The arrival of colder weather means it's time to consider how to plant tulips ready for next spring. Choose your favourite bulbs and start planting them out in autumn if you want to be guaranteed a colourful display in spring.
With their glossy petals and vibrant colours, tulips give so much to the springtime garden. These wonderfully versatile plants are happy in pots and in the soil, and can be naturalised in the lawns and rockeries where dwarf species create a stunning canvas alongside snowdrops, narcissi and other spring delights. Tulips are planted later than other spring bulbs to reduce the risk of a fungal disease that can rot the bulbs.
From rippled raspberry pink to burnished orange or rich plum, tulips come in a vast array of colours and shapes. With a little know-how, they are inexpensive and easy to grow from bulbs, and they can transform a spring garden from drab to dramatic. The only problem will be choosing which ones you like best, as there are over 3,000 registered varieties!
Keep reading for our top tips on how to plant and grow tulips, then head to our guide to planting bulbs for more top tips on creating a beautiful seasonal display with a range of different flowers.
When is the best time to plant tulips?
You will see tulip bulbs on sale in supermarkets and garden centres from early September, but the best time to plant them out is in autumn or fall, in late October and November, or even December, which is later than many spring flowering bulbs. This is because a few hard frosts can help to guard against a disease called tulip fire (also known as tulip blight), which rots the bulbs and causes the leaves to develop a twisted, scorched look. There are no chemical controls for this, so if you’ve had this problem with previous tulip bulbs then don’t plant tulip bulbs in the same soil for at least three years.
Gardening expert Monty Don advises that he considers November as the ideal tulip-planting time, saying: 'This is, to my mind, the most important and best job of the month. It is actually something that can be done at any time between now and Christmas although the earlier they get into the ground the earlier they will flower.'
It’s absolutely fine to buy bulbs as soon as you see them each year (you don't want to miss out on the perfect buy after all), but it is worth holding back for a few weeks before putting them in the ground. Store them in a cool, dark place until you are ready to plant.
What are the best tulips to grow?
There are some 75 species of tulip and around 3,000 varieties so it can feel overwhelming to find the right ones for your garden. A good starting point is to buy flowers according to the style of your garden and your personality as there is a tulip to suit every taste and garden style.
Some tulips flower in early April and some are later to bloom in May, so it is worth checking the packaging to establish exactly when they will appear. Some tulips have small, upright flowers, there are double ones with a broader silhouette, and for extravagant frills and shot-silk colours, parrot tulips come into their own.
For a romantic cottage garden, go for the generous blooms of double- and peony-flowered tulips and the frilly parrot varieties. ‘Shirley’ is a soft blush pink/lilac with darker ripples, or go for the large flowers of ‘Bella Blush,’ which look effective planted in a mass. For a dramatic statement, ‘Queen of the Night’ with its dark purple/black petals looks super-stylish on its own, or it can be planted alongside a contrasting colour such as orange.
For a clean, modern look, go for cleaner more upright forms, such as the lily flowered and single-cup tulips. Try a pure white tulip, such as ‘White Triumphator’ which has slim, elegantly shaped petals. ‘White Mountain’ is a double cup-shape, whereas ‘White Dream’ has blooms in the shape of a bowl.
For a more exotic effect, go for bold brights or tulips that look like they have plucked from a jungle. ‘Attila Graffiti’ is a rich magenta torch while Tulipa acuminata looks alien and wonderful. For plots with a hot colour palette, ‘Ballerina’ is a beautiful slim orange flower on a tall stem. ‘Yellow Flight’ is a punchy yellow, and ‘Caribbean Parrot’ blends the two shades. Try ‘Orange Princess’ for peony-shaped flowers in two tones.
How to plant tulips in pots
Tulips do very well in containers with plenty of drainage holes in the bottom, and there is nothing like a bright display of them at the front of the house or on a patio before the rest of the garden has sprung into life. Tulips should be planted in multi-purpose compost with a couple of handfuls of horticultural grit, and some extra nutrients such as well-rotted manure (available in bags from garden centres). Or choose a loam-based peat-free compost, also with added grit, as this helps the soil to drain and prevents the bulbs from rotting.
Plant the bulbs twice their own depth, and around one bulb space apart (they should never be touching). A generously planted pot will create more impact. Sprinkle grit on top of the soil, as this will discourage slugs and boost drainage. If you have squirrels in your garden, add some netting until the tulips have sprouted. Dusting the soil with chilli flakes will also discourage mice and rats from nibbling the bulbs. If the weather is dry, water the pots until just moist.
How to plant tulips in the ground
Tulip bulbs are best planted in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun or light shade. They dislike heavy soil that is very wet as it encourages rotting, so if your soil is like this then dig in lots of well-rotted organic matter or coarse gravel before planting.
Tulips will thrive in borders and flowerbeds in both large and small spaces. It is best to plant in groups for impact, rather than dotting them around individually. Aim for at least six or seven, and more if you have the space to create a drift of colour. A bulb planter tool is useful if you are putting tulips into a grassy area. It works like an apple corer, removing a neat plug from the ground. Plant each bulb two to three times its own depth, 8cm apart, with the pointed side facing upwards. Cover with gritty soil.
If you're planning for them to be permanent rather than digging them up after they have flowered, Monty Don advises planting tulip bulbs as deep as you can. 'I’ll often use a crowbar to make a hole 12 inches or more deep – and the deeper they are the stronger and straighter the stem will be,' he says.
What do you do with tulips after they're done blooming?
When the tulips have finished flowering, leave the foliage to turn brown and die back for about six weeks. It may look messy, but this is when the bulb stores food and it makes it more likely that the tulips will come back with more flowers the following year. At this stage, some gardeners lift their bulbs and store them in a cool, dry place indoors for next season. Others, including expert grower Sarah Raven, leave them in the ground. Whichever method you prefer, the chances are that you will need to top up your tulip bulbs each year to ensure a fulsome display.
Keeping cut tulips in a vase
Although tulips make a pretty cut flower, they are prone to flopping. Trim the stems diagonally by 3-5cm and put them in water as quickly as you can after cutting from the garden. Keep them out of direct sunlight and away from radiators. If you want a ramrod straight stem, try wrapping the flowers tightly in a cone of newspaper. Leave in water overnight, and when unwrapped, they should stay upright.
7 tulips to try in your garden...
Ready to start planting your tulip bulbs? Here are some of our favourite varieties to try in your garden.
Perhaps the most feminine tulip you can grow, this is a perfect choice for a romantic cottage garden scheme. It is a soft pink, double-flowered variety that resembles a peony when it blooms in late April and May. Perfect for using at the front of borders or in containers.View Deal
This beautiful white tulip has graceful stems and long elegant petals that arch outward and upward. It prefers full sun in fertile, well-drained soil. View Deal
The unusual markings on this variety make it stand out from the crowd. The pale flowers are edged with darker ripples to add an extra layer of interest to your planting scheme. They will flower in April and May. View Deal
A good choice for contemporary schemes, this produces deep ruby-coloured goblets that glow crimson in the sun, injecting a border or containers with rich drama in April.View Deal
Go for this late-flowering variety to ensure you have plenty of colour throughout spring. With its dark purple/black petals it would make a dramatic addition to pots or flowerbeds. View Deal
Features orange flowers on a tall, slim stem. Has a strong scent once warmed in the sun. Would work well mixed in with the dark purple tones of Queen of the Night (above)View Deal
This award-winning tulip is a double variety and has peony-shaped flowers in two tones. It has rich orange petals with touches of garnet. A striking choice for your spring flowering scheme. View Deal