How to grow tulips
All you need to know about growing tulips, from planting bulbs to selecting varieties.
This article has been checked for horticultural accuracy by Oliver Parsons.
Spring wouldn’t be the same without tulips. The beautiful flowers of these showy bulbs come in almost every colour imaginable, from pale pastels to hot, vibrant shades. They are perfect for adding colour to borders in April and May and grow very well in pots.
Tulips are spring bulbs, planted in mid to late autumn. Tulips are technically perennial, but years of breeding to get the most beautiful blooms means that many varieties only flower reliably for one year. Many gardeners plant new bulbs each autumn to ensure a good display. If you're growing tulips in pots, you need to plant fresh bulbs each year.
Some tulips flower earlier than others – early-flowering varieties bloom from very late March to April, mid-season bulbs in April to May, and late-flowering ones bloom in May. You can prolong your displays by growing a mix of different types. You can also mix flower shapes, heights and colours. Combining tulips can be quite an art but you can buy ready-selected bulb mixes at the garden centre or online.
How to grow tulips
Plant tulip bulbs in moist but well-drained soil in a sunny spot in mid- to late autumn – November is ideal, while December is good if you're in a very mild part of the country. However don't throw out your bulbs if you haven't got around to planting them by Christmas, as even bulbs planted in early January can perform well. Plant at least three times the depth of the bulb, pointed end up, around 5cm apart. For the best displays, plant fresh bulbs each autumn.
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More on growing tulips:
- Early-flowering tulips to grow
- Nine late-flowering tulips to grow
- Parrot and fringed tulips to grow
- What to grow with tulips
- Five stunning tulip combinations
- Where to grow tulips
- How to plant tulips
- How to propagate tulips
- Tulip problem-solving
- Buying tulips
- Tulip types and flowering times
- Tulips by colour
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Where to plant tulips
Tulips of all types do best in a sunny, sheltered spot in well-drained soil. It's a good idea to plant tulips just behind perennials in a border – the perennials' emerging foliage will conceal the leaves of the tulips as they die back. Improve heavy clay or sandy soils by incorporating plenty of well-rotted organic matter before planting. If your soil is especially heavy, you could add some horticultural grit to the bottom of the planting hole. Conditions in your garden not ideal? Find out how to grow tulips in problem places.
Tulips also grow very well in pots, in peat-free multi-purpose compost.
When to plant tulip bulbs
You can plant tulip bulbs from mid-October, but November is thought to be the optimum time as the colder conditions reduce the risk of the fungal disease tulip fire. If you've not got around to planting tulip bulbs by November don't worry, you can get away with planting them as late as December, or even early January – they should still bloom in spring.
If you've forgotten to buy bulbs altogether, you can buy potted tulips in the spring at the garden centre – enough to create a pot display or two.
How to plant tulips
In autumn, dig a planting hole with a garden trowel or bulb planter and drop the bulb into the hole with the pointed end up. There's no need to soak tulip bulbs; simply plant them at a depth of three times the bulbs' height, with about 5cm between each one. For the best display, plant tulips en masse.
Tulips grow very well in pots, but these need planting up afresh each year. Half-fill the container with peat-free multi-purpose compost and plant the bulbs at three times their depth, with a few centimetres between each one, but generally a bit closer together than you would with tulips in the ground, as you'll want the biggest possible impact and the bulbs won't be grown in the pot again next year so plant health issues are less of a concern. Top up with compost. In this clip from Gardeners' World, Monty Don demonstrates how to plant tulips and evergreens in a pot in autumn:
You can also combine tulips with other spring bulbs in a container for a more long-lasting display. In this No Fuss video guide, Kevin Smith demonstrates how to layer tulips with other spring bulbs in a pot:
How to deadhead tulips
Tulips can be kept in the soil all year round to reflower the following year, but you may find they don't put on as much of a display, and may be shorter and have smaller flowers than previously. To prevent this, it's important to ensure as much energy as possible from the leaves is returned to the bulbs. Deadhead plants after flowering to stop them wasting energy on producing seed (the exception to this rule is for species tulips, which should be left to develop seed and naturalise around your garden). Don’t cut back foliage until it has turned yellow, which will be about six weeks after flowering. If you cut back the foliage too early the bulbs will be weaker the following year.
Here, Daniel Haynes explains how to get species tulips to reflower:
How to propagate tulips
Some gardeners prefer to lift and store tulip bulbs rather than leaving them in the ground. To do this, lift them with a hand fork once the foliage has turned yellow a month or so after flowering. Remove the foliage and pull or cut off the stem and remove the flaky outer coating from the bulb. Leave the bulbs to dry and then store in a paper bag in a cool, dry and well ventilated environment.
Offset bulbs that have formed on the sides of the main bulb can be gently pulled away. Store these alongside their parent bulbs in paper bags in a cool, dry, airy and frost-free place. The offsets can be planted out but deeper – about 25cm deep – in autumn.
Watch Monty Don's video guide to lifting and storing tulip bulbs:
Growing tulips: problem solving
Tulip fire (Botrytis tulipae) is a fungal disease that is particularly bad in wet seasons as the spores are spread by wind and rain. The symptoms include distorted and stunted shoots and leaves, and unsightly brown blotches all over the plant. If your plants are affected, remove and burn them and avoid planting tulips on the same site for at least two years. Planting tulip bulbs after the first frost, usually in November but in some places in December, should help reduce the risk of the disease.
Squirrels can be partial to tulip bulbs, digging them up and eating them after you've planted them. Stop them by fixing chicken wire over pots with tent pegs or landscape staples, or weighing it down over planted areas using bricks. Planting the bulbs a little deeper may also help to put them out of reach.
Advice on buying tulips
- You can buy tulip bulbs at the garden centre from late summer, but for the best selection buy from a specialist online supplier
- Make sure your bulbs are firm to touch and bear no signs of mould
- If you wait until after Christmas you can get some bargains but may not have as great a choice as you would earlier in the tulip planting season
Where to buy tulips online
Tulip types and flowering times
There are over a dozen main types of tulip, with varying flower heights and shapes, which flower at slightly different times in spring. Flowering times depend on the weather conditions and can vary from year to year. They also depend on the part of the country that you live in – tulips in the north of the country can flower several weeks later than those in the south.
Early tulips (late March to April)
Single early – some of the earliest tulips to flower, usually in late March or early April. Simple, cup-shaped flowers on strong stems. Try 'Apricot Beauty' or 'Prinses Irene'.
Double early – long-lasting, double flowers that look like peonies, on short stems. Early to mid April. Try tulip 'Verona', with pale-yellow flowers.
Kaufmanniana hybrids – flowers have a slight resemblance to water lilies. One of the most reliably perennial types, flowering from late March to early April.
Species / botanical tulips – small and delicate (10-15cm in height) but hardy and long lived. They are ideal for rockeries, gravel gardens, containers or the front of a border. They come back year after year and will self-seed if you don't deadhead them. Some flower early; others later in the season.
Mid-season tulips (April to May)
Triumph tulips – tough tulips with strong stems that flower in April. Good for a windy spot. Try lipstick-pink 'Barcelona', wine-and-yellow 'Abu Hassan' or burnt-orange 'Cairo' or 'Brown Sugar'.
Darwin hybrids – tall tulips with large, goblet-shaped flowers. The stems are very strong and are wind resistant. Reliably perennial. Try 'Apeldoorn' or 'Apricot Beauty'.
Fosteriana hybrids – these have slender flowers when closed, opening wide in full sun. They sometimes have purple or brown markings. Previously known as Emperor tulips. Try the stunning white 'Purissima'.
Lily flowered – as their name suggests, the elegant, pointed flowers of these tulips look like lilies. Try 'White Triumphator' or orange 'Ballerina', which is scented.
Fringed – these have cup-shaped flowers with frilly edges. Try 'Fancy Frills' or 'Oviedo'.
Viridiflora – the petals often have green markings. Try the white and green 'Spring Green', red-tinged 'Flaming Springgreen' or dark-pink 'Doll's Minuet'.
Rembrandt – long-stemmed varieties with streaky, bi-coloured blooms. Try 'Sorbet' or 'Helmar'.
Parrot – flamboyant flowers which are fringed or twisted. Try 'Black Parrot' or 'Flaming Parrot'.
Greigii hybrids – marbled or striped foliage on low-growing plants with large, brightly coloured flowers. Reliably perennial. Try 'Red Riding Hood'.
Late tulips (May)
Single late/Darwin – oval flowers on tall, strong, wind-resistant stems. Try dark-purple 'Queen of Night', peachy 'Menton' or white 'Maureen'.
Double late/peony flowered – one of the last tulips to flower, and long lasting. The large flowers look like peonies. Try the beautiful, peachy-pink 'Angelique'.
Tulips by flower colour
- Best red tulips to grow
- Orange tulips to grow
- Best yellow tulips to grow
- Best pink tulips to grow
- Seven purple tulips to grow
- White tulips to grow
- Best bi-coloured tulips to grow
Tulips as cut flowers
Tulips make good cut flowers and have a good vase life - they will continue to grow in the water. Avoid mixing daffodils and tulips in a vase as the daffodils let out a substance that can prevent the tulips from taking up water.