How To Grow Tulips Successfully

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Posted by @LarryR on
Are you relatively new to gardening and will be planting your first tulip bulbs this fall? Or have you grown tulips before only to be disappointed that after their first spring they never bloomed again? Here are some ideas to make tulip-growing a rewarding experience.

Tulipa vvedenskyi 'Tangerine Beauty'

2011-08-30/LarryR/de026fne of the most important things to know about modern tulips is that most hybrids will only bloom satisfactorily the first year or two after you plant them.  You’ll need to replant regularly if you want the same show you got the first year.  Those gorgeous beds of tulips that we see in public gardens or botanical centers are planted in the fall and then after blooming the following spring, the bulbs are dug out and discarded. Since they won’t bloom again the next spring, they are replaced, first with plants that will bloom the rest of the gardening season and then with new bulbs in the fall.

Let’s talk tulip varieties

Fortunately, there are a number of tulip varieties that are reliably perennial.  They will return and bloom for many years and will save you quite a bit of money.  These tulips are called "species" tulips, meaning that they are basically wild forms found in nature.  Some have been hybridized to impart desired qualities such as different colors and additional vigor, but they retain their perennial nature.

Some Species Tulips to Try

2011-08-29/LarryR/056656 T. fosteriana

2011-08-29/LarryR/db45a8 T. fosteriana
2011-08-29/LarryR/3bb13b T. greigii  2011-08-29/LarryR/ec9260 T. greigii
 T. praestans
2011-08-29/LarryR/3776a2  T. praestans  

As you can see from the photos at left, there is some variation in color and habit within a given species.  These are just a small sample of what is available to you.  There are also whites, pinks, reds with a picotee edge and tulips with leaves that are mottled, striped or edged in white.

My favorite species tulips are T. sylvestris, a U.S. native whose common name is simply “Wild Tulip;” T. vvedenskyi 'Tangerine Beauty' (above), a drop-dead gorgeous Russian native that has vibrant orange-red petals with yellow-orange flames; and T. greiggii, ‘Rob Vanderlinden,’ known not only for its brilliant scarlet flowers but for its outstanding foliage, which is mottled and edged in white.

About that yellowing foliage and those seed pods

Another important fact about tulips concerns their foliage.  After they are done blooming, their leaves continue to manufacture nutrients that the bulb will need to bloom the next spring.  If the foliage is removed before it turns brown naturally, the bulb will generally not have enough stored energy to produce blossoms the next season.  It is a good idea, though, to snap- or cut off the seed pods as they begin to form after the blossoms lose their petals.  That allows the plant to put all its energy into the bulb instead of into producing seed pods and seeds.

My Favorite Species Tulips

T. sylvestris

2011-08-30/LarryR/a29f5fis a native North American species in areas indicated on this USDA distribution map.  The bulbs in our gardens were brought to my village from Canadian woodlands by my ancestors in the 1860's


T. vvedenskyi

This cultivar of T. vvedenskyi is missing the yellow flames seen in the photo at the beginning of this article.  Very long-lived, this species tulip has grown and multiplied in our gardens for 12 years.


T. greiggii ‘Rob Vanderlinden’

This tulip is a favorite in our gardens, not only because of its bright scarlet blooms, but because it has decorative foliage that adds interest to the planting.  Leaves emerge heavily mottled and edged in white.  The mottling fades somewhat as the leaves age.  Be sure to click on this photo (and on all the others, too) to enlarge it, so that you can more clearly see the white edging.

One of the reasons that tulip bulbs are so fat and bloom so spectacularly the first year after they’re planted is because bulb growers cut the blossoms off the plants just as they begin to bloom.  Like removing the seed pods, this procedure produces a larger bulb.  Tulips lose this advantage when we allow them to bloom fully in our gardens which, of course, we want them to do.

Hiding that dying foliage

Several weeks after tulips have stopped blooming, the stem and leaves will begin to yellow and eventually turn brown.  Although dying foliage is not aesthetically pleasing, resist the urge to snip it off until it is completely brown.

You can hide the unsightly foliage with a number of different plants.  The idea is to plant something that will have enough height and fullness, by the time the tulip leaves turn yellow, to hide them.  Annuals work well, but if you like the permanence of perennials, coneflowers, day lilies, monarda and peony varieties work well.

My favorite perennial for this purpose is Painter’s Palette (Persicaria virginiana).  It emerges just as the tulips finish blooming and is tall and dense enough in time to hide the ripening tulip leaves and stems.  The roots are shallow, so they don’t compete with the bulbs beneath them.

Perhaps this persicaria’s strongest suit is its leaves.  They are tricolored, with a V-shaped squiggle of burgundy across the middle. 

Although this robust plant does flower in sprays of very tiny red blossoms, it is the leaves that steal the show.  And they do so through the whole gardening season.  This persicaria does tend to self-sow liberally, so I just pull the seedlings where I don’t want them.  I consider it a small price to pay for the benefits this beautiful perennial offers.

How to plant and care for your tulips

  • Tulip bulbs are hardy in zones three through seven and should be planted in mid- to late fall.  It is important for the bulb to begin forming roots before the ground freezes solid.
  • Choose a site that receives six to eight hours of sunlight during the spring blooming season.
  • Avoid clay soil.  The soil should drain well, otherwise the bulbs will rot.
  • Dry soil during the heat of summer is ideal, as it mimics conditions in areas where tulips are native.  Planting annuals or perennials on top of or around bulbs helps to take up soil moisture, keeping the bulbs relatively dry.
  • Plant the bulbs about eight inches deep, measuring from the base of the bulb to the surface of the soil.
  • Plant bulbs in clumps or fill an entire bed, rather than planting singly in rows.  You’ll find that the planting looks more natural and fits much better into your whole garden scheme.  I generally plant tulips in clumps of five or seven bulbs.  Planting fewer bulbs per clump diminishes the floral impact considerably.

Discouraging Varmints

If you have problems with squirrels, chipmunks or voles eating your bulbs, enclose them in small wire- or plastic mesh and then plant the whole thing.  Make sure that the soil completely surrounds the bulbs and the mesh so that there are no large air spaces.  Tamp the soil a bit with your shoe and water well after planting.  The bulb shoots will find their way through the mesh holes and up to the soil surface in the spring.

Lots of other Tulips to choose from

There certainly is nothing wrong with planting any of the many varieties of gorgeous modern tulips available today.  I suggest planting species varieties instead as a good way to start your tulip growing experience and to save you quite a bit of effort and expense in the process.  Check with your local garden center to see which species tulip bulbs they carry or google the tulip’s name to find online sources.


Non-Species Tulips That Tend to Produce Blossoms a Bit Longer Than One or Two Years


'Burgundy Lace'


Images for "Some Species Tulips to Try" are courtesy of and are used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License. Distribution map is courtesy of USDA.  All other photos are copyrighted by the author.

Triumph tulips
'Don Quichotte', 'Golden Melody', 'Kees Nelis' and 'Merry Widow'

Lily-flowered tulips 'Aladdin', 'Ballade', 'Maytime', 'Redshine' and 'White Triumphator'

Darwin hybrid tulips 'Apeldoorn', 'Apeldoorn's Elite', 'Beauty of Apeldoorn', 'Golden Apeldoorn', 'Holland's Glorie', 'Oxford' and 'Striped Apeldoorn'

Single early tulips
'Keizerkroon', 'Christmas Marvel' and 'Couleur Cardinal'

The Fringed tulip variety 'Burgundy Lace' also perennializes well.




















Comments and Discussion
Thread Title Last Reply Replies
"Native US Tulips" by Phenolic Oct 3, 2015 6:15 AM 0
MULTIPLYING tulips? by plantsANDpets May 6, 2014 11:04 PM 8
Great Article! by vic Sep 7, 2012 5:50 AM 16

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