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How to Plant Tulips

Wondering how to plant tulips? Tulips are a classic flower and make an amazing choice for a vase of cut flowers. Learn everything you need to know about planting a tulip garden!

How to plant tulips & grow a cut flower tulip garden

Today I’m excited to start what I am hoping will be a post I look back on fondly next spring…a post about how to plant tulips from bulbs! It’s currently fall, and we’ve been in our new house for about 6 months.

So I am excited to get our first round of spring flower bulbs in before winter fully sets in. I have a few places I will be planting a few different types of bulbs, not just tulips. But this post is all about tulips. (For hyacinths, see my post on how to grow hyacinth flowers.)

I’ll be starting from the very first step of purchasing tulip bulbs, so if you’re beyond that, feel free to scroll down past it. So let’s jump in.

pink tulips in a cart

Table of contents

Just as a heads up, this is a pretty long post! If you’re looking for something specific, I’ve added a table of contents here so you can jump right to what you want. However, you’re welcome to read the whole post! 🙂

  1. How do I know what kind of tulip bulbs to buy?
  2. What type of sunlight do tulips like?
  3. How to amend soil for tulip bulbs
  4. When to plant tulips
  5. What is the best month to plant tulips?
  6. Planting tulips in the winter
  7. Can you plant tulips in the spring?
  8. Should tulip bulbs be soaked before planting?
  9. How deep to plant tulip bulbs
  10. How many tulip bulbs do you plant in one hole?
  11. When do tulips sprout?
  12. What should I do with tulips are blooming?
  13. Should you deadhead tulips?
  14. Should I cut off the tulip leaves as they yellow and die off?
  15. Why you should leave dying tulip leaves on the plant
  16. How companion planting can help dying tulips look better
  17. Caring for tulip bulbs in the summer and fall
  18. Can you leave tulip bulbs in the ground all year?
  19. Do tulip bulbs multiply?
  20. Should I treat my tulip bulbs as annuals?
  21. Fertilizing tulips
  22. How to keep animals from eating tulip bulbs
  23. How to plant tulip bulbs in pots
multicolored tulips

How do I know what kind of tulip bulbs to buy?

There are a ton of different types of tulip bulbs—thousands of varieties, actually. My best recommendation for knowing what kind of bulbs to buy is to buy them locally.

This could mean purchasing them from a big box garden store like Home Depot, Lowe’s, Menards, etc. It could also mean going to a local indepdently owned nursery if you have one close by.

A big perk of shopping at a local nursery is that they can help you decide what type of tulip bulb to plant, especially if you’re a beginner. They have a lot of knowledge, especially about your local soil conditions and climate.

Planting a variety of different types of tulip bulbs will also prolong your tulip garden because different varieties sprout at different times from early through late spring.

Generally, anything you find locally will be a good choice! Once you build your confidence growing flowers from fall-planted bulbs, you can venture out and order some cool stuff online for next year.

package of tulips

What type of sunlight do tulips like?

Even though you’re just planting bulbs that won’t sprout for months, you have to think about the best spot in your yard to plant tulips. Choose a spot that gets a good amount of sun. They will do best in areas that get full sun (6+ hours daily).

However, they can also tolerate partially shaded conditions. Since mine is a new garden, I’m planting bulbs in a few different areas to see where they do best.

hand holding tulip bulbs

How to amend soil for tulip bulbs

Tulips do not like heavy soil. Our soil is extremely heavy, orange, clay-like soil with a lot of giant rocks. So anything I put in the ground, I amend with some leaf compost mixed into the soil that’s already there.

So your required amendments depend on your yard’s soil. Chances are high, though, that your soil would benefit from some in-ground, nutrient-rich soil or some compost added in. 

Soil that is too heavy will also retain too much water. If your bulb sit in moisture for too long, it can rot. Therefore, look for an area that doesn’t have standing water after it rains like dips in the yard, drainage areas, and whatnot.

multicolored tulips

When to plant tulips

Now that you have your bulbs, you know where you’ll plant them, and you have any necessary soil amendments, it’s time to plan your planting! To get those gorgeous tulip blooms, you need to plant in the fall.

Look up your frost date, and then do the math backwards about 1-2 months. I recommend planting your bulbs whenever the low temperatures at night dip down into the 40s Fahrenheit.

What is the best month to plant tulips?

Where I am in Maryland, I’ll be planting my bulbs in October, and I do not need to chill them beforehand. Temperatures can be a crapshoot here, but the important thing to remember is that you want a good amount of time in the ground to get established before things freeze.

If you live in a more mild climate, you’ll need to put them in the fridge before you plant them. I don’t personally have experience with this, so I would recommend asking a local nursery what they recommend. They may even be able to sell you pre-chilled bulbs.

A tulip display
A tulip display I saw in early spring while visiting Amsterdam

Planting tulips in the winter

If you miss your ideal window, you can still try to plant your tulip bulbs in the winter. If you have them, why not? I wouldn’t save them for next year, so pop those bad boys in the ground and hope for the best.

Can you plant tulips in the spring?

And if you miss the window all together and you’re gearing up for spring planting, it’s probably too late. That’s because bulbs spend all winter chilling (literally) and gathering nutrients to push those blooms out in the spring.

Now I’m not saying that there aren’t ways to maniuplate your bulbs and get them to sprout and blooms…but I am not an expert. The best way to grow them is to allow them to get established in the ground before the first freeze and then let them gather nutrients all winter.

multicolored cut tulips

Should tulip bulbs be soaked before planting?

I have heard mixed opinions on this. It doesn’t seem necessary, but some say that it can speed up the rooting process—especially if you’ve waited a bit longer than you should have to plant your bulbs.

If you do choose to soak your bulbs before planting, you can do so overnight before planting. I am going to soak some tulip bulbs and not soak the others to see if there is any difference. Let’s just hope I can keep track of what I planted where 🙂

Want more garden content? Check out my post on How to Harvest Zinnia Seeds, my tips for How to Plant a Garden From Scratch, and this post on 18 DIY Garden Ideas for Small Spaces.

How deep to plant tulip bulbs

Now it’s time to start digging. Your bulbs will likely come with instructions on how deep to plant them. However, a general rule of thumb is that the bulbs should be about 8 inches below the soil line. Make sure to dig your hole about 10-12 inches deep and backfill with some compost to give the bulb a drainage buffer.

You can punish yourself by using a small shovel…or you can invest in a bulb planter or bulb auger (affiliate links)! I got an auger that attaches to my cordless drill. This saves a lot of time and hand cramping! I used the auger and the planter in combination.

Once you have a hole, stick the bulb in with the pointy side up. (If you mess that up, nature will probably find a way. But why chance it?) Backfill with well-draining soil and water the bulbs.

bulb planting tool
Bulb planting tool
bulb planting tool
bulb planting tool full of dirt
hole in the ground for a tulip bulb

How many tulip bulbs do you plant in one hole?

Unless there is a type of tulip bulb I am not aware of…you only want to plant one bulb in one hole. Space them as instructed on your bulb’s packaging—usually several inches apart.

Crowding multiple bulbs in one hole will not lead to a densely packed bunch of tulip blooms. It’s tempting, but the bulbs will probably not successfuly gather nutrients and sprout in the spring.

When do tulips sprout?

Depending on the type of tulip variety you have, they can sprout anytime from early through late spring. Tulips need 4-5 months in a chilled climate. Following that, they will sprout in a few weeks.

If you want continuous blooms through spring, I recommend planting in rows. Plant the earliest blooming variety in the back, then plant toward the front of the garden bed with later-blooming varieties. 

That way, the later-blooming varieties will help hide the later-blooming varieties as they are dying off and not looking so cute. (More on handling the period of dying-off foliage later in this post.)

Back of a tulip bulb package showing how deep to plant the variety
Back of a tulip bulb package showing how deep to plant the variety

What should I do with tulips are blooming?

One of the things that I want to specifically call out is how to care for tulips after they bloom. Sure, they look amazing while blooming. But they don’t bloom for long. And when they are done blooming, they are kind of ugly. So let’s walk through what you need to know.

Should you deadhead tulips?

Yes, you should deadhead tulip flowers after they die. You can pull the flower off or you can trim the stem off. If you’re cutting the tulips as they bloom to put in a vase, you probably won’t have much deadheading to do.

tulip bulb

Should I cut off the tulip leaves as they yellow and die off?

A big detractor of tulips is that they don’t last for long. And after they die, the large green leaves being to yellow, wilt, and slowly die off. It can be SUPER tempting to cut them off to clean things up. But PUT DOWN THE GARDENING SHEARS!

It can also be super tempting to wrap them up in a tidy circle and tie them with some twine or secure them with a rubber band to tidy it up while they finish dying off. Don’t do this either.

I know it is hard to resist the urge to tidy the scene. But embrace your inner lazy gardener and just let nature do its thing. Seriously—ignoring the dying leaves is the best thing you can do. Don’t cut them off until they are completely dead.

multicolored cut tulips
purple and white tulip

Why you should leave dying tulip leaves on the plant

And here’s why you sould let them die off naturally. Remember those bulbs you planted? Well, they provide what the plant need to bloom. And that means that, if you want healthy tulips next year, you need to let the bulbs recharge all summer.

Think about the leaves as solar panels. Those leaves do a lot of work all summer to help the bulbs square away the energy they need to recharge and sprout next spring.

If you cut them off, they can’t do their job. If you wrap them up most of the surface area of the leaves will not be able to absorb sun. Just let them die off. You can grab the shears once they are totally dead.

tulips growing in pots

How companion planting can help dying tulips look better

A good solution to the problem of unsightly dying tulips is companion planting. If you plant other annuals around your tulips—maybe like zinnias or something else that gets nice and tall—it can help take attention away from the tulips.

Also consider planting something that is a perennial in your area. That way, just as the tulip foliage is dying, the perrennials will be starting to take off with growth.

Another good option is to plant different types of tulips—or even different types of bulbs—in a spring garden with rows. Plant the bulbs that bloom first in the back, and then the next row should be something that blooms later.

That way you always have something in bloom, and the dying foliage will be partially obfuscated by the closer rows of plants blooming.

cut tulips in a vase

Caring for tulip bulbs in the summer and fall

Now that you’ve cut off the dead foliage and your flowers are long gone, you still have a tulip plant. It’s a bulb nesting in the dirt, waiting for the winter to hit so that it gets the chilly self-care period it needs to sprout next spring.

Can you leave tulip bulbs in the ground all year?

Yes! Unlike other types of plants (like elephant ear bulbs/tubers), you should not dig up tulip bulbs. Just let them rest. You probably won’t even need to worry about watering them.

In fact, watering tulip bulbs in the summer and fall can rot them. They are very prone to rotting in wet soil. If you have an exceptionally rainy summer and the soil does not drain well, it’s possible your bulbs won’t make it to spring.

However, mother nature typically provides the appropriate amount of rain for them, making their off-season care super easy. If you have a prolonged period of drought that lasts longer than a couple weeks, you can give the ground a little drink.

inside of a pink tulip

Do tulip bulbs multiply?

Yes! But the level of bulb proliferation is heavily dependent on the type of tulip you’re planting. Growers have created a seemingly endless array of hybrid tulip varieties, and these varieties are not as good at coming back annually.

Hybrid and large, showy types of tulips may need replanted after a few growing seasons. Even with proper care, the bulbs can pitter out and stop producing. 

However, if you choose a smaller “species” tulip—sometimes referred to as a “botanical” tulip— your chances of the bulbs multiplying in the ground and coming back strong year after year are higher.

If you plant one species of tulip bulb, it will grow one stem and plant. However, with proper care, that bulb will spread in the ground. Each spring you’ll then see progressively larger batches of tulips emerge.

While these are smaller plants and flowers, the clumping and reliable return every spring makes them an ideal choice for many gardens. BBC’s Gardeners’ World has a nice post with 7 great hardy species varieties of tulip you can opt for.

tulip bulb
tulip bulb multiplying
multicolored tulips on a table

Should I treat my tulip bulbs as annuals?

All of this said, there is nothing wrong with treating your tulip bulbs as annuals. There’s no shame in wanting those big showy hybrid varieties! I am planting them because they are so gorgeous.

You can give them a year or two and then dig them up to replant. Or you can replant the bulbs every fall. A bonus of this approach is that you can actually cut down the plants and dig them up as they start dying off.

That way you don’t have to worry about dealing with the yellowing, wilting foliage as the plant is dying off. Just yank it and throw some annuals in the ground—no biggie!

Fertilizing tulips

Whether your tulips are from bulbs that you planted last fall or they are bulbs from past years, consider a bulb fertilizer when the plants begin sprouting. Epsoma’s “Bulb Tone” product is good. 

multicolored tulips

How to keep animals from eating tulip bulbs

Sadly a lot of critters like to munch on tulip bulbs: chipmunks, moles, deer, bunnies, voles, squirrels, and groundhogs. So what can you do if you have these animals where you live? Well, depending on your garden, you might not have to do anything.

However, if you can’t get rid of the critters and they have a track record of being a nuiscane, there are a few things you can try.

1. Add chicken wire

Use landscape fabric to pin chicken wire down over your planting area. This will help prevent critters that dig from the surface.

2. Add rocks in the soil

When you dig your hole, put a shallow layer of rocks on the bottom. Then add dirt and your bulb, planting as normal. The layer of rocks can help deter burrowing animals that will tunnel in to have a little munch.

3. Plant unappetizing plants

You can surround your tulip bulbs (and other appealing bulbs) with types of plants that critters don’t like. That includes daffodils, alliums (giant flowering onion–I’m planting these with my tulips), grape hyacinth, snow drops, and more.

multicolored tulips
red tulip

How to plant tulip bulbs in pots

You might also be wondering how to plant tulips in pots. This is a great choice if you’d like to treat your tulips as annuals or add some spring color to a patio area or apartment balcony. And the process is pretty much the same as planting in the ground.

Choose a pot size based on the recommended spacing and planting depth for your tulip bulbs. Pick up a bag of raised bed potting soil, which will have much better drainage than regular garden soil. Throw in some compost if you’d like.

Start planting just as you would in the ground. Place the bulbs with the pointy end up and fill with soil. I’d say you can pack the bulbs a bit closer together than you would in the ground since pots overally retain less moisture and are less prone to rot.

Water the bulbs and then rely on mother nature for the rest. If you’re keeping these in a cool dry place like a shed or garage, water once a month or so. Keep them cold for about 4 months (cold = about 45 degrees or below).

After this cold period, you can move the pot outside if you have it inside. If you’ve kept it outside all winter, just monitor for sprouts. Fertilize with bulb tone when the tulips sprout. When it begins flowering, water when the top few inches of soil dries out.

planting tulip bulbs in a pot
tulips planted in a pot
purple tulip

Pin my comprehensive guide about how to plant tulips!

collage that says learn how to grow tulips with pictures of colorful tulips
collage that says how to plant tulip bulbs with images of the planting process and flowers

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