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13 Ways to Get Your Tulips to Come Back

In times of stressed economy, it’s good to do what we can to save money.

Since I’ve been poor and cheap for decades, I’m well-prepared to inform those who are experiencing this for the first time. I have been working for years, very unscientifically, on getting my tulips to return, instead of buying them every year, as is our extravagant custom.

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These Prinses Irene tulips returned year after year – until I made the mistake of digging them up

And then what do you do with tulip bulbs at the end of the year? Tossing them out makes me feel somewhat as I did in fourth grade, when the egg incubator failed in science class, and I had to pour a half-formed chicken down the drain (There seems to be a lot of trauma around science, here. Maybe this is the key to my unscientificness (lack of scientificity?).)

Keeping bulbs around seems to indicate that I should do something to help them survive. So I started looking for ways to do that.

Some of my ideas for getting tulips to return came from the folks at Old House Gardens, who have their own tip sheet for helping tulips come back. Others came from Janis Ruksans, who has been collecting, propagating, and breeding bulbs for decades. Brent and Becky’s gave me the good soil tip (which I ignored for many years). Still others are a combination of my own observation, research, and guesswork.

While I haven’t come up with the Definitive Home Method getting tulips to return, I have come up with a lot of things that will up your chances. Don’t be depressed by the length of the list; I don’t do all of the things on it, either. Bulbs are forgiving. Just taking heed of pointer #1 will give you ever-increasing returns on your tulips. Even in these hard times.

1. Buy the right varieties of tulip.

Older tulips were bred for gardeners. Newer ones (after about 1950) are bred for the cut-flower industry, which is more interested in instant results than lasting glory. But the category of tulip matters, too. Fosterianas, kauffmanias, greggis, and most so-called “species” tulips (they aren’t always) tend to repeat easily and reliably in the garden. Among these categories, some are more long-lasting than others. ‘Purissima’, ‘Sweetheart’, ‘Lady Jane’ and T. batalinii ‘Apricot Jewel’ have done well for me. (In an earlier post  I went into this in more detail.)

2. Leave tulip foliage on until it’s dead, dead, dead. And don’t tie it up, either.

For some reason, there’s a gardening tradition of cutting bulb foliage when it starts to go yellow. To me, this neatness smacks of overzealous housekeeping, but you don’t have to militate against tidiness to see that cutting foliage has a very bad effect on bulbs. Tying up foliage, often cited as an alternative, is equally bad; those leaves need sun. Which leads us to the next point.

3. Give tulips enough sun.

I learned this one the hard way. Sunlight on the foliage is what feeds it. And since the foliage feeds the bulb and the bulb makes the flower….this is starting to sound like a folk song, but you get the picture. My semi-shady garden has made me very aware that the more sun you give tulips, the better they return. Frances at Fairegarden  illustrates this with a story about her own tulips.

4. Don’t give tulips too much sun.

I learned this one the hard way, too. Hot weather can strike suddenly in spring, blasting tulip buds to tiny brown shriveled things, yellowing foliage before its time. Since the leaves make next year’s bulbs (this is beginning to be my theme song), foliage dead before its time usually means blind bulbs next spring.

5. Foliar feed tulips throughout the growing season.

I’ve been doing this for the last year for my tulips, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that suddenly, this year, I’m seeing blooms from several kinds of tulips I’ve had “incubating” for years as small bulbs in small pots. Janis Ruksans says that using foliar feed has vastly improved things in his bulb nursery, so I’m in good company. I use an organic foliar feed that promotes bloom, and I try to get it on my tulip foliage every two weeks until the leaves are gone. Every week would be better.

6. Calcium is great for tulips – as a foliar feed and in the ground.

Earlier, I posted my discovery  that Janis Ruksans, bulb hunter, propagator, and breeder, found that his small offset bulbs did far better when they were planted in rocky soil. Since he’s an experienced bulb worker, he had good drainage both places. The difference, in his opinion, was calcium. And, I think, probably other minerals. Photos of species bulbs show them in the rocky landscapes which create high-mineral soils. This is a clue to what bulbs need.

7. Ground feed tulips in fall and early spring.

Besides fertilizing with minerals spring and fall, I use an organic high-phosphorus fertilizer to give bulbs a boost. Fall fertilizing feeds bulbs as they wake from dormancy and start to send roots into the ground, seeking food; spring fertilizing (at least this is my theory) gives the foliage something extra to draw on as it feeds the bulbs for the following year. (Actually, I read up on some Experts, and found that they also believe in spring and fall fertilizing. Very gratifying.) In my own area, both feedings take advantage of seasonal rains to wash fertilizers into the soil, saving energy (mine) and water.

8. Split up tulip offsets and give them room to grow (separately).

Bulbs which are squashed together don’t have room to develop into maturity. They compete for turf and nutrients, like rats in a cage, and fail to thrive. If you’re getting a lot of blind bulbs, or the leaves are looking smaller and smaller, you need to dig them up when they’re dormant, split them apart, and give them living room. I generally use small pots for this, so I don’t lose track of tiny bulbs.

 

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These are the small leaves that show when your bulbs are too small to bloom. They’ve been split up into pots to grow out.

9. Don’t water tulips in summer.

Unlike many plants, tulips loathe water. They rot. They sulk. They don’t reproduce. This makes tulips the ultimate low-water plant, since water is at its most precious in hot weather. If you plant tulips in pots, shelter those pots from rain until it’s time to fertilize in fall. If you plant in the ground, put tulips in low-water areas with herbs and succulents. (For more detailed info on this, check out Old House Gardens instructions on keeping bulbs going.)

10. Don’t put tulips where they will have saturated, moist soil at any time – they rot.

This is a continuation of the previous point, but it bears saying. I once put some tulips in a spot where they would receive maximum winter water (under an overhanging roof where the rain ran like a little spout). I thought this would nourish them to a fine future. What it actually did was turn them to mush. Tulips may benefit from a little water during an early-spring hot spell, but they need drainage drainage drainage, all year round. (The one exception to this might be Tulipa sylvestris, but my jury’s still out on that.)

11. Plant them deeper.

Two reliable sources said 8 inches to a foot. Do be sure that there is plenty of nutritious and amended soil under the bulb, no matter how deep you plant it; it still needs to get nourishent through its roots, not its top. And remember that tulips need drainage. Since I plant in pots, I compromise at about 8 inches. Sylvia from England writes that she has been experimenting with this; she planted her West Points a foot deep, and promises to report on the results.

12. Use good soil.

One of my antique garden books says that tulips need good soil, but not rich soil. That’s what Brent and Becky’s advises, too (it used to be in their print catalogue, but I didn’t find it online). Most tulips originally come from rocky mountain soils, so obviously they can grow in poor soils as long as mineral content is high. Like many plants, though, even species tulips enjoy a loose soil with easily-available nutrients. The big flashy ones bred in the light, sandy soils of the Netherlands may sometimes survive in hard or poor soils, but they don’t thrive there.

13. Deadhead.

Once they bloom, plants put all their energy into making seeds. They want the next generation to survive. If you want the foliage to feed your bulbs and future flowers more than the seeds, pick the green seedpods off as soon as flowering is done. If you have lots of tulips, you might be able to bribe some kids into doing it for something good to eat.

Maybe you’ve had experiences that refute these pointers. Maybe you want to exand on the ideas I’ve listed. Maybe you know of some tulips that seem to come back more easily than others, or even better, you’ve come up with yet another way to get tulips to return. Won’t you share the knowledge? And if you’ve got more questions about this (I sure do), maybe we can all put our heads together and discuss it.

30 comments

1 Frances { 05.15.09 at 3:14 am }

Hi Pomona, such very good information, and thanks for including me as someone who knows anything about this topic! HA You are the go to woman for tulip info. I am putting Apricot on my list to buy, love the color and the species class, also Purissima as a fantastic white. I am a strong believer in the magic of bone meal, whenever I can think to throw it about, but spring and fall are best. It works for lilies too, which are getting ready to bloom now. I like to plant tulips and lilies together. The lily foliage hides the yellow tulip leaves as the spears arise. There seems to be no rivalry between them either.
Frances

2 tina { 05.15.09 at 3:51 am }

All excellent tips. I think key is to pick the right ones and you were so right to list it first. Therein lies the excellent education you have given us all!

3 Cyd { 05.15.09 at 6:00 am }

This has been very educational and fun to follow along. I always thought you just threw ‘em in the ground and voila. Now I have a new study of interest. It will be interesting to see if we all get better returns next year. Thank you for the wealth of information Pomona.

4 Steve { 05.15.09 at 7:41 am }

Fabulous advice, Mizz Pomona! I happen to know a few – not all – of those tricks and I can verify their applicability. Your posts are always so full of life and hard-won knowledge, I cannot tell you how much they are appreciated from this corner.

5 Daffodil Planter { 05.15.09 at 9:20 am }

I’d better print this out and frame it!

I assume these rules apply to daffodils as well? Curious what Pomona and others have to say about that.

6 Pomona Belvedere { 05.15.09 at 9:49 am }

Frances, I have mostly avoided bone meal as I have heard that, these days, most of the nutrition is processed out of it. Do you use something special, or have I been victim to a rumor? I’m interested to hear about the lily/tulip combo, and of course now I’m trying to figure it out: do the lilies suck up the excess water so tulips have drainage? is it a soil thing? Hm.

Tina, I’m glad you’ve gotten something out of this series, I’ve enjoyed your comments. The first tip is definitely the easiest one to follow!

Steve, it’s gratifying to have you back me up on these points, since I know you have experience with many, many landscapes. I certainly get an education from your blog, too.

DP, I reviewed my pointers to see if they all apply to daffs and I believe they do, although I understand jonquils like hard-baked clay (not sure if they’d like good soil better), and if there are any moisture-loving daffodils (Tenby?) you might have to alter things for them.

7 Pomona Belvedere { 05.15.09 at 9:52 am }

Cyd, I’m so sorry, my pageup obliterated you when I was checking for comments, now you get an answer of your very own. I’ve enjoyed having you along for the tulip ride and infecting you with my enthusiasms. It would be great to hear about your tulip experiments, if you’re willing to share.

That goes for any of you, I’d really like to collect data about tulip returns, so an email of your success or failure will get an avid reading from me.

8 Frances { 05.15.09 at 10:39 am }

Hi Pomona, you are so funny! About the bonemeal, it says organic on the label, if that means anything. I don’t use it on food crops, only Black Kow brand compost for edibles. The bone meal has helped, but I use whatever I have, any kind of fertilizer, general purpose little balls, slow release I guess, triple super phosphate until they took that off the market. The planting of tulips and lilies together accomplishes two things, the lily foliage hides the dying tulip foliage, they can be fed together, I don’t lose the tulips location because the lily stalk tip remains through the winter, I don’t cut it even with the ground. I guess that is three things. Knowing exactly where the tulips are keeps me from digging them up accidentally. To plant, I dig a deep hole, 10 inches or more, add bone meal and mix with soil, place the lily bulb, I like LA hybrids for this, a bamboo stake, soil, then the tulips around the edge of the hole, usually 5 per hole. I have some over six years old and the tulips, Silverstream, have returned every year and the lilies have made all kinds of babies all around. The lilies are LA hybrid Royal Fantasy, blooming machines! Soon to be featured once the buds open up. :-)
Frances

9 Pomona Belvedere { 05.15.09 at 11:57 am }

Thanks for sharing your tullp-and-lily planting method, Frances. I think I’ll give that a try and see if it works in my garden. I’ll have to research the bonemeal question, mostly I stick to organic high-phosphorus fertilizers, they probably accomplish similar things. Interesting about your Silverstream returns; I’m having excellent returns on Silverado this year. Maybe it’s a Silver thing.

10 lostlandscape(James) { 05.15.09 at 9:02 pm }

Pomona, selecting the right tulip seems key, as you suggest. The only tulip that ever came back was one of the warmer-growing species tulips that didn’t need to be refrigerated before planting. It was a delicate thing that required you to get down to its level to appreciate–Not anything that would have set off tulip-mania, but hey, still a tulip.

11 Monica the Garden Faerie { 05.16.09 at 9:49 am }

14. Do not live near groundhogs who eat your tulips before they bloom.

I can totally relate to being both poor and cheap for many years… not something I normally admit publicly (well, the being poor part which in many ways I’m not now but I was for about five years recently; I’m very much on record as being cheap!).

12 Monica the Garden Faerie { 05.16.09 at 9:54 am }

P.S. Not sure what country you’re in, but I enjoyed reading The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches by Jeff Yeager. Even heard him. The book won’t have too much shockingly new stuff for you as a long-time cheap person, but it’s a quick and amusing read. His blog is here: http://www.ultimatecheapskate.com/blog/.

13 Pomona Belvedere { 05.16.09 at 2:33 pm }

Hi Monica, you are right about #14; I get around that by planting in pots. In a previous post, I wrote about my novice experience growing tulips here – they got all but one out of a bed of 50! And most of the potatoes.

I enjoyed your post on Jeff Yeager and will check him out further. (By the way, I am in the U.S.; N California.) I do think the garden is a good place for us to ground ourselves and check where in this world we really want to put our time, energy, and money (Joe Dominguez says the definition of money is “life energy”). I get a lot better perspective on this when I hang out in the woods or garden than when I am madly rushing around trying to plan something according to some abstract schedule.

14 Pomona Belvedere { 05.16.09 at 2:42 pm }

I seem to be specializing in answering comments backwards lately. I’d be interested to know the name of that tulip, James, if you can remember it. Another list o’ information I’m collecting on tulips is those few varieties that don’t need chilling. (And actually, those smaller tulips were the main kind people grew until the late 1800s, so maybe your tulip did play its small part in tulipomania…)

15 Kris at Blithewold { 05.18.09 at 4:52 am }

Pomona, We treat tulips as annuals here and dig up everything but the species tulips that we’ve planted in the Rose and Rock gardens. We store the bulbs over the summer in paper bags (after letting the foliage die back completely) and then replant in autumn. We’ve kept some varieties going for a few years – Dordogne, Black Hero, Cistula… to name a few and they lose a little in the size of the bloom maybe but are otherwise good to go. Usually though, we keep them over for one year only (and then “throw them away” to live in volunteers’ and my gardens!)

16 Cyd { 05.18.09 at 8:41 am }

Lucky Kris!

17 Pomona Belvedere { 05.18.09 at 1:50 pm }

I think so too – and I thank her for sharing her list of what comes back easily for her, and the storage methods (pretty much what Old House Gardens recommends, it seems like). I have a few Black Heroes which have returned after about 3 years; I think it’s the foliar spray I started up last year.

18 Helen at Toronto Gardens { 05.22.09 at 7:27 pm }

Great stuff. I have a chronic squirrel problem with my tulips most years. They stay away occasionally just to taunt me into thinking they’ve gone. I’ll definitely try Frances’ lily trick. And foliar feeding — anything to counteract the sieve that is my sandy garden. Good for drainage, though.

19 ryan { 05.24.09 at 8:14 pm }

This is good info. I’m curious what zone you are in. There are some species tulips that will supposedly naturalize in our area, but we’ve’ve never tried them because we’ve been skeptical.

20 Pomona Belvedere { 05.25.09 at 8:29 am }

I’m interested in warm-weather tulips and daffs, as I’m collecting info on them.

I’m in zone 8, which apparently is borderline for tulips as bulb companies often try to persuade me to pre-chill my order; I have to explain that I’ve been successfully growing tulips here for many years without it.

Since we have a lot of microclimates, I’ll describe our chilling: winters are mostly in the 30s and 40s F; cold spells go into the 20s; very occasionally we have a cold snap at about 15F. Summers are 90ish, with drops into the 80s and at least two spells above 100F a summer, when everyone gets very tired.

21 Tulips NOW! | tulipsinthewoods.com { 10.27.09 at 7:24 pm }

[...] you’re feeling strapped for cash, be sure to check out “13 Ways to Get Your Tulips to Come Back”  before you order. The first item on the list is choosing the right varieties; some come back more [...]

22 Doug { 01.18.11 at 10:29 am }

I found your “13 Ways to Get Your Tulips to Come Back”
very helpful
Do you have thoughts on composting?

23 Donna { 05.11.11 at 9:56 pm }

I found this to be very informative and thanks. I do have a question though. My stupid grass mowing maintenance man mowed mine down before they bloomed, will they come back or do I need to replant!!!

24 susan { 03.19.12 at 3:00 pm }

I really need help. I planted tulips (don’t know what kind but they’re red) and daffodils in a heart shape for the first time in the fall of 2010. They came up together beautifully in 2011, but this year only the daffodils came up. The bed is on a slope but we did have about 175 inches of rain and snow in 2011 where I am in the northeast. Do you think the tulips are rotten?

25 ADetailedHouse { 09.18.12 at 7:47 am }

I am about to order a bunch of double bloom tulip bulbs for planting and writing a post on my blog about them, so this is such excellent information! I love the double blooms because they look like peonies :-) Thank you so much!

26 Paul { 10.14.12 at 11:37 am }

Good article. However there is one rule you didn’t mention – that is apsrt from species/botaniacal tulips, it is recommended that all other tulip types should be lifted once the foliage has died down and any offsets removed. The bulbs should be stored over the summer. Kaufmanianna and Greigii varieties may be left in the ground, but they are probably best stored as well. See http://apps.rhs.org.uk/advicesearch/Profile.aspx?pid=684 under “Encourage Re-flowering”

27 Diana { 04.11.13 at 11:07 am }

Pomona, I seriously can’t thank you enough for your wealth of information! (As a tulip novice, I was so disappointed to find my last year’s tulips came up this year all leaves, and the flowers that did produce came up in miniature.) I’m definitely printing your jewel of a list right now and plan to follow it closely in all future tulip endeavors. :)

28 neasha { 05.07.13 at 7:52 am }

coolthank you

29 Sam { 05.10.13 at 4:17 pm }

Great article! Thanks for sharing your experience. My entire neighbourhood (Tulip Street) planted over 10,000 bulbs this past fall and they’ve all come up beautifully this spring. We’re keen to see them again so we carefully chose from varieties (Emperors and Darwins) that are known to return. In my own experience, deadheading makes a big difference. The first year I planted tulips, I didn’t deadhead and got nothing but leaves the next season. I expanded my tulip bed the next year and the deadheaded plants are noticeably more numerous.

I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit more on your fertilizing regime. What strength of fertilizer do you use for foliar feeding? I had read on other sites that fall is the best time to fertilize, but it sounds like you’re fertilizing in both spring and fall. Any updates since this was first posted? Have you adapted your fertilizing regime? Thanks for your time.

30 Carmen { 06.02.14 at 3:14 am }

Thanks for the tips! I knew something was wrong when my tulips didn’t bloom like last year! I cut the foliage down too!!! Did I do permanent damage??????????

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