How to Grow Tulips

How to Grow Tulips

After a long, grey Canadian winter, the vibrant colours of tulips make for a warm welcome into spring. These classic flowers provide stunning displays in the spring garden and require little maintenance. While tulips are fairly simple to grow, here are a few tips to ensure a successful planting and years of flowers in your garden.

How to Choose Tulip Bulbs

Field of pink tulips

The first step to planting tulips is choosing your bulbs. There are many kinds of tulips that bloom at different intervals throughout the spring – click here to read more about tulip types. Consider bloom time, height, and capacity for naturalizing when making your selection. Some tulips are planted as annuals, while others are perennial and will return for multiple years. Tulip heights can range from tiny 4" species tulips to towering 28" hybrids. They come in dozens of colours and shapes - there's a tulip for every garden! By planting multiple different kinds of tulips, you can have fresh new waves of flowers popping up in your garden throughout the entire spring. 

Tulip Bulbs

When shopping for tulips, choose bulbs that are large and firm with a good weight (you may need to check out a few bulbs before you get the hang of this evaluation!). The larger the bulb, the more energy the plant will have to put towards flowering. For the biggest, hardiest blooms, look for jumbo or XL tulip bulbs. Loose skin (tunics) and nicks do not affect the growth. For best results, obtain tulips with either partial or complete tunics. A little bit of surface mold or powdery mildew on the outside of the bulb shouldn't have too much impact on its growth, but you should avoid any bulbs with soft spots or penetrating mold. Bulbs that feel too light may be desiccated from exposure to heat or pests and should also be avoided.

How to Plant Tulips

Tulip Bulbs on Soil

Tulips should be planted in a full sun area with well-draining soil. Areas that become waterlogged or soggy will lead to diseased and rotten bulbs that don’t stand a chance at coming back for a second year. Tulips prefer dry soil, and don’t need extra watering after planting. Tulips varieties with more delicate stems and flowers should be planted in an area that is sheltered from harsh weather.

Your bulbs should be planted around 6 weeks before the ground freezes to allow a healthy root system to establish. It’s important that the soil temperature be low at the time of planting to ensure roots are able to grow and to avoid triggering foliage growth before spring. Aim for a planting time after the first frost in your area when the ground is still workable. In Halifax, we usually plant our bulbs after mid-November.

Prepare your planting location by loosening the soil and adding several inches of compost. Bulbs should be planted at a depth of 3x the height of the bulb, typically around 8” deep. We recommend adding a sprinkle of bone meal to the holes to stimulate root growth. Place your bulb in the hole with the pointy side up, and space them at least 4” apart. Use a bulb planting tool to simplify the process! Fill the hole back in with soil and water thoroughly after planting.

How to Protect Tulips from Pests and Diseases

Deer standing in meadow

Tulips are susceptible to certain pests and diseases, but there are a few precautions you can take in order to prevent damage.

Deer: The bane of tulips everywhere, deer love to snack on tulip foliage and will seek them out in the garden. Fencing provides a physical barrier to deter deer from reaching your garden. Deterrents like Bobbex are effective at dissuading deer from munching on your tulips, but they need to be reapplied at regular intervals and after rain to retain their strength.

Squirrels: Squirrels and other small mammals have been known to dig up bulbs. Lay bird or deer netting over your planting site to prevent digging, or add Critter Ridder to the hole with the bulb and bone meal when you plant. This product is a cayenne pepper based granular which will give the bulb a spicy taste.

Bugs: Aphids, thrips, and other small insects on tulips can be controlled with insecticidal sprays. For caterpillars, use BTK. Slugs and snails can be controlled with slug bait.

Fungal Infection: Purchasing high quality bulbs in good condition is the best way to prevent fungal infections. If you store bulbs from year to year, dust them with a fungicide powder as a preventative. Dispose of any affected plants and bulbs away from the rest of your garden and compost pile

How to Care for Tulips

Tulip bud with foliage

Tulips don’t require much work once they’re in the ground. Never water your tulip bulbs unless you experience drought conditions. Deadhead tulips after their blooms fade, but always leave their leaves so they can photosynthesize and store energy for next year. Foliage can be pruned after it yellows and dies back, usually a few months after blooming.

Generally, tulips will bloom for 3-5 years after planting, at which point they'll produce leaves but no flowers. Weakened and old bulbs can be dug up and replaced in the fall. Many hybrid tulips have been bred for showy blooms and may lose their vigour after their first year. Gardeners will grow these tulips as annuals, and don’t count on their return in following years. On the other hand, Darwin hybrids, Fosteriana/Emperor tulips, and of course Species tulips perennialize very well and can be fertilized in the spring to ensure they continue performing well year after year. Top dress with bone meal, bulb fertilizer, or any other slow release fertilizer that contains a high amount of phosphorus, and add some more in the fall. 

How to Harvest Tulips

Tulips in a vase

If you’re growing your tulips for cut flower arrangements, harvest them before their bud fully opens. Tulips grown for florists will usually be pulled up bulb and all to allow for a longer storage life before use, but you can cut your stem and leave a few sets of leaves behind so the bulb can continue to build energy and flower again next year. Tulip stems will elongate after being cut and stretch toward the light. To keep them standing tall, gently wrap the top 2/3rds of the stem in paper and place them in a vase of fresh water to get hydrated for several hours before adding them to your arrangements.

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