From tulips to chrysanthemums, our series “The Language of Flowers” explores everything from fresh flower care tips to flower symbolism and meaning. This article offers tulip care tips, from growing your own to preserving your arrangements.

Spring is in the air and that means an abundance of blossoms everywhere from the neighborhood park to your own backyard. One iconic springtime flower that’ll add color to your home is the tulip. Get ready to take advantage of peak tulip season with our top tulip care tips, from selecting the perfect bulb to caring for cut flowers. 

Selecting the perfect bulb 

When you’re buying tulip bulbs, be sure that they are healthy. They should be firm, not mushy, and they should be a good size. Some surface mold on the bulb is not a problem. Different cultivars will produce different-sized bulbs, so choose the largest of the kind you are buying. Bulbs are the plants’ winter storage units, supplying nutrition during dormancy. A larger bulb will mean a larger tulip plant in the spring.  

How to choose the right spot in the garden 

Tulips are winter-hardy bulbs that grow in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8. They grow best in a spot with sun to light shade, and in fertile soil with plenty of organic matter like peat moss or compost. It’s important for the soil to drain well so the bulbs won’t rot. Tulips won’t produce many flowers in full shade, and they won’t thrive in soggy, poorly drained soil. If your garden is too wet year-round, you might think about using a raised bed or a container for your tulips. 

Tips for planting tulip bulbs 

In the garden 

Plant your tulip bulbs in the fall outside in the garden any time after the first frost and before the ground freezes and gets hard. Dig a hole that is about three times the depth as the size of the bulb or clear a flat area the right depth for several bulbs. Tulips usually need to be planted 6” to 8” down in the soil because of their large size. Smaller tulip bulb can be planted at a shallower depth of 4” to 5”. Plant the bulb with the pointed tip up and the flat part down. Backfill the hole, pat it down, and water thoroughly. When planting more than one bulb, tulips should be spaced 4” to 5” apart from their centers. Fertilize at planting and again when the shoots emerge in the spring. If squirrels or chipmunks threaten to dig up your bulbs, cover the soil with a wire mesh in the fall to keep them safe. 

In a container 

Photo of tulips growing in a container.

Tulips blooming in a container are a beautiful way to brighten up a porch or patio. Choose an appropriately sized pot for the number of tulips you want to grow and make sure it has a bottom hole for drainage so that the mix won’t be soggy. Use a good potting mix, not garden soil, so that it drains well. When you’re ready to plant the bulbs in the fall, it’s easier to moisten the mix first so that you can make individual planting holes. Set the bulbs in at about the same depth as they would be in the garden — 6” to 8” for big bulbs and 4” to 5” for small tulip bulbs, allowing at least 2”-3” at the bottom of the pot for root growth. Bulbs can be planted 1” to 2” apart at their centers.  

Tulips need eight to 12 weeks of cold (35⁰ F to 45⁰ F) before they will bloom in the spring. If you live in a cold climate that will freeze the potting mix if left outside (USDA hardiness zones 3 to 6), bring the pot into a cool, protected area such as a garage, basement, or shed until spring. In zones 7 or 8, you will be able to leave the containers outside during the winter without harm.  

For containers in all USDA zones, the potting mix should be kept moist but not wet. Do not water unless it begins to dry out. When the green shoots push up in the spring, bring the container out in the sunshine so they will grow and bloom. It will be about four to five weeks from the time the first shoots appear to when the tulips flower. 

Tulip care after they’ve bloomed 

With the right growing conditions, tulips will rebloom up to three years from the time of first planting. Cut the flowers off when they wilt but allow the leaves to keep growing to make more food for the bulbs. Then cut the leaves off once they start to yellow. Not all tulips will bloom again, so you’ll have another chance to plant different beautiful varieties. 

When to buy tulips

Not ready to grow your own tulips? Good news: They’re readily available from 1-800-Flowers.com. Buy full bloom tulips ONLY if you’re planning to use them immediately; otherwise, buy or cut your own tulips when they are showing just a little bit of color. This will give your flowers more longevity.

How to Arrange Tulips

Tulips are sturdy flowers that can last up to 10 days if you know how to care for them correctly. Being one of the few flowers that continue to grow and mature after being cut, tulips can grow as much as a half-inch a day and are often best bought in bud form for ultimate longevity.

  1. Trim your tulips. When arranging, start by removing the lower foliage that may sit in the water. Removing these leaves will discourage bacteria grown which, in turn, may make the flowers wilt sooner. Then, cut off at least a half inch from the bottom of the stem.
  2. Choose a suitable container: Choose a tall container if you want your tulips to stay straight and long.  Choose a shorter and wider container if you want to give your tulips more room to move gracefully. Fill the vase a third of the way with water, and add some floral preservative (a.k.a. flower food). If floral food is not available, a half capful of bleach may help prevent bacterial growth. Don’t keep tulips and daffodils in the same vase because the sap from daffodils tend to clog the stems of other flowers which deteriorates vase life.
  3. Soak up the sun. Tulips are phototropic, bending toward the light, so rotate container daily to help keep the stems upright. Re-cutting tulips every two days may help them last longer.  Keep the vase away from the sun or other heat sources.
  4. Snip selectively. If you cut tulips from a plant or a garden, cut them in bud form, but leave the foliage on the plant until it gets to be yellow and dry. The drying of foliage is what nourishes the bulb for the following year.

Clean vase = healthy flowers

Did you know that bacteria can collect and remain in a vase for years? Use a clean vase that has been washed with bleach to kill the bacteria and keep your flowers healthy and happy. As with all flowers, keep your tulips away from bright, sunny windows or other sources of extreme heat. Bending heads or “floppy” tulips can be corrected by wrapping the stems in plastic wrap or tissue paper, keeping all the flowers at the same height. After wrapping, trim the stems once more and place them back in fresh water. After a few hours, remove the wrapping and your flowers should be straight. This trick will only work if the flowers are fairly fresh.

Final Tulip Care Tip: How to Straighten Bent Stems

Watch floral expert Julie Mulligan’s tips for removing the bend from your tulips stems.


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Author

Nancy Maffia has a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in horticulture and communications. She has worked in plant taxonomy, has written and edited gardening books and plant articles, and currently works at a garden center helping customers with plant and gardening questions. She has been published in the Encyclopedia of Indoor Gardening, Getting the Most from Your Garden, and others.

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