to protect them from penetrating frosts. Unless grown for bedding schemes, tulips create a more natural feel when planted in groups of odd numbers.
Handling tulip bulbs may cause skin allergies. Wear gloves if you are affected by these. All parts of the plant can cause stomach upset if ingested.
Planting in the ground
Improve your garden soil before planting in autumn by digging in organic matter such as leaf mould, well-rotted manure or garden compost. In spring, apply a general-purpose fertiliser, such as Growmore or blood, fish and bone, as leaves emerge to support good growth.
Tulips prefer neutral to alkaline soil. If the pH of your soil is on the acidic side (lower than pH 6), apply lime to increase pH.
Planting border tulips in containers
Create a potting compost by mixing three-parts multipurpose compost to one part grit. Next, roughly measure the height of two or three bulbs laid end to end and then fill your container so that this length is this space between the compost in the bottom and the top edge of the rim. When the compost is the right level, place the bulbs on top so there is about a finger's-width between each bulb. Cover the bulbs with the remaining compost mix and firm, leaving the soil about 2.5cm (1in) below the rim. Water well and place in a sheltered spot to begin growing; you can always move into the final position when they begin to flower.
If you want to keep the tulips in their pots for longer than one season, use three-parts loam-based compost, such as Melcourt SylvaGrow with added John Innes, mixed with one part grit. For more information on growing bulbs in containers see the RHS guide.
For a fuller container display, make a 'bulb lasagne' by planting two or three layers of bulbs in one pot.
Planting specialist tulips in containers
Fill containers with two parts loam-based compost, such as Melcourt SylvaGrow with added John Innes, mixed with one part grit. A layer of sharp sand directly beneath the bulbs will also help to improve drainage and prevent bulbs rotting. After covering the bulbs, add a layer of grit to the the the pot (top-dressing) to prevent soil splashing flowers and weeds growing.
If the compost appears sodden during wet weather (before bulbs emerge), move them temporarily to a sheltered position near a fence or house wall, or put in an unheated greenhouse. Once compost has dried a little, they can be returned to their original positions. If dry weather occurs while your tulips are in growth (from February, or once the leaves appear) keep them well-watered.A shortage of water can cause poor development or a shortening of the flowering period.
Tulips in beds and borders usually don't need watering if there is sufficient rain to keep the ground damp. Only water in prolonged dry periods (more than two to three weeks), aiming to make the ground moist not soggy.
Combined with watering, feeding supports growth and flowering, returning nutrients to the bulb. This helps tulips to flower well the following year. Once in growth (March onwards) feed plants weekly with a potassium-rich liquid fertiliser like tomato feed. Feeding can be stopped once leaves begin to yellow and die back. If you grow tulips as bedding (disposed of the bulbs after they've finished flowering) there is no need to feed bulbs.
After flowering, tulips sometimes develop seedheads. These are removed (deadheading), cutting off the stalk just above the leaves. If you are growing specialist tulips, some can be grown from seed, so you may wish to leave seedheads until they've ripened. See the Propagation below for details of how to grow tulips from seed.
Border tulips often fail to flower in their second year when left in the ground. For this reason they are often treated as seasonal colour (bedding) and disposed of after flowering. This may seem wasteful, but bulbs are reasonably priced and widely available to buy each autumn and these provide a more reliable flower display. A few tulips like the Darwin hybrids and Kaufmanniana cultivars are known to reflower with greater certainty, so are worth leaving in the ground. For cultivars more likely to reflower see our list here.
Lifting, drying and storing tulip bulbs over summer can improve reflowering. This simulates conditions in wild, where tulips have a warm dry summers rest.
- Lift bulbs once the foliage turns yellow (about six weeks after flowering)
- If you need to lift earlier, place whole plant/bulb in trays until leaves become straw-coloured
- Clean soil from bulbs, and discard any that show signs of damage or disease (e.g. blue/white mould, or soft flesh when pressed with a thumb)
- Allow bulbs to dry thoroughly (the brown skin becomes papery)
- Store bulbs in trays or net/paper bags in a warm, dark, well-ventilated place at 18-20°C (65-68°F)
- Replant bulbs in autumn (September to November)
Because reflowering isn't guaranteed, replant stored bulbs in less important beds, borders and containers, buying new ones for more important or prominent areas (e.g. by the front door). Choosing the largest bulbs for prime locations is also a good way to ensure a better display.
Specialist tulips, like alpine species, can be left undisturbed in their pots or the ground, where they'll often naturally multiply in number.
Tulips do not need pruning or training. Simply remove the withered stems and foliage in summer once they have turned straw-coloured. Stems usually come away easily without needing to cut them.
Propagation is usually done to increase specialist tulips. Border tulips are generally not propagated as reasonably-priced bulbs of flowering size are widely available to buy. However, these methods will work with either. There are two ways you can increase your tulip bulbs:
By offsets: These are immature bulbs that naturally form around the main bulb. They can be detatched when lifting plants and stored dry over summer. Replant offsets in autumn at least 20cm (8in) deep. Small offsets may take three to four years to reach flowering size.
By seed: Try this method with smaller Specialist tulips, as Border types don't produce seed readily. Sow papery seed collected in the current year in pots or trays of loam-based compost such as Melcourt SylvaGrow with added John Innes. Lightly cover the seed with sieved compost, and finish with a ½cm (¼in) inch layer of horticultural grit. Seed need chilling to germinate, so leave container outdoors. Seedlings appear in spring and typically take three to four years to reach flowering size.
In ideal conditions, species tulips like Tulipa sprengeri self-seed in gardens. Tulipa sylvestris, will also increase in via stolons (underground stems).
For more advice on how to increase bulbs, see the RHS guide to bulb propagation here.
Tulips sometimes suffer from pest and diseases, especially where grown in the same soil for long periods. Growing conditions may also affect their health.
- When plants fail to flower, feed with tomato fertiliser while in growth. This boosts the nutrients returned to the bulb, helping to form flowers for the next year. On wetter soils that do not dry out in summer, reflowering border tulips is difficult
- Much smaller bulbs that do not flower are caused by shallow planting. Replant bulbs at least three times their depth in the ground
- Tulips with short stems may be due to late planting, or mild winters
- Grey squirrels often dig up bulbs. In containers, protect bulbs with chicken wire. In the ground, bulbs can if necessary be planted in aquatic baskets that are covered with chicken wire. The wire can be removed once leaves emerge
- Aphids may affect stored bulbs as well as leaves
- During early spring, slugs can damage foliage and flowers
- Streaking and spotting on the petals and leaves indicate tulip viruses, but can also be tulip fire, or grey mould (botrytis)
- Tulip fire causes brown spotting and distortion to the petals and leaves. Less frequently distortion can also be caused by stem and bulb eelworm
- Soil-borne fungal disease sclerotinia leads to bulb rot. Promptly remove affected plants and don't plant bulbs in this area for five years. Rots can also affect bulbs in storage
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