10 Ways to Make Sure Tulips Return

Treating tulips like annuals? Learn easy ways to help these beauties return in your garden each year.

Mixed Tulips

Mixed Tulips

A bed of mixed tulips paints a beautiful spring scene.

Photo by: Wouter Koppen for iBulb.org

Wouter Koppen for iBulb.org

Tulips stage a spring show like few other flowers, but the color is often short-lived. Why? Many tulips lack the genetic stamina to return year after year. They were bred to look pretty in bouquets, not grace the garden for years to come. That's why many gardeners treat tulips like annuals, digging up bulbs after flowers fade and replanting fresh bulbs each fall. If you’ve been avoiding tulips due to their annual upkeep, think again. With just a few simple tricks, you can coax tulips to behave more like perennials.

Tulipa Sylvestris

Tulipa Sylvestris

Known as wild tulip or woodland tulip, Tulipa sylvestris opens sunny yellow flowers filled with fragrance. This tulip naturalizes readily, creating a yellow carpet in spring.

Photo by: Wouter Koppen for iBulb.org

Wouter Koppen for iBulb.org

1: Choose the Right Variety

Some tulips naturally have the ability (genetics) to return and even naturalize, forming drifts of plants. Most of these tulips fall into two groups: ones bred for gardeners (many introduced prior to 1950) and ones known as species tulips (also called wild or botanical types, above). Species tulips are dainty plants (5-12 inches tall) with typically smaller blooms. Many types self-sow in the garden, forming cheerful colonies of tulips that flower year after year.

Among garden tulips, these types return more reliably: Giant Darwin hybrids, Fosteriana (also called Emperor), Kauffmaniana and Greigii. You’ll find the tulip type listed on bulb tags or descriptions. 

2: Select the Best Spot

Tulips need at least six hours of sun for leaves to make enough food to develop a flower bud (stored in the bulb) for next year’s show. Many books suggest planting bulbs beneath deciduous trees, which offer a sunny option in early spring, but a shady condition about the time that tulip leaves are ripening and stowing food in the bulb. But that’s not ideal. Also avoid areas exposed to intense all-day sun. Why? Because a spell of hot spring weather can burn tulip leaves and lead to no flower buds for next year.

3: Aim for Drainage

In their native habitat, tulip bulbs grow on mountainsides in rocky soil. The stony, sloping sites offer sharp drainage and plenty of air pockets for roots. In the garden, avoid waterlogged planting spots. Raised beds offer good drainage. Many tulip lovers mix pea gravel or rock fines into planting areas to improve drainage and mimic the bulb’s native environs.

4: Keep ‘Em Dry

Bulbs go dormant in summer, which means they don’t need regular watering. Avoid planting tulips among annuals that demand weekly irrigation. Dry in summer is vital to long-term tulip bulb health.

5: Plant Deep

Plant tulips to a depth that equals four times the bulb’s actual height. Planting deeply protects bulbs against frost heave, movement that takes place in the upper inches of soil due to freezing and thawing. The greater depth also exposes bulbs to greater ground pressure, which helps prevent them from splitting (after many tulip bulbs bloom, the large bulb splits to form smaller bulbs, which don’t flower the next year).

Rembrandt Tulip ‘Mabel’

Rembrandt Tulip ‘Mabel’

Broken tulips are prized for their rich patterns of contrasting colors on the petals. ‘Mabel’ is a type of Rembrandt broken tulip that multiplies well in the garden. It’s an heirloom tulip dating to 1856.

Photo by: Wouter Koppen for iBulb.org

Wouter Koppen for iBulb.org

6: Save the Leaves

Allow leaves to age naturally, without clipping, tying up or braiding. Tulip leaves produce the internal food that fuels future bulb growth and blooming.

7: Feed Tulips

Once tulips are established, feed them three times each year: early spring when sprouts first appear, late spring when flowers fade and fall. Choose a fertilizer with more phosphorus (the middle number) than nitrogen or potassium (for example, 3-5-3). Use a slow release fertilizer, the kind you sprinkle around plants and lightly scratch into soil.

8: Skip Bouquets

Cutting tulips for bouquets actually reduces the plant’s ability to store food for next year’s show—that stem helps with the process. Enjoy your tulips outside, knowing you’re helping preserve next year’s flowers.

9: Deadhead

After flowers fade and petals fall, snip stems about an inch below blossoms. This keeps the plant from investing energy in seed formation. The exceptions to this rule are species tulips, which form seeds and happily self-sow in the garden.

10: Know Your Zone

Tulips can grow as perennials in Zones 7 and colder. If you’re gardening in Zone 8, you’ll always grow tulips as annuals. Plant the bulbs after chilling them for 8 weeks in the fridge.

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