How to Care for Tulips
Tips for when they’re in the ground, potted, or displayed in a vase.
The start of spring means the abundance of beautiful blooms, especially colorful tulips that appear everywhere from gardens and parks, to florist shops and grocery stores. If you’re looking to take advantage of peak tulip season or want to get ahead for next year’s crop, take note of these guidelines, which include tips for caring for tulips in a vase, in a pot, and in the ground.
- Choose the Right Vase
“A good rule of thumb is to choose a vase that covers at least half the height of the tulip stems,” says Callie Bladow, production director at BloomThat. “Tulips love to stretch out and will typically grow upwards of two inches in height during their vase life—so it's best to let them stretch out in the vase and don't clump them on top of each other, which will reduce petal loss.”
- Cut Stems
Be mindful that tulips grow after they’re in the vase when you’re cutting the stems. Bladow suggests holding the bouquet to the side of the vase first before cutting to make sure the blooms are the exact length you prefer. “Cut them on a bias (a 45-degree angle)—this creates a ‘straw-like effect’ and allows the stems to soak up the fresh water,” she says.
- Provide Plenty of Water
“Tulips love water,” says Bladow. “Cold, fresh water is best. When you bring your tulips home and pick out your favorite vase, fill the vase up about three-quarters of the way, as tulips will drink a lot of water. We suggest changing the water every other day and giving the stems a fresh cut.” To keep your blooms happy, you can also add flower food, throw a penny at the bottom of the vase, or add lemon juice or half a teaspoon of regular cane sugar.
- Avoid Overexposure
Since tulips are “photosensitive,” meaning they grow and open based on sunlight, you should avoid placing the vase in direct sunlight or heat, as they’ll wilt faster once the blooms open up. “In order to achieve maximum vase life, you want to receive tulips at an ‘early’ cut stage or ‘closed’ stage,” says Bladow. “The tulips will have a limited vase life once they reach the ‘open’ stage.” A little bending at the stems is natural for tulips as they “stretch” towards the sunlight, but if the stem looks “floppy,” that’s not a good sign.
- Choose Other Flowers to Add Carefully
If you want to include other flowers in your arrangement, you should be mindful that tulips are very sensitive to other flowers. “Some common flowers that affect the tulip life cycle are daffodils or narcissus—they emit a substance that will make tulips wilt faster,” she says. “We include tulips in almost all of our floral arrangements with roses, kale, hydrangea, and never have issues.”
- Know When to Plant Them
“The best time for planting tulips depends mostly on where you live,” says Carmen Johnston, a garden lifestyle expert. “If you live up north you can begin planting as early as late September, but if you live down south it is better to wait until December. Just make sure to check your planting zone prior to planting—the general rule is to plant six to eight weeks before the ground freezes.”
- Know How to Plant Them
Johnston recommends using a drill with a bulb pit for easy planting. Dig a hole about three times the size of the tulip bulbs and plant them (pointed side up) six to eight inches deep and four to six inches apart. For the soil, make sure you place them in sandy, well-drained soil. And as for sun exposure, “If you have an area that gets a dose of morning sun with lots of afternoon shade, that is where your tulips will flourish,” Johnston says.
- Take Care of Them During the Off-Season
Johnston recommends two major tasks: covering your bulbs with one to two inches of mulch and fertilizing your perennial bulbs in the fall with a slow release bulb fertilizer. “The tulip is a pretty independent flower and its bulb takes care of most of its maintenance itself,” she says. “However, if you want to give your bulb an extra boost, try giving it a shot of liquid fertilizer three to four weeks after planting and then once again at the beginning of spring.”
- Go Light on Watering
And because tulips are low-maintenance, they rarely need water. Johnston suggests watering them once after planting (a good soaking) and then again when they first start to sprout green leaves.
- Clean Up When They Bloom
This is the exciting part: once they bloom, you can use them to create beautiful arrangements. “You want to cut at the base of the stem, leaving as much of the foliage on the plant,” Johnston says. “Then you want to immediately place it in water so that it can start hydrating.” If your tulips are annuals (and most of them are), meaning they only bloom once, throw out the bulbs when they’re dead. If you have perennial tulips, Johnston recommends cutting and disposing of the foliage once the plant has yellowed and leaving the bulb in the ground for the next year.
- Choose the Right Pot
“As far as planters or containers go, make sure yours has proper drainage,” Johnston says. “If your bulbs have to sit in water, they are more likely to rot. Avoid this by using bark to create extra drainage.” Place the bark at the bottom of the container, which will allow air to flow under the soil and prevent rotting.
- Plant and Give Them TLC
Since a grouping of tulips in a pot is more eye-catching than just a single flower, plant the bulbs as close to each other as you can—that’s at least an inch apart. “You can also incorporate a different type of bulb, such as a daffodil or a crocus, between your tulips as well,” she says For care, the method is the same as in-ground tulips: don’t overwater them, add a bit of fertilizer, and make sure they have the same amount of sun exposure. After they bloom, follow the same guidelines for cleanup of the bulbs and foliage.
- Be Mindful of Indoor Tulips
Johnston has two recommendations for indoor tulips: be careful not to overwater and keep them next to a sunny window.