Tulips for Beginners

If you’re new to growing tulips or are looking to brush up on some basic knowledge about them, you’ve come to the right place (if I might say so myself!). Tulips are one of the easiest and most rewarding to grow and come in so many varieties and colors, you’d be surprised. That is, if you’re new to them as I was 2 years ago. 

Tulips from my garden this year.

You should try tulips because..

  1. They are incredibly easy to grow – pop them in pots or in the ground (depending on the variety and your preference, a little more on this below) in autumn and they will give you one of the most beautiful blooms ever seen.
  2. They last for weeks as a cut flower so can be cut off from either pots or better yet, a cutting patch if you’re serious about your cut flower garden.
  3. They come in numerous colors, sizes, and varieties and can bloom from early spring to early summer (speaking for the U.K, the times are variable depending on where you live).
  4. If you’ve been put off because you’ve been told they only bloom once, worry not: there are varieties that come back year after year and give you joy for at least 4-5 years, if not decades.
  5. They are low maintenance. Once they’re done flowering,all you have to do is chop off the head before it sets seed and leave the stalk and leaves intact to provide energy to the bulb for next year’s growth.
  6. They are THE most rewarding plants for those completely new to gardening, in my opinion. I honestly just popped them in a pot when I started gardening (with soil of course) and they were blooming in 3-4 months.
  7. And, obviously, because they’re gorgeus! 
pink tulip
‘Am I pretty or what?’ is what they all say to me before making me binge-buy the bulbs!

How to Decide Which Tulips to Grow

Do you want tulips that come back every year?

When I looked for information about growing tulips, I was quite surprised that it was rarely ever pointed out how tulips can also be perennials / be left to naturalize. If you’re new to gardening, this means there are varieties of tulips that multiply over time and/or come back year after year – this can be for up to 5-6 years in the U.K mainland, and most of Europe.

If there’s a single take-home message from this post, it’s the above.

There are many websites and blogs detailing the thousands of varieties, pointing out their virus resistance or telling you about which other flowers they go with best for bridal bouquets. All very important information, I’m sure. For me, however, the rate-limiting step is always the performance of a plant over the years to come. I’m a full-time medic and gardening is an escape so the key is productivity. Yes, I’m very selfish with my time.

So if time and pereniallity is a factor for you, consider tulips that are not annuals.

pink tulips
Tulip Peppermint Stick – a hardy perennial that naturalizes in a sunny area

Where will you be planting them?

Pots or Borders/Ground?

If you have a patio or only space for pots, the choice is easy: You’re better off with annuals. You can still buy the perennial varieties and they’ll bloom just as well in pots but it’d be a shame to throw them once they’ve bloomed (which is the usual fate of the annuals).

Front or back of the border?

This may seem obvious to some. However, as a beginner, I was quite surprised to find that there are miniature varieties of tulips (literally no taller than 10 cm!) such as Tulip ‘Samantha,’ which is more suited to the front of the border or in fairy garden themes.

Does your outdoor space have the conditions tulips need?

They do best in sunny positions, with well-draining soil and lots of organic matter. You can always add a bit of compost/manure/bulb starters when putting the bulbs in to maximize their productivity. Personally, I’ve never added anything when growing them. I just plant them in full sun in well-draining soil and they reward me beyond expectation.

Are Pests a problem?

If you have squirrels/rodents like most of us, the best way to ensure your bulbs don’t get devoured is to plan them deep (usually at least 15 cm depth) and/or put a layer of chicken wire over them. I’ve never planted them deeper than the growers’ instructions recommend but I always put a layer of chicken wire over the bulb and I have never had issues with rodents trying to steal them. When the buds pop up, some squirrels like to chew them off. Sprinkle some pepper or garlic spray to avoid this. Again, I’ve never had this issue since the squirrels in my garden are always well-fed, thanks to the left-over bird food. Maybe that’s an indirect way to keep them away from your plants?!

If rodents are under control, and you’re not over-watering them (thus preventing bulb rot), thankfully tulips are generally pest and disease free (unless they catch the dreaded fungal diseases, which can be prevented by preventing overwatering and good ventilation).

Would they need support? 

Again, a common belief is that tulips don’t need support. Some have extra-long stems and the wind/rain can batter them. Some, such as some of the double tulips, actually need staking since their blooms are quite heavy. Ideally, these supports need to be placed before they have produced buds – anytime after that and it will become harder for you to apply stakes without damaging the stalks or buds.

tulips in a pot
Darwin Hybrid Tulips, clearly in need of support here due to being in an exposed area.

A simple way to know whether they would need support is through their type: double tulips usually need staking/support before they bloom since their flowers are quite heavy. It is not uncommon for tulips to be battered down by the wind and rain so if this is a major problem, either plant them in a sheltered location or cut them for an indoor display.

Tulips battered by the rain but cut and brought indoors for a display.

I personally think supporting them with various stakes, etc takes the beauty away from their tall stems so I just cut them for the indoors if they get battered by the rain. In this case, usually, the stalks break but the flowers are usually intact and all you have to do is lift them and place them in a vase with water.

Red tulips
Double Red tulips, also in need of staking. I ended up cutting them and displaying them indoors.

Is the blooming time an important factor?

If you have a flower bed with plenty of interest already and aren’t looking for a seasonal transition of blooms, this may not be an important factor. The same may be true for those growing them in pots.

However, if you’re hoping to grow them for a particular time you’ll have to pay attention to the flowering times of the tulips you chose. For example a wedding or for the time of year when an area in your garden doesn’t have any blooms or interest.

Some flower at the beginning of Spring and are called ‘early blooming varieties’ whereas others are ‘late-blooming varieties.’ More importantly, some bloom for a few days whereas others for weeks so if you’re looking for a long show, make sure you look for those varieties that have a long flowering period. If this information is not provided by the growers, it is usually readily available by a simple google search.

To summarise, here are the things to look for before buying tulip bulbs:

  1. Planting location (front or back of the border, pots or ground),
  2. Annuals or Perennials,
  3. Final height (to help you decide where to place them depending on their height and whether they will need support/staking when in bloom),
  4. Type-single versus double (the latter may need support).
  5. Flowering period – Early bloomers versus late bloomers and duration of flowering.

Types of Tulips:

A simple thing to know about tulips is that they are either annuals or perennials, can be single or double (this is how their petals are arranged, with the double tulips resembling peonies), can be early or late flowering with some varieties flowering longer than the others. Those are the things I look for when I browse tulip varieties.

I’m no botanist and I get bored easily with the botanical names or long descriptions. So…

I won’t go on about the 3000 registered varieties of tulips or the main 14 classes. Here’s a beautiful article with a summarised downloadable infographic at the end if you’re into looking them up.

How to Plant Tulips

When to Plant and aftercare

As a rule of thumb, you should plant tulips a few weeks before the first frosts are predicted – this is usually just towards mid-late autumn depending on the area you live. For example, I planted most of mine in late-October (London, U.K) and the first frosts came at the of November.

However, not all of us can always manage that due to bad weather, work, or family commitments, etc. In this case, pop them into the soil whenever you get the chance! Bulbs are not like seeds – if left for too long, they will either rot or start sprouting, the former will mean your bulbs can no longer be planted. Therefore, plant them in and protect them from frosts. I’ve never done anything special here in the U.K (Having grown them mainly in Bristol and London)  after planting them in the soil or the pots. Once planted, I leave them out and they enjoy the weather (rain or shine, frost or not!) and they come ou fabulously. I did say they’re easy to grow!

Depth and Spacing

Mostly, you’re tulip growers or garden centers will send the instructions with the bulbs as each bulb has different planting instructions. Even though planting is advised to be done with specific inter-bulb distances in mind, this is not the case for planting in bulbs. As long as you make sure the bulbs don’t touch each other and have at least 0.5 cm between them, closely planted bulbs achieve a more dramatic effect than widely planted ones. This is also true when you’re planting them straight into the ground.

Chickenwire or companion planting- optional

When the bulbs are in, place a layer of chicken wire to keep the rodents away, as described above. Another method is to plant them with or around plants that rodents don’t like which usually include alliums, hyacinths, and daffodils.

Tulips and daffodils
Tulips and daffodils planted closely to keep the squirrels in check as apparently, they don’t like the smell of daffodils!

I hope I’ve convinced you to add tulips to your list for next year! The only not-so-pretty thing about tulips is that you have to leave their stalk and leaves intact if you want them to return next year (for the perennial ones that is!).

Happy gardening and thank you for visiting! Stay tuned for some in-depth, photo-rich reviews of the varieties I’ve tried so far (about 10 at least).

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