How to Care for Tulips

Follow these tips when they're in the ground, potted, or displayed in a vase.

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Purple Tulips
Photo: OlgaMiltsova/Getty Images

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 for caring for tulips in a vase, in a pot, and in the ground.

Tulip Bouquets

1. 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, a former production director at BloomThat, an on-demand flower service (which was acquired by FTD florists in 2018). "Tulips love to stretch out and will typically grow upwards of 2 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."

2. Cut the stems at a 45-degree angle.

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.

3. 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 it about three-quarters of the way, as tulips 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, or add lemon juice or half a teaspoon of regular cane sugar.

4. Avoid overexposure to sunlight.

Since tulips are "photosensitive," meaning they grow and open based on sunlight, avoid placing the vase in direct sunlight or heat, as they'll wilt faster once the blooms open up. "To achieve maximum vase life, buy 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 the stem shouldn't look "floppy."

5. Be selective when adding other flowers.

If you want to include other flowers in your arrangement, 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 never have issues when we include tulips in our floral arrangements with roses, kale, and hydrangea."

Tulips in Flower Beds

1. Plant them in the fall or winter.

"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 down south it is better to wait until December. Check your planting zone prior to planting—the general rule is to plant six to eight weeks before the ground freezes."

2. Dig the right size hole and plant.

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) 6 to 8 inches deep and 4 to 6 inches apart. Place them in sandy, well-drained soil. And "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.

3. Cover with mulch during the off-season.

Johnston recommends covering your bulbs with 1 to 2 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."

4. Go light on watering.

Tulips rarely need water. Johnston suggests one good soaking after planting and then again when they first start to sprout green leaves.

5. Clean up when they bloom.

This is the exciting part: Once tulips 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 as you can," Johnston says. "Then 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.

Potted Tulips

1. Choose the right pot.

"Make sure your planter or container 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.

2. Plant the bulbs an inch apart then fertilize.

Since a grouping of tulips in a pot is more eye-catching than 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 to clean up the bulbs and foliage.

3. Don't overwater and provide adequate sunlight.

Johnston has two recommendations for indoor tulips: Be careful not to overwater and keep them next to a sunny window.

For tulip arrangement ideas, try these expertly-crafted bouquets.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are tulips perennials or annuals?

    Outdoor tulips are usually perennial flowers, meaning they should return year after year. On the other hand, indoor tulips usually won’t bloom again (even if you plant them in your garden after flowering). Annual indoor tulips have been stressed in the pot, and people typically throw these away after the first blooming cycle. Some may try to replant these bulbs with limited success. 

  • When do tulips bloom?

    Tulips are one of the first signs of spring. While most bloom times vary by the variety, location, and weather, you can expect tulip blooms sometime between March and May. Layer your garden with tulip types that bloom in early, mid, and late spring, so you have color all season.

  • What do you do with tulips after they've bloomed?

    For tulips in your garden bed, snip away the flower head after it starts to wilt. However, leave all the foliage intact and allow it to fade slowly. The leaves provide energy to the bulb, which helps the bulb survive the rest of the year. Once the leaves and stems are entirely dead, cut them down to ground level. In most cases, you can leave the bulbs in the ground. 

    For indoor tulips, snip away the fading flower, transfer the remaining greenery to a sunny window, and continue to water the plant. Enjoy the leaves until they, too, start to fade. Eventually, the plant will begin to yellow. At this point, slowly stop watering the plant and discard it from the pot once it dies. In rare cases, you can remove the tulip bulbs and get them to rebloom.

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