If you want splashes of color in your spring garden, the classic tulip is a timeless essential. Even if there’s a chill in the air, you can get started with planning — and planting — these cheerful harbingers of spring. If you’re a novice, however, it’s wise to research tips for planting tulips to maintain their growth.
The basic tulip is cup-shaped with three petals, sturdy stems and six elongated leaves. While they’re associated with Holland, tulips originated near where the present-day borders of China, Tibet, Afghanistan and Russia converge. Historical documents show they were cultivated in Turkey as far back as 1055.1
Historians say the name was most likely coined by Europeans who noticed that the flower was often worn as a decoration in Turkish turbans and, hence, the name tulip was born, derived from “tulben,” Turkish for “turban.”2
Once they made their way to Europe in the mid-1550s, tulips became wildly popular and spawned buying and selling frenzies that became the subject of legendary stories through the ages. Many of these tales describe “tulipmania” as rivaling that of modern-day Wall Street’s 1920s, with the cost for bulbs in the 1630s said to have rivaled that of a house.
As the stories go, the European tulip market crashed in 1637, resulting in financial ruin for the speculators. But, while it makes for a great and romantic story for this elegant flower, its real history wasn’t quite so dramatic, according to historian Anne Goldgar, author of “Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Golden Age.”3
Rather, “There weren’t that many people involved and the economic repercussions were pretty minor,” Goldgar told The Smithsonian.4 Even so, to this day tulips remain one of the most revered for color and natural beauty.
Perhaps you’ve seen swaths of tulips in sunny yellows, vibrant pinks or breathtaking combinations, like the Tom Pouce variety, delicate lavenders such as Alibi or snowy white Hakuun. Extensive hybridization has produced every color imaginable, although blue is rare.
There are 15 tulip divisions based on origin, shape or bloom time, such as “double late” or “single early” varieties. Strains include white-fringed Crispa and feathery Ballerina tulips.5,6
Tulips grow 6 to 24 inches high and average 16 inches wide depending on the variety and growing conditions, with rounded or pointy-tips and solid or contrasting petal shades. For constant color, plant early mid-spring and late-spring bloomers and plant a new batch every fall.
Tulips look beautiful against hedges, walls and walking paths. They bloom from early to late spring, but diminish slightly after the first year. Choose healthy bulbs, avoiding those that are moldy, soft or have black spots.
Steps for Creating a Beautiful Tulip Garden
Tulips look best planted in clusters rather than rows. Good companion plants are other spring bulbs like daffodils, iris, snapdragons and pansies. Mass plantings called “drifts” can cover large areas, and you can buy bulbs based on the square footage you want to cover.
Tulip bulbs are planted in the fall before the ground freezes. As cool-weather perennials, they need about 10 weeks of cold for future growth,7 but they can be fussy about moisture and temperatures. The best places for growing tulips are in U.S. Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zones 4 through 6, although some strains can survive in Zones 7 and 8.
Ideally, tulips thrive in spring weather that’s cool and moist, but prefer hot, dry summers.8 Depending on your climate, tulips require full sun or partial shade. Well-drained, slightly acidic (a pH of 6.0 to 6.5), sandy soil with organic matter works well, but avoid dirt that’s waterlogged. Rather than step-by-step instructions for planting tulips, a few rules are all you need:
- Dig a wide hole 6 to 8 inches deep (or deeper in colder regions9 or for larger varieties10).
- Place three to five bulbs inside, tips pointing upward, 2 to 5 inches apart,11 without touching.
- Add a little bone meal to the soil.
- Replace the dirt and pat firmly to eliminate air pockets.
- Cover with a few inches of mulch and water well, especially in dry areas, until the ground freezes.12
Feed your tulips with bone meal in the spring when the leaves appear, and water well. When there are no leaves and the bulbs are dormant, don’t water. Deadhead wilted flowers, but allow foliage to die naturally to feed the bulbs. You can remove the foliage and flower stalks once they’ve turned dry to keep the plant from “stealing” energy from the bulbs.
How to Care for Tulips
Gardeners often ask how to care for tulips indoors. Indoors, use shorter varieties, and note the length of time for your chosen variety to bloom; for example, plant bulbs in October for December blooms.13 Tulips grow well in urns, pots, rock gardens and window boxes, but these should be at least 15 inches high and 18 inches across. Make sure there are drainage holes.
Whether you should dig up and store tulip bulbs depends on your planting zone. If you live in Minnesota, it may be necessary. Only dig bulbs for storage when their leaves begin wilting and turning yellow.
After a few years, lack of blooms may indicate bulb overcrowding. In late spring, divide bulbs off the mother plant and replant elsewhere. Use a hand trowel to dig away the dirt first to avoid damaging the bulbs, then lift them out. If necessary, store the bulbs in a box filled with sand or peat at temperatures between 60 and 66 degrees Fahrenheit, away from light, and leave them until the fall planting.
More Tips for Growing Tulips
- Before moving potted tulips into your garden, check your planting zone and plant six to eight weeks before the ground freezes.
- If your tulips fail to come back each year, your winter may not be cold enough, there was too much water or something ate the bulbs.
- Plant shorter perennials in front of tulips to hide fading leaves.
- Deer may find tulip bulbs enticing, but fences around the bulbs, sprinklers with timers, motion-detecting lights or chimes may help. As natural repellants, try placing human hair, red pepper flakes or garlic in panty hose to hang nearby.
- In vases, cutting tulip stems on an angle helps them soak up water. Change the water every other day, and avoid placing them in direct sunlight or heat as they wilt faster once they bloom.