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Home & garden.

18 October 2021

How to grow tulips

Spring wouldn't be the same without tulips. Discover our best tulip varieties and tips for how to grow them.
CT
Ceri Thomas
Tulips

Tulips are one of the most glamorous plants in the spring garden. They grow well in both pots and borders, and the bulbs should be planted in autumn.

Which? Gardening magazine grew a range of popular varieties to see which would give us the best display.


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Key facts

Plant type Spring-flowering bulbs

Position Full sun or partial shade

Soil Well-drained soil

How to grow tulips: month by month

JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJune


FLOWERINGFLOWERINGFLOWERING
JulyAugustSeptemberOctoberNovemberDecember




PLANTPLANT

Best tulip varieties

Which members can log in now to see the full results and which are our Best Buy varieties. If you're not a member, join Which? to get instant access.

Best Buy tulips for pots
What it looks likeVariety nameHeight 
25cm
This was a very elegant tulip with delightfully simple, single flowers of pure white. They all came into bloom in perfect unison, presenting their flowers at almost exactly the same height, and gave a very striking display. They continued to bloom immaculately for the next four weeks through some very warm spring weather which caused other varieties to quickly go past their best. We thought these were particularly beautiful and refined tulips. Peak flowering: Apr-May
What it looks likeVariety nameHeight
30cm
The big, double blooms of this variety put on a great show. All the plants were very healthy, with thick and strong stems which provided the necessary scaffolding to hold their large flowers steady, even in strong winds. The flowers all opened in perfect synchronisation to ensure they gave maximum impact and they lasted for four weeks from mid-April. Their bright-pink colour faded slightly as they aged, but this just added to their charm.  Peak flowering: Apr-May
What it looks likeVariety nameHeight
Best Buys double tulips
What it looks likeVariety nameHeight
30cm
This AGM tulip stood out in our trial border for its flame-orange petals marked with deeper-hued midribs. The cup-shaped blooms were held on short, stocky stems and contrasted beautifully with the glaucous blue foliage. The bulbs left for a year didn’t reflower well – only five flowers on 12 plants – but the multiheaded nature of the freshly planted set, which gave us 48 flowers from 30 bulbs, earned this variety a Best Buy. The flowers were untroubled by rain and strong winds, too.  Peak flowering:  Late Apr to mid-May 
What it looks likeVariety nameHeight 
40cm
This was one of the first varieties on test to produce a full display – its first flowers opening in late March and reaching a crescendo in mid-April. The velvety purple blooms, taller than many we grew, gave us a colourful show for seven weeks. The second-year bulbs produced nine flowers on 20 plants, while the fresh set gave us a full show of 9cm-diameter flowers that widened as they aged, with 30 bulbs producing 30 blooms. The flowers had a subtle fragrance reminiscent of root beer. Peak flowering: Mid-Apr to mid-May
What it looks likeVariety nameHeight

How we test tulips

We planted the bulbs in our trial grounds in November. As they came into flower in the spring, we kept records of how long they were in flower, noting whether all the plants of the same variety flowered at a similar time and height. We kept an eye out for any problems caused by pests, diseases or the weather. For the tulips for pots, we also assessed the plants’ suitability for pots, looking especially at the length and thickness of their stems.

Double tulips - annual or perennial?

It’s tempting to leave tulips in the ground or their pots in the hope that they will grow and flower again the following year. And while this can be true of some tulips, we found it wasn’t the case with most of these showy double varieties. The display was less impressive for all those we grew in the set of bulbs left in the ground to reflower. Only a handful of varieties – ‘Aveyron’, ‘Blue Diamond’, ‘Crème Upstar’, ‘Hermitage Double’, ‘Margarita’ and ‘Sun Lover’ – came back with a decent number of blooms, so it’s probably best to think of double tulips as annuals and plant fresh bulbs each autumn.

Our verdict: Double tulips are best treated as annuals; buy fresh bulbs each autumn.

Planting

Plant tulip bulbs in a sunny sheltered spot, at three times their own depth, spacing them 10-20cm apart. 

Wait until November to plant them to avoid the fungal disease tulip fire

If growing in pots, add a controlled-release fertiliser to the compost and plant bulbs in layers to boost the display.

Caring for your plants

How to get tulips to reflower

Tulips are a spring favourite, but have a reputation for being unreliable when it comes to getting them to flower more than once. Some seem to return each year, but others simply disappear, leaving you with gaps in your display. It can happen even if you plant them in pots, with flowering becoming  weaker each year or stopping completely. It’s expensive to buy fresh bulbs every year, so we wanted to know if there are any planting strategies we could adopt to get them to reflower reliably.

For most tulips, planting the bulbs deeply (around 15cm deep) and leaving them in the ground gives the best results. 

But if you can’t avoid lifting them, then don’t bother planting them too deeply– they will be just as happy shallow planted and then replanted the following autumn. 

Parrot tulips don’t like being left in the ground at all, and shallow planting and lifting this type of tulip seems to produce the best blooms in subsequent years. 

For pots, we would recommend lifting them and replanting for the following year, or buy fresh bulbs each autumn. 

We didn’t feed our tulips as few amateur gardeners do, but applying a foliar feed at the end of flowering and removing all the dead heads may encourage flowering for the second year.

Common growing problems

Tulip fire

Tulips can suffer from tulip fire, a fungal disease that causes brown, scorched-looking leaves. Planting after November should avoid it. It often occurs where tulips are grown in the same place for more than two years in a row, so try to plant in a different part of the garden.

Read more about tulip fire

Slugs and snails

Slugs and snails can nibble the young leaves. Pick off any you find and use ferric-phosphate slug pellets. Squirrels often dig up bulbs, so you may need to cover them with chicken wire until the first shoots emerge.

Read more about slugs and snails