By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 26 July 2011)
Tulip bulbs can be obtained via mail order suppliers or local garden centers. If purchasing bulbs from a garden center, choose those that are firm to the touch and free of mould, bruises, or cuts. Avoid bulbs that feel squishy or are missing their papery brown shell. The best bulbs will be free of blemishes, larger than average, and heavy for their size.
Some tulip varieties tend to bloom early in the spring, whereas others bloom later. Choosing several types allows for staggering of blooming times to have tulips flowering for the entire season.
For those who live in warmer places where winters are mild, it may be more difficult to grow tulips. The likelihood of success can be increased by choosing smaller tulip varieties that are more tolerant of warm climates, such as:
How to Store Tulip Bulbs
If you purchase tulip bulbs some time before you will plant them, store the bulbs in a paper bag and keep them away from ripening fruits, which give off ethylene gas that can destroy flower buds within the tulip bulbs.
The refrigerator crisper is a good place for storing tulip bulbs as long as there is no fruit nearby. If this is not an option, store the bulbs somewhere dark, cool, and dry – moisture can cause bulbs to rot.
When to Plant Tulip Bulbs
For most zones, bulbs should be planted in September or early October. However, for warmer zones, the following exceptions apply:
- Zones 6 and 7 – plant in October or early November
- Zones 8 and 9 – plant in November or early December and refrigerate bulbs for at least 6-8 weeks beforehand
- Zone 10 – plant in late December or early January and refrigerate bulbs for at least 8-10 weeks beforehand
Soil should be below 60 degrees Fahrenheit at the time of planting.
Where to Plant Tulip Bulbs
Tulips do best if they receive at least 6 hours of sun each day, preferably morning or afternoon rather than evening. Choose a spot that will receive sufficient sunlight, and where the soil is well drained, sandy, and neutral or slightly acid. Soil should be enriched with humus and compost. Don’t plant in areas where water collects.
How to Plant Tulip Bulbs
Place bulbs in holes pointy-side up with the roots facing downward. Be sure to plant all bulbs in a tulip bed at the same depth or they may not bloom simultaneously, and add a granular, low-nitrogen fertilizer specifically formulated for bulbs.
Water thoroughly right after planting and then again when the first leaves make their appearance.
How to Encourage Tulips to Perennialize
There are a number of things that gardeners can do to encourage their tulips to perennialize:
- Choose species that are more amenable to perennialization, such as Darwin hybrids, Emperors, and Triumphs.
- Deadhead blooms when they’ve passed their prime, but don’t remove foliage until it has yellowed.
- Spread a slow-release organic fertilizer designed for bulbs over the soil after tulips have flowered but before their foliage has gone.
If only foliage appears the following year, discard the bulbs. They are unlikely to bloom well again.
How to Protect Tulips from Rodents
Lots of animals love the taste of tulips, and squirrels and other rodents often decimate tulip beds. Planting tulips in wire mesh baskets or lining the tulip bed with wire mesh can prevent rodents from eating the bulbs. Adding a handful of sharp gravel in the hole when planting bulbs can also help to discourage gophers and voles.
Deer also love the taste of tulips, so it’s a good idea not to plant a tulip bed anywhere that deer may graze.
How to Force Tulips to Bloom Indoors During Winter
To enjoy beautiful potted tulip blooms in the winter, follow these steps for preparing and planting them.
Purchase Tulip Varieties That Respond Well to Forcing
- Apricot Beauty
- Red Riding Hood
Plant Tulip Bulbs for Indoor Winter Blooming
Use clean flowerpots and add 2 inches or more of moistened peat moss combined with perlite or vermiculite to the bottom of the pot for drainage. Enough of this mix should be added so that bulbs will be planted near the top of the pot.
Add the bulbs with roots facing downward (pointy side up) and then cover them with soil. Bulbs should be planted shallowly, so that their tips stick out of the soil.
Bulbs for indoor blooms can be planted far closer together than outdoor tulips – they can be almost touching one another. After planting, soak the soil until water seeps out of the flowerpot’s drainage holes.
Simulate Winter to Force Early Blooming
Potted tulip bulbs should be moved to a dark place where the temperature ranges between 35 and 48 degrees Fahrenheit. Possibilities include basements, unheated garages, refrigerators, or outdoors if it’s cold enough. Bulbs must not be allowed to freeze, however, and they should not be stored near ripening fruit, which gives of ethylene gas that can inhibit flowering later on.
Place a cardboard box or paper bag over the flowerpots to keep them in the dark and retain soil moisture. Check soil from time to time and add enough water to keep it slightly moist but not soaked.
Chill bulbs for 10-12 weeks if the temperature is closer to 41 degrees Fahrenheit and 14-16 weeks if it’s closer to 48 degrees. There are a few varieties such as Brilliant Star that require only 10 weeks of chilling at 48 degrees and bloom earlier than other varieties, but most tulips need more chilling time.
Simulate Spring for Winter Tulip Blooms
Once the chilling period is complete, check the flowerpot drainage holes to ensure that roots have developed. When roots are visible and shoots are about an inch high, move pots to a bright sunny spot to induce blooming.
To have blooms for the entire season, plant batches of bulbs at intervals so that they can be removed from the chilling spot and encouraged to bloom at different times.
How to Solve Common Tulip Problems
Unfortunately, most afflictions that tulips suffer can’t be cured once they happen, so prevention is the key to healthy, abundant blooms. To reduce the likelihood stunted growth or disease in the future, it is necessary to diagnose current problems and take corrective action.
Insufficient winter cooling, warm spring temperatures, or some combination thereof can cause tulips to develop short stems and small flowers or no flowers at all. In severe cases, even the growth of leaves is inhibited.
Stunted growth and failure to bloom are common problems in places where winters tend to be mild. This problem can be prevented in the future by:
- Planting next season’s bulbs in a location where they will receive direct sunlight in the early morning only
- Choosing Darwin hybrids, Lily Flowered Tulips, and other long-stemmed, single-flowered varieties that are more tolerant of milder climates
- Waiting until mid-December to plant bulbs in warmer Climate Hardiness Zones 9 and 10
- Purchasing pre-cooled tulip bulbs or storing bulbs in a paper bag in the refrigerator for about 15 weeks before planting
If storing tulips at home, be sure to keep them away from ripening fruits, which produce ethylene gas that can destroy flower buds inside the bulbs.
Removing Foliage Too Early
Tulip foliage should not be removed until it has turned yellow. Early removal can cause stunted growth or failure to bloom in the following season.
Nutrient-deficient soil can prevent tulips from blooming or even inhibit their growth altogether. Add a slow-release fertilizer when planting, on appearance of first leaves in spring, and once a month after flowers bloom until foliage dies back to prevent this problem.
Old or Undersized Bulbs
Tulips will usually only flower from the same bulbs for 2-4 years, and fewer in places where winters are mild. Original bulbs tend to disintegrate after one planting season, throwing off smaller daughter bulbs that are often too little to produce many flowers.
Tulips grown year after year from the same bulbs rarely bloom as impressively as they do for their first year. For large, prolific blooms, use large, fresh bulbs each season.
Unfortunately, there are many animals that find tulips tasty, ranging from deer to gophers. Animals may eat portions of the bulbs or even entire plants. Evidence of rodent damage includes half-eaten plants or bulbs, tunnels in the ground, small mounds of earth around the tulip bed, or tiny holes in the dirt.
To protect tulips from rodents, line the tulip bed with wire mesh or plant tulips within wire mesh baskets. Adding a bit of sharp gravel to the planting holes with the bulbs can also help to discourage burrowing rodents.
Bulb rot, caused by a fungus, results in wilted, sickly foliage. Rotted bulbs, if dug up, will be either firm and chalky with gray, white, or pink mold or soft and mushy in texture.
To prevent bulb rot, buy bulbs only from reputable mail-order companies, or, if purchasing bulbs from a nursery, avoid those that have mold or abrasions. Also, be careful to avoid nicking bulbs when planting as this will leave them vulnerable to infection.
When planting bulbs, ensure that soil is well drained and that water does not collect in the area, as fungi love moisture. Remove and destroy any plants that have become infected and don’t plant bulbs that appear discoloured, spongy, or moldy. Bulbs that are in good condition at the time of purchase may rot later on if stored in damp areas. In addition, don’t replant tulips in soil where there has been a fungal infestation for at least three years.
This fungal disease, also known as Tulip Fire or Tulip Blight, causes discolouration of foliage and bulbs, ranging from light to dark spots (which eventually expand to create large gray blotches), and in some cases, fuzzy brown or gray mold. Leaves may rot right off their bases and infected bulbs can develop circular, dark, sunken lesions. This infection is most likely to occur when weather is cool and moist, and tulip bulbs with damage such as cuts in their skin are more susceptible to infection.
To eliminate Botrytis Blight, destroy all diseased plants and bulbs. Spray a fungicide that contains mancozeb every 5-7 days beginning when plants reach about 4 inches in height and ending when tulips have bloomed. Remove blooms as soon as they begin to fade, and cut foliage down to the ground when it yellows. Locate the tulip bed in a different place each year in case the soil has become infected.
Viral infections that afflict tulips can cause flowers to become spotted, streaked, or mottled, and growth to be stunted. Leaves may also develop white or light green streaks. Plants usually don’t die, but they are severely weakened. Aphids may spread viral infections by feeding on diseased plants and carrying viruses to healthy plants.
Parrot tulips can develop streaky patterns that may be mistaken for viral infection. However, these streaks are genetic rather than viral in origin and don’t represent a danger to other plants in the vicinity.
To eliminate viral infections, destroy all infected bulbs and plants, along with those that have been near them. Gardeners who don’t want to apply toxic pesticides can control aphids naturally using ladybugs, which are voracious predators of aphids. Ladybugs can be purchased at many garden stores or ordered online.
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