Gardens

How to plant tulip bulbs

If you’ve not done so before, now is the perfect time to learn how to plant tulip bulbs

tulips
(Image credit: Michelle Garrett)

Right now is spring bulb planting season, so finding out how to plant tulip bulbs might be at the top of your gardening chores list for this weekend. Tulips, like other flowering bulbs, need to be planted in fall or when the outside/soil temperatures are at 60ºF or colder; this gives their roots time to develop for spring during the cold weather. 

Whether you are planting tulip bulbs as flower bed ideas, in containers or even hanging baskets, you are guaranteed plenty of spring color. Tulips come in a range of beautiful colors, shapes, flower sizes and heights; some flower early, others later, so do check when you buy so that you can have a continuous display. 

‘Tulips are my favorite spring bulb – I love their big statement colors, their interesting shapes and the life they bring to borders and containers,’ says gardening expert and author Sarah Raven.

‘They have not lost their power over people,’ agrees Anne Olivieri, whose vibrant and intricate 6,000-strong tulip display draws visitors to the UK’s annual Tulip Festival, held in the gardens of her home, Morton Hall. ‘Tulips are versatile and scalable, anyone can grow them – in pots, or parklands, town or country, but density is key.’

Below, we take you through how to plant tulip bulbs, when to plant tulips –  and where to plant tulips in an easy to follow guide.

How to plant tulip bulbs

Tulips do best in a well-drained, neutral to alkaline soil; you can of course improve soil health and conditions in borders with compost or leaf mould; if your soil is acidic you will want to add lime for best results. If you're not sure, you can find out how to test the pH of soil with our beginner's guide. 

  • Tulip bulbs should be planted around three times deeper than the height of each individual bulb. If not planted deep enough, they may suffer in really cold – or unseasonably warm – weather. For most tulip bulbs, the hole depth will need to be around 5 to 7in. If you live in a really cold zone, you may want to plant them a little deeper.
  • ‘To help you plant your tulips more easily, you can use a traditional bulb planter. If you're planting through herbaceous plants and shrubs or through grass, a bulb planter is brilliant – it’s like a massive apple corer and when you press it into the ground it cuts out a core of soil,’ says Sarah Raven.
  • Place each tulip bulb carefully in its hole, pointed end facing upwards, blunt end downwards.
  • ‘Pop a little bit of spent compost or grit into the bottom of the hole, add the tulip bulb and backfill with grit and compost just like you would in the trench,’ continues Sarah.
  • Space tulips around 4 to 5in – or twice their width – apart so they do not compete with each other for the soil’s nutrients.
  • Cover the bulbs back over with soil and press the soil back into the hole firmly.
  • Water the planted bulb and step away.

How to plant tulip bulbs in pots

tulips alongside a path

(Image credit: Future/Leigh Clapp)

If you don’t have perfect soil conditions in your borders – or you simply want to plant tulips in pots near the house – you can create the perfect environment in containers. Planting in tulips in pots is also a great opportunity to create a bulb lasagna – whereby layers of bulbs that flower at different times can provide a prolonged display in spring.

Gardening expert Monty Don promotes 'a tulip lasagne, with an earlier variety such as "Orange Emperor" planted deepest that will flower first, followed by a mid-season variety like "Negrita" planted above it and then finally, in the top layer a late-season one such as "Queen of Night"' in his blog.

‘If you’re short of space, cover the bulbs with soil and then add a second layer of bulbs before filling in the hole. There is still enough soil above the bulbs to allow you to overplant the tulips without damaging them,’ advises Sarah Raven.

  • Fill a well-draining container with loose soil – you can add some organic matter to loosen the soil if necessary. It’s important that bulbs do not sit in boggy soil.
  • Place each tulip bulb carefully in its hole, pointed end facing upwards, blunt end downwards.
  • Bulbs will be closer together than in borders – just ensure they don’t touch each other.
  • Water once and leave until spring. 

One thing to bear in mind if you plant tulip bulbs in pots: if you live in hardiness zones 3-7 or are expecting unusually cold or warm temperatures, you will need to move your containers into an outhouse or garage, greenhouse or sunroom – anywhere cool (no warmer than 60ºF), ventilated and dark.

When to plant tulips

Tulips should be planted in fall to bloom in spring. In southern states or warmer zones, this will be October or as late as November; in northern states or cooler zones, in September to October.

You can plant outside of these months – but you should wait until the soil temperature is 60ºF or lower; otherwise the tulip bulbs will not thrive.

‘The cold temperatures help to wipe out viral and fungal diseases that lurk in the soil and which may infect the bulbs. Planting late is a traditional means of disease protection,’ says Sarah Raven.

Where to plant tulip bulbs

tulips

(Image credit: Britta Pedersen/DPA/PA Images)

Tulips bulbs generally like full sun or partial shade – although different tulips have different preferences, so do check when buying the bulbs. ‘The whites and pale colors work particularly well in shade, glowing out from dimly lit corners,’ says Sarah Raven. 

While some tulips don’t mind shade and a damp soil – perhaps under a tree – many prefer free-draining compost in a sunny spot – think: exposed rock gardens. 

As a rule, though, tulip bulbs do not like sitting in wet soil, which will cause them to rot. This might mean that you need to improve soil conditions with organic matter – and when planting tulips in pots, ensure that the pots drain freely or your bulbs will not thrive.

‘If you garden on heavy soil, cover the base with 2in of washed sharp sand, horticultural grit, or spent compost. You can also add a handful of bone meal to encourage formation of next year’s flowers and mix it into the soil/grit at the base of the hole or trench,’ says Sarah Raven.

Tulips

(Image credit: Getty Images)

In a sunny border, create ample space for tulips to flow in between existing perennials and herbaceous plants. Set out and repeat bulbs in their planting positions, in loosely grouped drifts of five to six. Intermingle a few bulbs where heights transition, avoid straight lines and isolated groups. 

As well as using the odd tulip for landscaping ideas around trees, for container gardening ideas and for borders or rock gardens, consider mass planting tulips for swathes of color. You can, of course, mix up the tulip colors if you want to embrace cottage garden ideas, but you can also group tulips of the same colors to create an impactful garden color scheme.  

If you are planning a cut flower garden, tulips are perfect, too. Again, you will need to mass plant them, putting the bulbs close together but not touching. These will grow best in a trench that you water well after planting and a few times throughout the winter. 

‘You can plant tulips in your borders individually or in small groups amongst existing perennials, but if you are planting a lot of bulbs, it may be easier to dig out a trench or hole about 8in deep,’ says Sarah Raven.

How to store tulip bulbs

tulip bulbs

(Image credit: Getty Images)

We always over-buy bulbs, so if you need to store tulip bulbs, even for a short time, it’s really important to do so properly – otherwise they could die. This means taking them out of any plastic or airtight containers and storing them in a cool (40 to 70ºF), ventilated, and dry space. 

How to care for tulips

tulips in a garden

(Image credit: Future)

After you have planted your tulips, water them well, but just once, and then only every now and then in spring, if it hasn’t rained for a few days – ensuring the soil isn’t allowed to become boggy. 

You can apply a general fertilizer as the first green shoots appear above ground. 

After tulips have flowered, leave the dead flowerheads and leaves to die back and yellow, then remove it. Following this process will allow the tulip bulbs get maximum nutrients from the leaves, ensuring healthy growth for next spring.

What is the best month to plant tulip bulbs?

Tulip bulbs can be planted in September (zones 3 to 5) through to October and November (zones 6 to 7), and December (zones 8 to 9).

However, watch the soil temperature: the soil needs to be 60ºF or colder for tulip bulbs to thrive.

How deep should tulip bulbs be planted?

Tulip bulbs should be planted between 5 and 7in deep (or around three times the height of the tulip bulb) in most climates, but 7 to 8in in particularly cold zones. ‘I prefer planting tulip bulbs much deeper. If planted deeply, tulips are less likely to try to reproduce and are more likely to flower for year after year,’ advises gardening expert Sarah Raven.

Ensure tulips don’t touch – ideally they might be 4 to 5in apart, or twice their width.

Melanie Griffiths
Melanie Griffiths

As editor of Period Living, Britain's best-selling period homes magazine, I love the charm of older properties. I live in a rural village just outside the Cotswolds, so am lucky to be surrounded by beautiful homes and countryside, where I enjoy exploring. I am passionate about characterful interiors and heritage-inspired designs, but I am equally fascinated by a house's architectural elements – if I spot an elegant original sash window or intricate stained-glass front door, it fills my heart with joy. It's so important to me that original features are maintained and preserved for future generations to enjoy. My other passion is my garden, and I am slowly building up my planting knowledge, and becoming more confident at experimenting with growing my own. As well as editing Period Living, I am also co-editing the Country Channel of Homes & Gardens. In my previous roles, I have worked on Real Homes and Homebuilding & Renovating, writing about modern design and architecture, so my experience is broad – but my heart belongs to period homes.