Tulip Planting Guide

Brilliant jewels of the spring garden, tulips come in every color of the rainbow except blue. Bowl, goblet and vase shaped tulip flowers can be found decorated with stripes, feathering, picotee edges, fringe and more. Tremendously popular as cut flowers (second only to roses on Valentine’s Day), tulips last longest when snipped while the petals are not yet open. Then, keep the flower vase in a cool room out of direct light. And that vase? Turn it every day or two to keep the arrangement uniform because tulip flowers are inclined to lean towards the the light from the closest window.

Note: the nice big tulip bulbs at left are examples of perennial and hybrid types. The smaller bulbs are species tulips.

Choosing a Planting Site

Choose a site with full sun to ¾ day sun. Since tulips are active in the spring and slip into dormancy by mid to late June, areas near/under open-branched or limbed up deciduous trees can often work. These areas can be sunny and perfect before the trees are fully leafed out. In warmer areas, a little protection from afternoon sun will extend the blooming window.

Soil Prep for Tulips

Look for a site that drains well. Tulips are happy in average garden soil, and as with most bulbs, good drainage is important to help avoid bulb rot. If your soil is heavy (clay or compacted) consider digging in generous amounts of soil amendments such as a mix of course sand and compost, leaf mold or well-rotten manure. (Your local cooperative extension office can recommend good mixes that are appropriate for your local soil conditions.) A slow release granular fertilizer (10-10-10) mixed into the planting soil according to package directions gets your plants off to a great start and feeds over a long period of time. Note: we do not recommend using bone meal as it encourages pets and pests to dig up the bulbs you just planted.

When to Plant Tulips

Plant in the fall, when soil in your area has started to cool. Typically, tulips can be planted right up until the soil freezes in cold regions, although earlier planting provides more time for bulb roots to grow. Note that the roots on winter hardy bulbs continue to grow, albeit more slowly, when soils are quite chilly but not yet frozen. Tulip bulbs should not be held over for planting in the spring. It's important for bulbs to have time to root in if they are to be able to absorb the required moisture and nutrients needed to thrive.

How to Plant Tulip Bulbs

Most of the tulip varieties on this website have been chosen, in part, because they exhibit growth habits that are more perennial than average. To further encourage your tulips to bloom year after year, plant them deep. Shallowly planted tulip bulbs have a greater tendency to split into several smaller, non-flowering bulbs and you want to avoid that.

Dig holes 8-9” deep and add a handful or two of compost to the soil you removed. Plant standard tulips so that the bulb base is about 8” below the soil line. For species tulips a bit shallower, about 5-6”, is recommended. A little sharp sand or gravel added to the bottom of the hole for species tulips encourages longevity.

Put the bulb in the hole with the pointed end facing up, fill the hole with soil, pat to eliminate air pockets and water well to settle the soil around the bulb. While there won’t be any visible growth in the fall, the bulb’s roots will be growing and creating a network for absorbing nutrients and moisture.

For standard tulip bulbs, plant 4 to 5 per square foot. For smaller species tulips, plant more closely, 8-10 per square foot.

During the Spring Growing Season

Tulips need about 1” of water a week from rain, irrigation or a combination of the two. After spring flowering has finished, snip or snap off the flower heads to prevent the plants from setting seed. You want all available energy to go into strengthening the bulbs for next spring’s show. Don’t remove the leaves; they’re working to produce food for the bulbs. Allow the foliage ripen until it yellows before removing it.

At Season’s End

After flowering, your tulip leaves will photosynthesize and create food for next year’s show. Then the bulbs will go dormant and sleep through the summer. They don’t need, or benefit from, any extra moisture during the summer. When fall temperatures cool, the bulbs will develop new roots and then wait for spring rains and warmth to prompt the next cycle of growth and blooms.

Forcing Bulbs & Pre-Chilled Bulbs

Planning to force your bulbs or plant pre-chilled bulbs in winter? Read this! Forcing Bulbs & Pre-Chilled Bulbs

Insider Tips

  1. For standard tulip bulbs, plant 4 to 5 per square foot. Species tulips can be plated more closely, 8-10 per square foot.
  2. When your tulips have finished blooming do not cut off the foliage. The bulb needs those leaves to photosynthesize and produce food to store for next year’s flower display. When the foliage has yellowed and pops off with a gentle tug, its work is done and the leaves can be removed.
  3. Tulip stems continue to grow after they are cut and often extend in a vase. If the tulips in your arrangement look taller than you remember them being originally, you’re not mistaken.
  4. There are more than 3,000 tulip varieties in cultivation today. Goodness, overwhelming. That’s why we trimmed the offering here down to winners, proven performers and cultivars recognized as more perennial.
  5. If you live in a warmer part of the country, where spring arrives early, make sure to plant your outdoor tulips by late November to give the bulbs time to root in. Otherwise, they may begin to sprout before supporting roots have developed. 
  6. Dutch tulips are not recommended for growing zones 8-10.
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Success Snapshot

Light: Full sun to ¾ day sun

Soil: Average, well drained

Depth: Plant bulb base 4-8” deep, depending on type (details, left)

Water: Average moisture

Uses: Beds, pots, borders and cutting gardens

Tip: Plant deep for longer flowering life; see "How to Plant", left

GUIDE: Tulip Planting Guide

They Start Out Looking Like This: