The growing habits of tulips

tulip bulbs4

I am finally getting the bulbs in but I still have tulips to plant. I am fairly relaxed about this because, of all spring-flowering bulbs, tulips are the last that need to be planted and November or early December is perfectly OK. As well as the new tulips I have the bulbs lifted in early summer to get in (above). Lots of people have trouble with tulips and find they do not bloom well the second year even though they do produce a crop of leaves. Many people treat tulips as annuals and discard them after they bloom but I tend to try to keep them because, with care, you can get a second year of colour from most of them.

There are several factors that are going to affect whether you get a second lot of flowers from your bulbs. But before we get to those it is important to explain why tulips are different from daffodils. Well apart from the obvious differences the important one is that while a narcissus bulb that you plant in autumn 2013 will still be there this autumn, perhaps smaller, maybe bigger and perhaps with some offsets forming, a tulip bulb you planted at the same time will not longer be there: in its place will be one or more (almost certainly more) smaller bulbs. These may or may not be of flowering size and, if left where they are, the small bulbs will be crowded and won’t stand much chance of reaching flowering size. This is one reason why it is usually recommended that we lift tulips every year. It also affects and explains how the Dutch grow them for sale – most tulips are grown in the Netherlands. Unlike daffodils and hyacinths that can be propagated artificially, by cutting up or scooping the bulbs, tulips have to divide naturally. So a grower plants a flowering size bulb in a field, it flowers and excites the tourists and is deadheaded to prevent flowering and when it is dug up there will be one big bulb that is sold somewhere in the world and the smaller ones are planted in autumn to repeat the process.

But back to reasons why a tulip may or may not perform well the next year:


Some tulips grow better than others. Some have a habit of splitting into many, small bulbs that will not bloom while others split into few, but large bulbs. I find that Kaufmanniana, Greigii, Viridiflora and Late or Cottage tulips generally last well in the garden while Single Early and Double Early do not.


If the tulips were planted in sun and grew well they have a much better chance of doing well the next year.


Tulips tend to break up into many small bulbs when they are planted near the soil surface. If they are planted deeply they tend to last longer and flower better. If I want tulips to bloom a second or third year in a border where I cannot or will not lift them I plant them 20-25cm deep.


Tulips like a warm, sunny spot in well drained soil. They also like a hot summer and dry soil to give them a ‘baking’. In cool summer climates they will never do quite as well as in a warmer spot.


Make sure you allow the leaves to die down or, if you can’t do that, lift them as late as possible and allow the leaves to die back in trays.

tulip bulbs2

(Above) A lifted tulip that has formed one bulb that may be of flowering size and five smaller bulbs that are not.

tulip bulbs

(Above) This tulip formed one super-sized replacement bulb and a smaller one – perfect for me though not as good for the bulb growers.

tulip bulbs3

Most bulbs are capable of adjusting their depth in the soil with the use of ‘contractile’ roots that gradually pull the bulbs down into the soil. Tulips also produce ‘droppers’ which are strange shoots that grow down into the soil, often as much as 10cm, and these form new bulbs, as you can see in these two examples above.


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3 Comments on “The growing habits of tulips”

  1. sueturner31
    November 28, 2014 at 9:15 am #

    I shall in future try not to grow tulips as annuals…. I prefer tulips to daffs in an odd way….I think it’s the gorgeous burst of vibrant colour I’m longing for in the spring…. 🙂

  2. Meriel
    December 2, 2014 at 1:58 am #

    Very informative. I mostly grow a pot or two which I treat as annuals as I have given up in the garden. Did you know that deer love tulips almost as much as roses. Heartbreaking, especially as I have the ideal free draining soil. This year I purchaced a couple of Lidl large nets of about 50 each early & left in my cool shed. A rat or rats ate all of one net over a few nights before I discovered just in time to save the second. Evidentally they are just as tasty as they are beautiful!

    • thebikinggardener
      December 3, 2014 at 7:46 am #

      Yes rats and mice love tulips. One year I lost lots, like you, when i left the bulbs in the greenhouse ready for planting. I have also had the bulbs taken out of containers so it is a potential problem.

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