How to Grow Tulips

Pink and yellow tulips growing at base of tree trunk closeup

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

When people think about tulips, they usually think about The Netherlands, but tulips are actually the national flower of both Turkey and Iran. There are more than 3,000 species of cultivated tulips, in nearly all shades of the rainbow! They're just the right pops of color for our garden, are planted in the fall, and since they're seasonal bulbs they grow quickly in spring. There are tulip festivals all around the world, celebrating their variety of shapes and colors.

Tulip flowers have many shapes: like an upturned bubble umbrella, double-petaled, ruffled, or like lilies, depending on the species.

Tulips are usually more expensive than other bulbs, but once upon a time they were nearly worth their weight in gold! During the 17th century, a single bulb of the striped variety ‘Semper Augustus’ was sold for the equivalent of the cost of a home in The Netherlands.

Botanical Name Tulipa
Common Name Tulip
Plant Type Perennial bulb
Mature Size 4-28 in. tall
Sun Exposure Partial shade to full sun
Soil Type Well-drained and sandy
Soil Ph Neutral to Acidic, 6.0–7.0
Bloom Time Mid-spring
Color All shades of red, pink, white, yellow, orange, and purple
Hardiness Zones 3-7 (USDA)
Native Area Central Asia, southern Europe
Toxicity Mildly toxic to humans; toxic to animals

Tulip Care

Tulips bulbs are sold as perennials for the flower garden, and some even make the promise of forming a handsome naturalized colony in your landscape. So why did your tulip bulbs only put out a few miniaturized flowers this year, compared to the vivid show they put on last season? Follow along to make your investment in tulip bulbs pay off year after year.

Light pink and yellow tulips closeup

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Light pink and yellow tulips growing near tree closeup

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Light pink and yellow tulips from above closeup

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Tulip stems growing from the ground closeup

The Spruce / Leticia Almeida

Light

A dappled shade garden is fine for tulips, and may even extend the blooming time, but the dense understory of a tree canopy is no place for tulips to perennialize. The bulbs will suffer as they compete with tree roots for nutrients, and the foliage will not be able to conduct enough photosynthesis to nourish the bulbs for next year’s blooms. If you plant your tulips under deciduous trees, choose the earliest blooming varieties like the Fosteriana types so that they have more time in the sun before the trees leaf out.

Soil

Like many garden flowers, tulips thrive in rich soil with good drainage. Planting tulips in heavy soil that has a high clay content often leads to rot, as these soils remain wet during the spring thaw period. The best time to amend the soil is before planting. Dig compost, manure, and rotted leaves deeply into the soil. If your bulbs are already planted and you don't want to disturb them, it's never too late to improve the soil: Add a 3- to 4-inch layer of compost on the surface of the garden bed, and let earthworms do the rest. Their tunneling action will help air circulation and improve soil tilth.

Water

Once bulbs are planted. water thoroughly. There is no need to keep watering unless your area is experiencing drought, then water weekly. When tulips bloom, weekly watering is fine.

Temperature and Humidity

Most tulips need a period of cold dormancy each winter to trigger blooming. Many tulips perennialize best in zones 7 or cooler, but preferably in zones 6 or cooler. A notable exception is the species Tulipa saxatilis, a Crete native that may grow in zones 5-10.

If you live in a warm area and yearn for tulips, your best bet is to force them indoors by pre-cooling them in the refrigerator for three months in containers. Horticulturists recommend any of the Emperor tulips for forcing. Expect blooms about three weeks after the chilling period.

Fertilizer

Many gardeners are good about applying bone meal at planting time in the fall, but this only takes care of the developing roots emerging from the tulip bulbs. You should fertilize again when the sprouts emerge to feed the leaves and flowers, and in midsummer when the foliage dies back to feed the bulb once again. An application of balanced fertilizer in autumn completes the fertilizing cycle. Bone meal isn't a requirement as any flower fertilizer will do; a ratio of 10-10-10 of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash will nourish all of the spring-blooming bulbs in your garden.

Are Tulips Toxic?

Tulips bulbs and flowers are mildly toxic to humans, and more so to dogs and other animals.

Symptoms of Poisoning

Humans may experience stomach upset if they eat tulip bulbs or flowers. They also may have skin irritation from touching tulip bulbs. Give your physician a ring if you've eaten tulips.

Livestock and pets can experience drooling, vomiting, breathing, and heart irregularity if they ingest a large number of tulips. Contact your veterinarian immediately if your animals eat tulip bulbs.

Tulip Varieties

  • ‘Tangerine Beauty’: displays an urn-shaped bloom
  • 'Queen of Night': offers a dramatic dark-purple hue
  • 'Foxtrot': shows off double-petals with dark and light pink streaks
  • 'Giuseppe Verdi': boasts a star-shape, with bright gold and red petals
  • 'Blumex': exhibits frilly leaves and a mélange of cheery colors

Pruning

Cut the spent blooms at the base of the tulip stem as soon as the blossoms fade.

Propagating Tulips

Tulip bulbs need a certain planting depth to keep them in dormancy for the proper amount of time, to protect them from frost heave, and to keep them from drying out. Plant the smaller species tulips at least four inches deep, and plant the larger hybrid tulips at least six inches deep. If you aren’t digging deeply enough because you can’t penetrate all that clay soil, fix this soil issue before planting.

Common Pest and Diseases

Tulips are stricken by aphids, mites, and slugs. Aphids and mites can be banished with some insecticidal soap. Slugs can be kept at bay by adding little dishes of beer to your garden and letting them climb in and drown.

Tulips also get basal rot, fire, Pythium root rot—which can be treated with a fungicide—and stem and bulb nematode, which is, unfortunately, the end of these tulips, they must be discarded.