When to plant tulip bulbs

Tulips are the heart throbs of spring. Deck your garden out with beautifully blooming bulbs for a radiant display as the weather warms up. Not sure how to get started? Then read on for all our tulip top tips.

Why should I plant tulip bulbs?

Is spring even springing if you haven’t seen a tulip? The season’s dreamboats come in all sorts of colours and textures. You want ruffled? Gaudy? Romantic? Striped? There’s a tulip for you.

Livening up containers and pot gardens, terraces and patios and adding impact to balconies, beds and borders, tulip bulbs are well worth the investment. They’re easy to grow, relatively cheap and - when you’ve forgotten you planted them - they’re a welcome surprise in spring, adding splashes of spirit-raising colour as the season unfurls.

When to plant tulip bulbs

Plant your tulip bulbs in late October, November or December for a riot of blooms between March and May the following year.

In the UK, it’s fine to get tulips in the ground a tad later than other spring flowering bulbs. Colder weather helps to prevent a nasty fungal disease called tulip blight or tulip fire which rots the bulbs and causes the leaves to ‘scorch’ and twist.

If you plant your tulip bulbs very late, you will still end up with flowers, but they might be shorter than normal.

Where to grow tulips

Free-draining soil is the name of the game when it comes to tulip planting. Your bulbs will grow best in a sunny spot, but some will also cope with dappled shade.

​​If you’re planting tulip bulbs in the ground, avoid planting them in a spot where tulips have been for 2-3 years to keep that darned tulip blight at bay. Run out of space in the garden? Try growing tulip bulbs in pots and layering a few varieties together for a spring sensation.

How to plant tulip bulbs

Whether you plant your tulip bulbs in containers, in borders, as part of a cut flower bed or through a lawn, slip on a pair of gloves before planting as they can irritate your skin.

How to plant tulip bulbs in the ground

Plant 15 -20 tulip bulbs through a border for a memorable spring display…or throw a couple more packets in to go all out.

To make the job easier, a bulb planter is your best friend. Not only will it save time and effort, but it’ll help you plant all your bulbs at the same depth, guaranteeing a knockout show in spring.

1. For a naturalistic look, scatter the tulips bulbs in front of you and use a bulb planter to make a hole where each one falls.

2. Sprinkle some grit in the bottom of each hole and pop a bulb in, pointy end up.

3. When you use the bulb planter to make your next hole, the soil from the first hole will squeeze out of the top. Pick this up and use it to cover the bulb you just planted.

4. Continue until all your tulip bulbs are in the ground and then water them in.

If you don’t have a bulb planter, you could dig a larger hole or trench, about three times the depth of one tulip bulb. Add a thin layer of grit and place your bulbs on top, 5-15cm apart. Cover them with a mix of soil and gravel and give them some water.

How to plant tulip bulbs in pots

Tulips were made for container gardening. Just make sure your pots have good drainage and raise them on pot feet so the bulbs aren’t sitting in water.

1. Pick a deep pot with drainage holes in the base and add a few inches of peat-free compost mixed with a couple of handfuls of horticultural grit into the bottom. This will stop the bulbs from getting waterlogged and rotting.

2. Place your earliest flowering tulip bulbs on the surface, pointy side up. About five bulbs are enough for in a medium sized-pot. Make sure they’re around one bulb’s width apart and cover them with a thin layer of compost.

3. Lay down five bulbs of the next earliest flowering tulips and cover them up with more compost.

4. Plant the latest flowering bulbs on the top and add your final layer of compost before giving the whole lot a water.

Wondering how deep to plant tulip bulbs in pots? If you only want one variety of tulips per pot, fill your container with enough gritty compost so the bulbs will be buried at two to three times their depth. Place the bulbs on the surface, about one bulb’s width apart, then cover them up with a generous layer of compost and water them in.

How to look after tulips

Watering

Tulips don’t like too much water, which makes them super easy to look after. After you’ve watered your bulbs in, you’ll only need to water them if there’s been no rain for 4-5 days.

Pests

If your garden is a squirrel playground, you might want to net your tulips until the foliage appears to save the bulbs from being dug up.

Issues with slugs? Invest in copper tape or cover the surface of pots with gravel to make it harder for them to get to the banquet.

Deadheading

After your tulip blooms are past their best, deadhead them by snipping off the flowers, then stop watering and let the leaves turn yellow before cutting them back. This will help the plant concentrate its energy on the bulb and increase it’s chances of flowering for another year. Throw away the flowers to minimise the risk of tulip fire spores spreading to the soil.

Diseases

Tulip fire is a disease that makes foliage look shrivelled or discoloured. Dig out any bulbs that show signs of the disease and put the whole plant in the normal bin - it’s a total no-no for the compost heap.

How to store tulip bulbs

There are two schools of thought on what to do after your tulips die back. Some people dig them up and store them until autumn planting, swearing it leads to a better display the following year. Others don’t see the benefit in this and leave their bulbs in soil.

Many gardeners treat tulips in pots as annuals, using them once and then discarding them, before buying new bulbs later in the year. While they can be stored and replanted, the second year’s display isn’t often as spectacular but you can always stick them in a bed somewhere and take your chances.

If you’re going to dig up your bulbs to store them, trim the foliage, shake off the soil and give them a hose down. Leave them to dry before storing them in a tray or paper bag in a cool, dark and airy spot, like the shed.

Do tulips come back every year?

Most tulip bulbs are annuals (one-time bloomers), not perennials (which flower year after year), meaning they won’t grow so well on their second trip around the sun.

Some varieties will grow in their second or third year, but they’ll be a lot more unreliable and look less impressive, so you’ll likely want to buy new bulbs each autumn to revive your displays.

What to plant with tulips

Tulips look the part with other spring flowers. Instead of layering different varieties of tulips in the same pot, mix them up with other spring bulbs such as daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths to create a bulb lasagne and enjoy a rolling display of blooms for months on end.

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