You do WHAT with your Tulips?

It is inevitable; like the sun rising in the east. Each year about this time, audible gasps of shock and horror are heard around the garden when Wellfield horticulturists do the unthinkable, the most barbaric thing imaginable. We dig up our tulips when the tulip display at Wellfield Botanic Gardens is completed, leaving behind empty flower stalks and green leaves. The shock comes when we are asked what we do with the pile of tulips. We replant them, do we not? Surely Wellfield does not (pause to catch one’s stricken breath) throw them away? The answer is, of course, no. But we do not replant them either. We compost them.

There are several display beds (one whole garden as a matter of fact) we replant a couple of times a year; once for spring, and once for summer. Tulips are treated as an annual for a couple of simple reasons. First, they are planted where different plants must be placed after the tulips have bloomed. Secondly, and more importantly, most tulip varieties do not perform reliably year after year as other perennials may.

The home gardener is told to plant tulip, and other spring flowering, bulbs in the fall in order to provide the correct chilling requirements, as specified by tulip DNA, to induce the flowering sequence. So, we dutifully plant and watch our wonderful flowers put on a marvelous display, but we just do not have the heart to pull up those beautiful flowers. So, we leave them to bloom again next year. What happens? Next spring, the leaves crack the soil, peeking out at a cold, cruel spring world and that is it. All leaves and no flower is the result.

Dutch tulip growers know we like big wonderful full blooms. The bigger the bulb, the more energy is stored up for bigger flowers. This is accomplished through a three year process where the tulip flowers are literally mowed, or topped, so energy is not expended making flowers, but rather in making larger bulbs. This is done for a couple of years. The bulb is then harvested at the end of its third growing season and packed off to shops around the world. The bulb you planted last fall, blooming this spring in your front bed, has three years of sunlight energy pushing those colored petals to their best. The three year old bulb is tuckered out after all that exercise, and just may not provide a repeat performance next year.

Try a little experiment. Plant a bunch of tulips, and then leave them alone for several years. Take photos each spring and compare the results. You will more than likely find that each year, your tulip patch gets increasingly sparse.

Tulips are native to the mountains of Turkey, where the soil is well drained, the summers are hot, and the winters are cold. Not many places can match those exacting requirements, and thus have less chance of long lasting tulips. To increase the likelihood of multiple-year blooms, there are things one can do. In addition, look for tulip varieties which can “naturalize” or spread; we like Darwin Hybrids for this reason.

No matter what one does with tulips, whether they are dug up and composted or left to their own devices, one cannot help but enjoy their cheerful spring presence.

Josh Steffen, Horticulture Manager


2 comments

  1. A Dutch friend of mine comes from a family business in Holland that grows a variety of bulbs. During a visit to the U.S., we asked her Uncle what was wrong with our tulips that they looked so pathetic. He very politely said…. “how long have they been in the ground?” We said over 5 years…. then in a little less polite response….he said “put them out of their misery! They don’t last forever! And you will put us out of business!”. He would appreciate your article Josh!


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