How to plant tulip bulbs

Ever since ‘tulip mania’ first swept the gardens of Europe in the mid-17th century, tulips have been a regular feature in UK gardens. It’s not difficult to see what makes them so popular – coming in all kinds of sizes and colours, it’s possible to have tulips in bloom from late winter until late spring.

When to plant tulip bulbs

It’s a good idea to wait until all your other spring bulbs are in before tackling tulips. Late October to early November is an ideal planting time; any earlier and the leaves of tulips may be susceptible to frost damage and to the fungal disease, tulip fire.

White tulips growing in the garden
White tulips

Where to plant tulip bulbs

Most tulips need warm, dry conditions while they are dormant. So it’s a good idea to plant tulip bulbs in the sunniest spot you can find in the garden. Not only does this help tulips reach their maximum height and flower size, but it also improves the chances of repeat flowering in future years.

Tulips will grow best in fertile, well-drained soil. Add plenty of well-rotted organic matter if planting in shallow sandy soils, or horticultural coarse grit if your soil is heavy clay. 

How deep to plant tulip bulbs

Tulip bulbs should be planted deeper than other spring bulbs to avoid the young buds dying in frozen ground. Try not to remove the brown skin covering the bulbs when planting as this helps protect them from damage and disease.

The bulbs should be planted so that their tops are covered by around 13-20 cm (5-8 inches) of soil. Aim for the shallow end of the range when gardening on heavy clay soil and the deep end when gardening on light sandy soil. Leave about 5 cm between each bulb. You can use a traditional bulb planter to help plant your tulips faster and more easily. There is no need to water tulip bulbs after planting.

What to do with tulip bulbs after flowering

It’s a good idea to deadhead tulips after flowering to stop them from setting seed. This ensures all the energy goes back into the bulb for next year’s flowers.

One of the worst things you can do is remove tulip foliage before it’s had a chance to die back naturally. The leaves are like a power plant producing energy for next year’s flowers. Removing the leaves means the bulbs won’t have a chance to store food for next year and you won’t have any flowers.

It's fine to lift tulip bulbs after flowering to make way for other plants. Heel them in on some open, sunny ground, keeping them well watered. Feed the plants every two weeks with a general liquid fertiliser until the leaves start to turn yellow and die back. Once the foliage fades, you can carefully lift the bulbs, dry and then store them in a cool, dry place until you're ready to plant them again next autumn.