Tulip care is (luckily for us) a fairly simple thing. This plant really isn’t bothered by any serious insect pests so we can pretty much forget about that. So what is it that you have to do to ensure you have great tulips from year to year?
Rule of Leaves
Grow the leaves, not the flowers. If you concentrate on making sure your gardening grows great leaves on your tulips, then those leaves will produce superior flowers year after year.
You do that by not cutting the leaves down, tying them up, or doing anything else to them until they turn yellow. Yellow leaves on your tulips are a sign that the bulbs have stored enough energy and are now ready to go dormant until next spring.
If you cut the leaves off before they go yellow, the bulbs will not get enough energy to produce a large flower. They may get enough energy to survive a winter and produce a smaller flower. And every time you cut the leaves off too early, you weaken the bulb so it either doesn’t produce flowers or it simply dies.
Allow the leaves to go yellow before cutting them back.
Rule of Watering Bulbs
Watering bulb gardens in the summer is a major cause of tulip death. You think you’re doing a good job of tulip care because everything needs water. Right? Wrong!
Tulips are genetically designed to grow on high mountain slopes where there is adequate spring water but absolutely no water during the summer months. They go dormant to preserve water inside the bulb and get ready for the following spring. When you water them, they rot.
So folks who plant annuals over top of bulbs and then water to keep the annuals flowering can expect this damp soil to rot out their tulips.
This is why many gardeners have a short-lived tulip bulb show. Too much water.
Rule of Feeding
Tulips don’t require yearly fertilizing. There isn’t too much plant food available up in the mountains on steep slopes and bulbs have developed so they do not require a lot of plant food.A feeding of compost over top of the bulbs in the spring and/or fall is all the average bulb requires. Some folks like to feed their bulbs bone meal thinking the phosphorus is good for bulbs and roots.
Given that phosphorus is relatively insoluble and relatively immobile in the soil, putting bone meal on the soil surface means it not only doesn’t break down but what does break down stays on the surface. Tulip roots are a good 8 inches below the surface so the fertilizer doesn’t get there.
Applying bone meal to the surface of the garden makes the gardener feel better (and the garden center that sold the product) but doesn’t really help the bulb. It’s a good feeling though.
And no. Do not put fertilizer down the planting hole. This only burns the roots and is a typical beginner gardening mistake. Trust me on this one, a feeding on the soil of compost in the spring is all the tulip care you need to do.
So that’s the deal. It may not have been what your average garden center wants to sell you but treating your bulbs with casual respect (allow the leaves to grow) and benign neglect (don’t water) will give you big healthy flowers for as long as possible.
Additional Information Readers Ask
The average hybrid tulip may flower well for 4-5 years if not watered at all.
And once a tulip stops blooming, it’s almost impossible in our garden settings to get it to rebloom again. (dig and toss it).