Bright pink and purple open tulips

How to Grow, Care for and keep Tulips Flowering: the Ultimate Guide

Lesley Ann Sandbach
Tulipa ‘Purple Doll’ and Doll’s Minuet’ make a perfect pairing
Tulipa ‘Purple Doll’ and Doll’s Minuet’ make a perfect pairing

This week I was privileged to hear Polly Nicholson (@bayntunflowers) talking about her passion for tulips and her new book on historical tulips ‘The Tulip Garden’. It was one of the excellent talks organised by ‘The Generous Gardener’ which offers a programme of specialist plant sales and garden lectures where I am always enthralled by speakers who really know their subject!

Polly gave us lots of tips to help the amateur gardener, like me, make the most of the tulips we plant every year and despair less when we fail!

Historic tulips often show ‘broken colour’ – a prized characteristic in the eighteenth century
Historic tulips often show ‘broken colour’ – a prized characteristic in the eighteenth century
Historic tulips often show ‘broken colour’ – a prized characteristic in the eighteenth century

Where do tulips come from?

It’s often helpful to know where plants originate as these are the conditions they have developed for. Shade loving plants, such as most ferns, will not thrive in a position in full sun and the same goes for tulips; they need a habitat as close to their native one as we can provide.

Most tulips originated in central Asia, including Turkey and Kashmir where they thrive on mountainsides in extremes of summer heat and winter cold. It is these conditions that we must try and reproduce for them.

Winter: tulips need a period of cold for vernalisation and are best planted as late as possible

Spring: light and moisture to start them into growth – do not let containers dry out and add a little liquid food at the end of the flowering season

Summer: the bulbs need to bake so they either need to be planted in full sun or, for container bulbs, to be lifted and dried out somewhere warm and under shelter

Autumn: plant the bulbs either in containers or in the ground when the first frosts have come – Polly suggests planting when frost has cut down summer dahlias; later than other bulbs

4 things I didn’t know about tulips

  • Tulip bulbs are force-fed to plump them up and to give a first year of large blooms; for this reason most tulips will never produce such large flowers or flower as reliably in later years

  • Tulips replace their bulbs every year with food from that season’s growth

  • Tulips, like most bulbs produce smaller bulbs or bulbils that can be potted on but will take 3 or 4 years to reach flowering size

  • Taking off the brown tunics before planting will enable you to look round the base for the scales or black fungus spore that would indicate fire blight (Botrytis tulipae) – brown holes in leaves and distorted growth. Diseased plants should be dug up and burned

Where to see tulips : Hortus bulborum, about 1 hour away from Amsterdam, holds the best collection of historic tulips in the world; in UK go to Arundel Castle or to Pashley Manor

Good varieties of historic tulips : Wallflower (deep red), Dom Pedro Morocco (red), Inner Wheel (red and white), the ‘Modern Rembrandt’ series, ‘Absalon (gold and crimson) and ‘Insulinde’ (purple and white) are good ‘broken’ tulips

Chose several varieties of tulip in a container to give height and complementary colours
Chose several varieties of tulip in a container to give height and complementary colours

Planting tulips in containers

  • Tulips look wonderful massed in containers: chose as big a container as you can and pack the bulbs in closely

  • Either plant a single variety or chose three of four that will give a longer flowering period

  • Different heights and colours work well together as well as combinations of double and single tulips

  • Remember tulips originally grew in arid conditions and be sure that there is plenty of grit or sharp sand in the potting mixture, particularly at the level where the bulbs will sit – between 12 and 20cms deep

  • Mulch with gravel and cover with chicken wire if you are plagued with squirrels

  • When the tulips have finished flowering, leave the plants to die back (I normally leave them until I am ready to plant up my summer containers post-Chelsea); lift the whole plant and dry them over the summer in a warm, dry place – I put mine into trays and store them in a warm, dry shed

  • Tulips can be planted out again in the autumn after drying (I clean the bulbs, taking off any dried top growth, loose brown tunics and bulbils that have formed). Most tulips will not flower reliably a second or third year so it is not advisable to use them again in containers

Tulips look wonderful massed in containers
Tulips look wonderful massed in containers
Tulips look wonderful massed in containers

Planting tulips in the border

  • Gardeners have moved away from the serried ranks of tulips in red or yellow that used to light up civic parks and gardens

  • Plant tulips in drifts running through a border in colours that will complement the emerging perennials

  • As with containers, make sure that the bulbs will not stand in wet soil and make sure they are protected against mice and squirrels if these are pests in your area

  • Be sure to mark clumps of tulips with short stakes to remind you where they are planted

Naturalising tulips

  • Many tulips will naturalise and look lovely in unmown grass alongside fritillarias, camassias and the more delicate narcissi such as Narcissus ‘Pipit’

  • Plant them randomly (throw out a handful and plant them where they fall rather than in rows or clumps)

  • The best tulips to naturalise are the species varieties: cornuta, sylvestris, turkistanica and whittallii which are more delicate and look natural in a meadow

  • Double tulips do not look natural in meadowland settings; lily-flowered and veridiflora tulips such as ‘Spring Green’ naturalise well

  • Top tip: Use an auger on a battery-powered drill to make the holes, put in a small handful of sharp sand, drop in the bulb and re-insert the soil plug

Tulips make wonderful cut flowers
Tulips make wonderful cut flowers
Tulips make wonderful cut flowers

What is the rarest colour for a tulip?

Breeders have been trying for hundreds of years to breed a pure black tulip (even the darkest ones are deep purple laid over maroon or mahogany) or a clear blue tulip (so-called blue tulips are lilac or pale mauve)

Can I leave tulips in the ground after flowering?

It is better to lift tulips, particularly those grown in containers, as they need hot sun to ripen the bulbs – lay the plants out in trays in a warm, dry place such as a woodshed until the autumn when they can be cleaned and replanted

Will my tulips flower again?

Most tulips do not flower as well after the first year (they are specially prepared for their first flowering) although some of the varieties will flower again and some will naturalise in unmown grass. Many varieties are treated as annuals although species, lily-flowered and veridiflora tulips naturalise better than most. It is always worth replanting them in the autumn in an area where they can naturalise as some will normally flower again

Do tulips multiply?

After the first full year of growth, baby bulbs (bulbils) will sprout from the main tulip root. This creates two to five more bulbs per cycle but they will take up to four years until they are large enough to flower.

How long do tulips last?

Tulips normally flower for around two weeks. By choosing different species of tulip, the flowering season can be extended from early March to June. They make very good cut flowers; try to leave one large leaf on the plant to provide food to the bulb as it dies down.

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