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Red and white tulips
Spring flowering bulbs are one of the great joys of cooler-climate gardens, and there's one bulb that seems to have a unique allure – the tulip.

 

What you need to know about the tulip

Name: tulip (Tulipa varieties and cultivars)

Plant type: spring-flowering perennial herbaceous bulb

Height: to around 60cm in flower

Foliage: arising from the bulb in varying shapes and sizes. Most often a truncated sword-like shape clasping the flower stem base, green/silvery-grey in colour, and 15–30cm in length.

Climate: cool temperate and suitably cool areas in warm temperate zones.

Soil: good-quality, free-draining soil. Bulb or premium potting mix in pots.

Position: full sun or moderate shade. Must be protected from wind.

Flowering: goblet-like flowers in a multitude of colours and forms from late August to late October, depending on variety, planting time and location.

Feeding: feed with an organic product such as blood and bone at planting, apply a controlled-release fertiliser as leaves start to develop.

Watering: reliable moisture while actively growing, but never wet.

Growing tulips is easier than you think

There’s something about spring flowering bulbs. While much of the garden is still in a winter slumber, their flowers burst forth with incredible, contagious cheerfulness, helping to shake off the last of the winter blues.

There is no bulb that is quite as colourful, exotic and romantic as the tulip. Many gardeners put them in the too-hard basket, regarding them as difficult to grow, fussy and unreliable, but the fact is, if a few basic conditions are met, you’ll find them no harder to grow than a daffodil!

Appearance and characteristics of the tulip

The tulip is arguably the most cross-bred and hybridised of all of the traditional spring flowering bulbs—today there are thousands of recognised varieties. It’s also likely that it was the first ‘collectable’ plant, due to the enormous range of flower colours, patterns and forms. With the tulip, it’s all about the flowers.

The flowers are held on very long (up to 65cm), smooth stems. The best description of a ‘typical’ tulip is that the flower is goblet-shaped when young, becoming more cup-like in shape as it ages.

The colour range is nothing short of mind-boggling—the only colour you won't find is blue. You will find just about every solid and pastel colour, as well as wild patterns that combine colours in spectacular streaks and “flames”’. Interestingly, these patterned forms get their appearance as a side-effect of a type of tulip-specific virus called “Tulip Breaking virus”. There are even flower varieties described as “black”.

The foliage is quite attractive, too. It arises before the flower and is often a greeny-silver. The leaves are variable, but are often shaped a little like a sword blade, and slightly cupped.

Some bulbs are quite adaptable to different situations and climates. The most notable are the narcissus group, daffodils and jonquils, and the freesias.

These bulbs can be naturalised, which means they can be planted and left undisturbed, even in warmer areas, and they will flower every year, often forming large clumps or drifts. All you need to do is feed them at the start of the season and then remove foliage as it dies back. It is important to leave the foliage until it totally browns off, as the bulb needs to store energy for next year. Given the right conditions, tulips can be naturalised too.

Close up of a tulip plant

Uses for the tulip

The tulip is grown for a variety of uses, including:

  • Spring flowering display
  • Planting under deciduous trees
  • Cottage and perennial gardens
  • Potted displays
  • Can be naturalised in cooler climates

How to plant and grow tulips

Preferred conditions for planting tulips

  • Sunlight: choose a sunny to partially shaded position. Protection from heat and intense sun will be needed in warmer zones.
  • Aspect: must be protected from strong winds.
  • Temperature: the tulip is a cool-climate bulb that needs a definite cool to cold winter and a mild spring for repeat performance.
  • Soil: good quality, providing reliable moisture, and must be free-draining.
  • Water: reliable moisture is required during all growing stages; keep drier across winter if naturalised.

Tulips can be grown even in warm zones as “one shots”. This is because quality purchased bulbs are grown to be pre-primed with a flower ready to go. They’ll flower once, but they won’t be able to go through the cycle required to flower again, so treat them like an annual plant.

Follow all the steps recommended for chilling and planting, just plant them at the deepest recommended depth, and make sure you select a spot that’s protected from heat or harsh sun.

Planting tips

  • The rough rule of thumb is to plant your tulips around Mother’s Day (2nd Sunday in May), once the soil cools down.
  • If you’re in a warmer zone, put your bulbs in a paper bag in the crisper section of the fridge for around six weeks prior to planting. This mimics a cool season, and triggers growth.
  • If bulbs are to be naturalised, choose a spot that will be shaded and cool across summer, such as under a deciduous tree.
  • Don’t just open up the soil in the planting hole; turn over the soil in the entire bed the tulips will be planted in.
  • Add well-composted manure or compost, and some blood and bone or similar.
  • Plant bulbs at least twice as deep as their height; three times deeper is best.
  • Water sparingly until growth starts.
  • Feed with a controlled-release fertiliser as soon as growth commences.

Caring for tulips

Tulips are quite maintenance-free once planted and growing. However, they will benefit from occasional applications of a liquid seaweed or organically-fortified product.

If bulbs are to be naturalised or lifted for replanting next season, it’s very important that the foliage be allowed to completely finish its cycle. This means leaving it on until it dies right back. In this period of its growth cycle, the bulb is storing energy for next year’s flowering season, so if foliage is removed too early or becomes too shaded, then flowering will likely skip a year.

Naturalising

Tulips will naturalise well in regions that have mild spring conditions and cool to cold winters. To naturalise, they must be planted in a spot that receives summer shade and heat protection. Adding a thick layer of mulch once the foliage has died back can be worthwhile.

Prune foliage back once it has become papery and brittle.

Lifting

If your area isn’t right for naturalising or if you have been growing pots then you can lift and save your bulbs for next season.

  • Once the foliage has died back, gently dig the bulbs up. Spread them out on a board or mesh sheet and place them somewhere cool and dry.
  • Once the foliage becomes paper-like and totally dry, prune it off. The bulbs can then be stored.
  • Store them in something like a paper bag or recycled orange bag somewhere cool, dry and out of sunlight.
  • Around April Fool’s day remember to pop them in the fridge for six weeks to chill before planting.

Diseases and pests

Tulips are not prone to many diseases or pests, but keep an eye out for the following:

  • Aphids may attack new growth shoots; these are easily treated.
  • Bulbs may rot if soil is too wet.

Tulip propagation

Tulip bulbs will generally be purchased, not propagated. The exception to this is naturalised bulbs.

As bulbs grow they produce offsets, or daughter bulbs. If bulbs have been naturalised, after a few years they can be lifted while dormant and the off-sets can be removed for replanting.

Tulips regenerate and the original mother bulbs die every year. If you lift a clump in autumn, a withered mother bulb should be visible. This will have been replaced by a new central daughter bulb, off which will be further offsets.

The offsets that can be removed will be larger and easily removed.

These offsets are best planted in pots to begin growth, and will not flower for at least two years. The new central bulb with younger offsets still attached can be immediately replanted or stored.

If you like this then try

Daffodil: the perfect addition to your spring flowering bulb collection.

Apple tree: with winter sun and summer shade, the space beneath an apple tree is perfect for bulb growing.

Pansies: fill the gaps between your bulbs with cheery, winter flowering pansies and violas.

Start planting today

Check out our huge range of plants now and get your garden growing!

 

More D.I.Y. Advice

Health & Safety

Please make sure you use all equipment appropriately and safely when following the advice in these D.I.Y. videos. You need to be familiar with how to use equipment safely and follow the instructions that came with the equipment. If you are unsure, you may feel it is safest to consult an expert, such as the manufacturer or an expert Bunnings Team Member.

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