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Tulips - Spring Blooming Bulbs to Plant in Fall

Updated on August 5, 2017
Dolores Monet profile image

An avid gardener for over 40 years, Dolores has landscaped for private clients and maintained one client's small orchid collection.


Tulips are beautiful mid to late Spring, cup shaped flowers that come in a wide variety of colors. They need a period of cold, so bulbs are planted in Fall after the first cold snap. Tulips grow well in US Zone 3 - 8, and in most of the UK.

Originating in Turkey, tulips were cultivated there by 1000 CE (AD). Introduced to Europe in the 17th century, they quickly caught on as a novelty plant in royal gardens.

By the 1630's, tulips became so popular in the Netherlands that they appeared in designs on ceramic pieces, carved into furniture, on fabrics, and can be seen in Old Dutch Master still life paintings. Many of the tulips in old oil paintings are broken tulips, a type that led to a craze called Tulipmainia.

As Tulipmania grew, the bulbs were heavily traded and became a hot commodity. Speculators sold the bulbs by weight. Frenzied traders caused dramatic price increases until an over supply caused markets to crash. Investors were ruined, lost all they had and were thrown into debt.

The most desirable tulips were broken which means that plain colored blooms appeared with a white, creamy, or pale yellow feathered pattern. What the Dutch traders of 1636 - 1637 did not know was that the interesting pattern was created by a virus called Tulip breaking virus or TBV. (You can see an example of broken tulips in an Old Dutch Master at the top of the page.)

Later called Rembrandt tulips, these TBV effected bulbs were taken off the market. Aphids carry the virus to nearby plants. Today, real Rembrandt tulips can only be seen in historic collections. Some Rembrandt style tulips, which are stable cultivars, are available for the retail market.


Purchasing Tulips

Tulips bought in a pot at Easter may not bloom the next year after planting in the garden. They have been forced for the holiday market by the manipulation of environmental conditions in a greenhouse.

Purchase tulips bulbs from a reputable catalog or garden center.

Some large public gardens lift their tulips bulbs in late Spring. The clean dry bulbs are often sold. Bulbs lifted from Baltimore's Sherwood Gardens are cleaned up and sold at Cylburn's Plant Sale in May. Bulbs such as these can be stored or planted in the garden.

Planting Tulips

Public gardens often feature tulips in large beds with geometric designs, or in wide drifts. Though attractive, the space needed for such a display is not often available to the home gardener.

If you want to plant tulips, they look lovely planted in groups with an uneven number. Several groups can be planted. Some gardeners plant several groups of all one color. Planting several shades of one color works well too.

Tulips look beautiful when mixed with grape hyacinths or common hyacinths. Blue (purple, or violet) hyacinths mix well with almost any color of tulips. Mix in white for a bright, clean look; with pink for a soothing look; or with red and white if you are feeling patriotic.

Plant tulip bulbs in a rich, well drained soil in Fall after a heavy frost. Add a tablespoon of bone meal beneath each bulb at the bottom of an 8 - 10 hole. Some experts suggest planting in a more shallow hole, but deeper is best in many areas.

Plant with the pointy side of the bulb facing up.

If the soil is clay heavy, dig the hole a bit larger and mix in sand. (Tulips bulbs will rot in heavy, wet soil)

Plant in full sun. Planting under a deciduous tree works well. By the time the tree is in full leaf, the tulip leaves have yellowed.

The Case of the Disappearing Tulips

Many people notice that last year's tulip display does not return in force the following year. While the bulbs are not expensive, the loss of some favorite, well placed flowers can be frustrating.

Small rodents tunnel through the soil to feast on tulip bulbs. Mice, voles, and gophers gobble up the bulbs in winter when the pickin's are slim. No problem with the narcissus group which includes daffodils. They are poisonous.

Try these tips to protect your tulip bulbs from hungry rodents:

  • Surround tulip bulbs with narcissus bulbs.
  • When planting tulip bulbs, add crushed oyster shells.
  • Plant bulbs ten inches deep, too deep for voles.
  • Do not plant tulips near a bird feeder. The fallen seeds attract rodents to the area.

To Lift or Leave in the Ground

Experts at many public gardens lift tulip bulbs after the foliage had died back. This is done to ensure a regular pattern of blooms in the next year's beds.The home gardener may lift bulbs in areas with mild winters, or with wet soil in summer.

If you want to lift tulip bulbs, do so when the foliage has turned yellow. If you wait until the leaves disappear, you may be unable to locate the bulbs.

After lifting, brush off loose soil and hang in a mesh bag in a cool, dry place.

Tulip Groups Best Lifted or Left in the Ground

Left in Ground
Best Lifted and Stored
Darwin Hybrid
Triumph Group
Single Early
Lily Flowered
Single Late
Double Tulips

Some Popular Tulip Groups

Choose tulips from different groups to create a long lasting blooming period. You can see that some groups feature plants that are taller than others. Plant taller tulips behind tulips from a shorter group in case flowering period overlap.

Single Early Tulips - The large, single blooms are lightly fragrant. Plants grow 10 - 18 inches tall. Many blooms of this group are multi-colored. Though called Early, these are not always the first to bloom.

Some types are quite old. Keizerskroon, at 14" tall was introduced in 1750!

Single Early Tulips

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Double EarlyTriumphViridifloraDarwin Hybrid
Double Early
Double Early | Source
Triumph | Source
Viridiflora | Source
Darwin Hybrid
Darwin Hybrid | Source

Double Early Tulips - Introduced in 1860, Double Early Tulips feature large, peony like blooms quite different from the typical tulip. Flowers appear in Early Spring on 8 - 12" stems. The long lasting blooms are beautiful in arrangements. "Murillo" dates from 1860.

Triumph is a mid Spring blooming group. One of the largest of groups, Triumph looks similar to Spring Early but is taller at 14 20."

Viridiflora has green markings that rise up from the base of the petal on this mid to late Spring blooming group. Viridiflora grows approximately 20" tall.

Darwin Hybrid Group This large group features elegant oval blooms on tall 24 - 28" stems. Bulbs of this new group introduced in 1981 are best lifted and stored after foliage die back. This group is popular in large beds.

Lily Flowered The tapered, pointed blooms resemble lilies and are quite striking. Blooming in mid to late Spring, the flowers appear on 10 - 21" stems.


Fringed Group These unusual tulips feature petals with delicately fringed edges. Flowers emerge in mid to late Spring on 22" tall stems.



The Plant Lover's Guide to Tulips by Richard Wilford;Timber Press, London Uk; 2015

The Complete Book of Practical Gardening by Peter McHoy; Hermes House; New York, NY; 1997

© 2015 Dolores Monet


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    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 12 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Glenis Rix - You don't have to dig them all up, just certain varieties. I don't plant tulip bulbs that you have to dig up, that's just more work. Sadly, the poor folks who ate tulip bulbs must have had a real hard time of it as the bulbs are toxic. Thanks!

    • Glenis Rix profile image

      Glenis Rix 13 months ago from UK

      I love tulips - but I often forget to dig them up! You have reminded me that I must get to the garden centre to buy another supply. I'm going to try them in pots rather than the borders this year.

      A grim fact about tulips - do you know that during WWII the Dutch were starving and were reduced to eating tulip bulbs?