Spring is the season for tulips – a well-loved bulbous plant with flowers that range from frilly and vibrant to slender and demure. But what should you do once the blooms have faded? Are the bulbs destined to be discarded, or can they be coaxed into flowering a second, even third time, when spring rolls around next year?
If you've planted these upright beauties in your yard, you'll be pleased to know that there is a good chance that they will bloom for you again, with the right conditions. They are perennials, after all – but unlike with some spring-flowering bulbs, it's not always as straightforward as simply leaving them in the ground.
'Some bulbs, such as tulips and hyacinths, do better if lifted and then stored dry, ready for re-planting next fall,' says the Amateur Gardening magazine experts. It's easy once you know how, and a great way to reduce the amount you spend on new bulbs each year.
A former professional gardener, Holly now spends her days writing about plants and outdoor living for Homes and Gardens and caring for her large collection of houseplants. Tulips are one of her all-time favorite flowers and, in spring, took centerstage in the cutting garden she grew on her allotment.
What should you do with tulips once they've finished flowering?
If you've grown tulips in your spring flower beds and they've started to go over, the first thing you can do is deadhead the spent blooms. This will neaten up the appearance and prevent the tulip from putting its energy into creating seeds. Leave the foliage intact though while it's still green – this is important as it will still be gathering nutrients to 'feed' the bulb.
When the leaves have turned yellow and died back, grab a garden fork or hand trowel and gently ease the bulbs out of the ground. Cut off the dead leaves and brush the soil from the bulbs, then remove any that are showing signs of damage or rot and discard them. Lay the healthy bulbs out to dry, then put them into labeled trays, paper bags, or nets, somewhere that's dry, sheltered from sunlight, and around 65-68˚F.
Check on them periodically while they're in storage and remove any that have started to decay to prevent the problem from spreading. In the fall, you can separate them if needed and replant them, again discarding any that don't look or feel healthy.
Bear in mind that storing your tulips isn't a failsafe path to success. It's often worth planting a few new bulbs, too, especially in more prominent locations in your yard.
John has been a garden journalist for over 50 years and regularly answers readers' questions in Amateur Gardening magazine. He has also written four books and has delivered many talks over the years on horticulture.
Top tip: John Negus suggests fortnightly feeding your tulips with a high-potash liquid tomato fertilizer during their growing cycle. Along with allowing the leaves to die back naturally, this will increase the chances of the bulbs flowering a second year.
What about potted tulips? Can you lift and store these bulbs, too?
Containers provide a more challenging environment for tulips to grow. The likelihood of them re-flowering is lesser than those planted in borders, so many gardeners treat the bulbs as annuals and simply discard them when the flowers have finished.
However, there's no harm in giving the lift-and-store technique a go. You may be pleasantly surprised. If you don't want to risk disappointment, plant fresh bulbs in the fall – as there are so many varieties to choose from, it's a good opportunity to try something new.
What happens if you just leave tulip bulbs in the ground?
In most instances, leaving tulips in situ is unlikely to lead to a spectacular show in your spring garden next year. You may get a few bloomers, but the chances are much better if you lift and store them over the summer.
The likelihood of success can depend somewhat on the variety of tulip, however. Some, such as dwarf tulips and triumph tulips, are better at performing again, and can even spread to produce clumps of plants, otherwise known as naturalizing. Avoid watering them over summer to increase the chances.
I am waiting for the foliage to die back on my tulips, but it is spoiling the look of the flower beds – what can I do?
'Ideally, it is best to leave bulbs to finish the growing season in situ, but they do take up a lot of space for a long time and this can delay all the summer planting,' says John Negus of Amateur Gardening magazine. 'The next best thing is to lift them and heel them in somewhere to wait for the foliage to die down naturally.'
Water them first, and lift them with as much soil as possible into a sunny 'reserve' bed, he says. Keep them here until the leaves have died back – at this point, you can lift them for storage, as above.
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The garden was always a big part of Holly's life growing up, as was the surrounding New Forest where she lived. Her appreciation for the great outdoors has only grown since then; over the years, she's been an allotment keeper, a professional gardener, and a botanical illustrator. Having worked for Gardeningetc.com for two years, Holly now regularly writes about plants and outdoor living for Homes & Gardens.
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