Here at Floret we plant tens of thousands of tulips each year. There are a few different methods for growing these showy spring bloomers, depending on whether you simply want to add color to your spring landscape or harvest them in abundance as cut flowers. No matter how you plant them, be sure to pick a spot that gets full sun and doesn’t have any standing water, since really wet soils will encourage disease and rot.
In the garden, tulips make the most impact when planted en masse. For a real show, I recommend ditching the bulb planter, instead planting clumps of 10 bulbs. Simply dig out a generous circle of soil, about 6 inches (15 cm) deep, mix in a little organic bulb fertilizer and compost, and then plant your bulbs roughly three times as deep as they are tall. Tulips can be planted quite close, less than an inch (2.5 cm) from each other, similar to eggs in a carton. Once your bulbs are securely in place, water deeply and then refill the hole with the soil you removed earlier. Add a few inches of well-rotted compost on top to act as a mulch. Be sure to insert some type of stake so you remember where you planted them.
If your intention is to grow tulips solely for cutting, plant them in long rows or a wide trench. Because we live in the largest tulip producing valley in the United States, we grow the majority of our bulbs in trenches in the hoophouse to beat the local competition to market, since they will flower nearly a month earlier indoors. This indoor planting is followed by a smaller outdoor field planting, extending our harvest window to nearly 2 full months.
For the trench method, dig out a 3-foot-wide (90 cm) trench to a depth of 6 inches (15 cm), piling all the dirt to one side. Sprinkle in a light dusting of organic bulb fertilizer and rake it in, smoothing the bottom at the same time. Working with a partner, with one person on each side of the trench, set the bulbs in pointed side up, like eggs in a carton, close but not touching.
Once the bulbs are in, water them deeply, letting the drench fill at least half full with water, which encourages vigorous root growth, in turn producing even larger flowers. Backfill the trench, mulch the top with an inch or 2 (2.5 to 5 cm) of compost and lay down irrigation lines, watering deeply a few times throughout the winter. It’s really quite simple!
Tulips can also be grown in bulb crates and forced into flower during the winter months in a heated greenhouse. However, this technique requires prechilled bulbs and quite a bit of precision. To be honest, we’re still trying to master the art ourselves. Once I get it figured out, though, I’ll be sure to share our secrets.
Come spring, as the bulbs start to push up through the soil, it’s important to keep the beds weeded and also start watering more regularly. For the longest vase life, harvest when the buds are just beginning to color but before they have fully opened.
Here at Floret, we treat our tulips as annuals and actually pull the entire plant up, bulb and all, during harvest. This gives us maximum stem length, extended storage, and a long vase life. With the bulb attached, tulips can be stored dry for up to 1 month in the cooler because they are still connected to their food source. When it’s time to use them, cut off the bulb and place stems into water with flower food.
If you want to perennialize your tulips, it’s important to leave at least two sets of leaves on the stem when harvesting to replenish the bulb and give it energy to bloom the following season. Just note that blooms may be of lesser quality in subsequent years.
Tulips tend to curve a bit after harvest. To encourage upright stems, wrap the top two-thirds of the flower in a paper funnel and stand upright in water for a few hours. Tulips have a naturally long vase life, and many varieties can last up to a week and a half. Adding flower preservative also extends vase life.
Once fully hydrated, fresh-picked tulip stems continue to elongate for a few days, so if you’re making a bouquet or arrangement, be sure to tuck the flowers deeper than seems necessary, with this in mind.