We’ve all seen those huge pictures of fields filled with tulips in all colors and styles and wanted to recreate the vibe. Maybe not on that scale, but growing even a small patch of tulips can recreate the charming look.
Tulips are easy to grow and look good in any quantity, including in small containers or making up a massive space. Wooden windmill optional.
If you’ve wondered about growing this iconic bulb, let’s talk about everything there is to know about growing tulips.
What Are Tulips?
Tulips (Tulipa spp.) belong to the lily family. They are actually in the same family as asparagus, onions, and garlic.
Although Holland is thought of as the modern home of tulips, they originated in Asia. From there, they were transported to Turkey, and then to Holland. By the mid-1500s, the country was in full-blown tulipmania.
Despite the fact tulips bloom for no more than a few weeks before fading, they’re very popular and are an iconic part of spring. There are over 3000 hybrids and cultivars, so there are lots of options. They grow well in most areas in USDA Growing Zones 3 to 7.
Tulip petals are edible and have been used as an onion substitute and have even been used to make wine.
Tulips are a perennial that grows year after year, but some of the modern hybrids are replanted yearly as an annual.
10 of the Best Tulips to Plant
Before we jump in, let’s talk about the types of tulips.
- Darwin Hybrid: these are long-lasting, long-lived, and have strong stems that are great for cutting.
- Triumph: Most tulips you can buy are Triumphs. This group has a massive range of colors.
- Double: These have double, frilly flowers with lots of petals.
- Fringed: These have petals with fringing at the edges. You also see them called Crispa.
- Fosteriana: With vibrant colors and massive blossoms, this type is stunning.
- Greigii: This group has chalice-shaped flowers with purple mottling or stripes.
- Kaufmanniana: These tulips have star-shaped blossoms that open wide.
- Lily: Lily-flowered tulips bloom late in the season with lily-like blossoms.
- Parrot: Parrot tulips have large blossoms with fringed petals. They’re extremely distinct.
- Single Early: As the name suggests, these bloom early in the year and have single flowers.
- Single Late: You guessed it, the single blossoms of this type pop up later in the season.
- Viridiflora: These late bloomers have green in the petals.
- Species: These tulips are the original species from which all the hybrids and cultivars have emerged.
There are many hybrids, species, and cultivars of tulips, and I encourage you to try as many as you can. Here are some of my top picks.
‘Negrita’ is a Triumph type and a hybrid between single early and Darwin hybrid tulips. It’s beautiful and, unsurprisingly, one of the most popular options out there.
This is a reliable mid-spring bloomer with stems up to 16 inches high. The stems are strong and hold up well in the rain and wind. They’re perfect if you love cut flowers.
‘Negrita’s’ purple flowers look amazing in contrast with groups of other bright colors.
Tulipa praestans ‘Unicum’ is a multi-headed or bunch tulip where one bulb produces several blossoms. The blooms are bright red or orange, and the foliage is variegated with white edges on lush green leaves.
Unicum is a perennial favorite, returning each year and growing strong.
Menton is a late-blooming hybrid with a single flower that features striking rose and apricot hues. It blooms late in spring and makes for an excellent cut flower with longevity in the vase.
This double-flowered hybrid. It doesn’t look like the standard cup tulip, but more like an ivory peony.
‘Montreux’ produces double, white to yellow flowers, and is an early bloomer at the beginning of spring.
5. Pink Impression
This is one of the most reliable tulips out there. It has massive, bright pink blossoms. They are 22 inches tall, so they make for perfect cut flowers. This is a Darwin type, which is a cross made from single late types and early types called Emperors.
6. Big Smile
One of the taller hybrids at 26 inches, ‘Big Smile’ is the perfect way to end the season as a late spring bloomer. The golden yellow flowers look amazing planted in large groups on their own, or with other bright-colored bulbs.
7. Queen Of Night
If you’re after a contrast between flowers, ‘Queen of Night’ provides dark, velvety purple flowers. Blooming in late spring, this variety is perfect as a border or in flower arrangements.
8. Red Riding Hood
This cultivar is part of the greigii group. They are smaller than most other tulips, but that doesn’t take away from their striking color. Red riding hood has purple-mottled foliage underneath bright red blooms.
This variety blooms in mid-spring.
9. Burgandy Lace
This is a tall variety with strong stems that hold up in strong winds. At 26 inches tall, they look striking in the garden and are perfect as cut flowers.
‘Burgandy Lace’ provides color from mid to late spring when some other tulips are starting to die off.
10. Persian Pearl
‘Persian Pearl’ is a reliable humilis cultivar that returns year after year. The magenta-colored blooms are deer resistant.
At just four to six inches tall, ‘Persian Pearl’ looks great as a border in early spring.
Most people opt to buy bulbs for planting in the fall, but you can also divide or start plants by seed.
Plant purchased bulbs a prepared seedbed of free-draining, loamy soil. Plant each bulb at a depth of twice that of the bulb length. Water well.
The most reliable way to propagate tulips is by diving offset bulbs. And the great thing is, the tulips do all the work for you because they form on the original mother bulb.
The mother tulip bulb will develop additional bulbs, or progeny, as it ages. Once the mother bulb blooms for the season, it will eventually disintegrate and the progeny absorbs the built-up nutrients.
Along with this main bulb, a series of smaller bulbs form in a cluster.
Mark where your tulips are while they’re growing. In the fall, before the frosts and freeze come, carefully dig the bulb cluster up where you marked. You will be able to detach all the little bulbs.
Replant the mother and the new bulbs. The large bulb will flower the following season, but the small ones will take at least two.
Once the small bulbs are flowering size, you can transplant them in the garden in the following fall.
This is a long process, so if you want instant flowers, growing tulips from seed certainly isn’t for you.
Seeds from hybrids may not germinate, and if they do, they’re not likely to look like the parent plant.
After the flowers fade, there is a seed pod that is left behind.
Let the seed pod on your tulip develop and dry completely before opening it up and harvesting the seeds. Put them on a plate inside in the sun for about a week.
Dampen a paper towel and wrap the seeds in it before placing them in a plastic bag. Put this in the refrigerator for several months. We are creating a dormancy period.
After several months, remove the bag and plant the seeds in individual containers and seed-raising soil. Place the pots in direct sunlight and moisten them with a spray bottle. Try to maintain the temperature at around 75ºF and keep the soil moist.
Germination is likely to take up to six months.
When the seedlings have formed two leaves, you can transplant them into the spring garden. Growing to maturity will take up to 15 months.
How to Care For Tulips
Plant tulip bulbs when the average nighttime temperature is about 50ºF.
Tulips love sunshine, but in really warm areas, provide them some afternoon shade. At least six hours of sun per day is ideal, but eight is better. The soil must be free draining as bulbs will rot sitting in water. Aim for a pH of 6 to 6.5.
Tulips appreciate a little fertilizer. Fertilize bulbs in the fall with a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer. Apply to the topsoil and water in well.
Keep the soil moist when the plants are emerging and blooming. Then, unless there is a drought, leave off on the watering until spring growth starts again. When the leaves appear, it’s a good sign to start watering again.
Tulips grow well in containers, and you can plant a number of bulbs in one pot. Plant them so the bulbs are nearly touching each other. This will give you a nice display of a full container.
Make sure the container drains well.
Companion Planting for Tulips
When growing tulips, you can put them with plants with similar needs and that bloom at the same time to increase the impact of the display. Or, you can plant them with things that will pick up the slack after the blossoms have faded. Here are just a few options:
- Dwarf Lilac
Problems For Growing Tulips
Although growing tulips is usually a problem free experience, you might occasionally have issues. Here are a few:
This fungal disease is caused by Botrytis tulipae and affects the whole tulip plant. The leaves look burned and are often distorted. If a flower blossoms, it will be distorted or spotty. Those spots become moldy.
Unfortunately, once this fungal disease takes hold, the whole plant will rot and die.
This disease could be on the bulb before you plant it. Inspect them, and if you see any black spots, this may be the start of the disease. Throw the bulb away.
If this disease strikes, you will need to throw the whole plant and bulb away. Don’t compost it.
Aphids are prolific pests. Read about them here.
These sap suckers can cause issues with plant health, especially when they are high in numbers. You may see little black dots moving around, or webbing.
Our guide can help you identify and get these little jerks under control.
Pythium Root Rot
This is a disease caused by fungi in the Phythium genus, which thrive when the bulb sits in soil that is too wet. A common sign is a plant that looks like it is in a drought, with wilt4ed leaves. That’s because the plant can’t absorb nutrients. It will begin to wilt, and the leaves will die.
The best defense against any rot problems is prevention. Make sure the soil drains well and is full of well-rotted compost and nutrients.
Gray Bulb Rot
This disease is caused by the fungus Rhizoctonia tuliparum. When it’s present, the bulb turns gray and rots from the point of infection. This point usually starts with a gray or black spot on the bulb. If the bulb grows a flower, it will likely be weak before it withers and dies.
Make sure the soil is well-drained and healthy. Avoid planting with other plants that carry this disease, like lilies and onions. Destroy any infected bulbs.
Slugs and Snails
These pests love tulips. They will decimate a tulip patch in one night, so use slug and snail pellets.
There’s nothing like a giant patch of tulips, but they’re also fun to mix with other plants to create a natural-looking garden. Plant them in containers to bring color outside of the garden.
You can even grow them inside, though you’ll need to overwinter the bulbs outside so that they get enough cold weather to reset after dormancy.
Some people opt to grow them in glass jars filled with a bit of water. That’s fine, just take them out of the water, bury them in soil in a container, and put them outside during the summer and winter.