This is How We Get The Best From Tulips in the UK

Written by Hannah Miller. Reviewed and Fact-checked by Elizabeth Smith. Published to Spring Plants. Updated: 21st March 2024.

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With their stunning, glossy petals and vibrant colours, tulips are a highlight of springtime, and with well over 2500 known varieties, you are spoilt for choice.

But before you order online or visit your local garden centre, read my guide to growing tulips in the UK – I have lots of experience and can help you get the most from them and save you money too.

Plant key details:

  • An explosion of colour in mid-spring.
  • Grow in pots or borders.
  • Beneficial to bees and other pollinators.
  • Make wonderful cut flowers.
  • Bloom from March to May.
  • Bell-shaped blooms.

Size

Height: Up to 15cm (6in)

Spread: Up to 60cm (24in) 

Location

Rockeries, borders, beds, pots, edges, formal

Sunlight

Best in full sun, okay for the first year in light shade. Lighter colours are best for partially shaded areas

Hardiness

Hardy perennial US zone 3-8 and in most parts of the UK although may struggle in the warmer south-west

Water & Feed

Water if grown in pots otherwise, only during dry spells

Companions

Daffodils, Muscari, Snowdrops, Cyclamen, Forget-Me-Not, Wallflower

Planting

Plant bulbs in the Autumn at least twice the bulb depth, ideally deeper. Space 8cm apart.

Flowering

March to May depending on variety

Tulips collection
Multi-coloured tulips

What Garden Centres and Retailers Don’t Tell You

If you’ve never grown tulips, you should know this before you head off to the garden centre or purchase online:

Tulips don’t make great perennials in the UK and I usually grow them as annuals.

In plain language, that means they will only be good for one year.

Naturally, sellers don’t want to highlight this fact, but it’s true.

Tulips aren’t native to the UK and, in their natural habitat, would experience more extremes of temperatures with colder winters and hotter summers.

I’ve had great results during the first spring after planting the bulbs, but by year two, all of the tulips I’ve grown were much weaker and by three, many didn’t bloom at all.

There are techniques I’ve deployed to keep tulips coming back year after year, and we’ll discuss that later, but most gardeners in the UK should assume that they will only be good for one season.

How We Grow Tulips in the UK

I asked qualified horticulturist Elizabeth Smith to answer frequently asked questions for our readers:

How Do Tulip Plants Arrive?

Tulips arrive as bulbs in large sacks or smaller packets, usually with vent holes to prevent damp and rot.

Where is the best place to plant tulips?

I’ve had great results by placing the tulips in a sunny spot with good drainage with some protection from the harsh wind.

I’ve seen others grow tulips successfully in flowerbeds, as edging around lawns, in bunches in beds and even in pots.

I have lost a few over the years due to them being in windy locations; the stems snapped and ruined them, so I now take care to grow them in spots away from the wind.

Are tulips perennials or annuals? Are they winter hardy?

Tulips are technically a perennial, but the moderate UK climate isn’t ideal for them, and I usually grow them as an annual.

For tulips to thrive, they need two things:

  • Prolonged winters to prevent disease.
  • Hot summers for dormancy.

Unfortunately, in the UK, we have mild summers and winters, hence why the tulips in my garden rarely last more than two years and often look stunted in year two.

Do tulips need a lot of sunlight?

The more sunlight a tulip gets, the better, however, I know from experience that lightly coloured varieties, such as whites and creams perform better in shaded spots than tulips with dark colours.

In short, if you really want to grow tulips and you have a dark garden, based on my testing, you should grow white or cream tulips.

What soil conditions are best for tulips?

Tulips prefer nutrient-rich soil that’s free draining, but from my experience, I feel the most important factor is how much moisture the soil holds.

I’ve lost a few bulbs over the years due to rot, as tulips are mountainous plants and dislike boggy ground conditions.

Consider adding organic matter or grit to improve your soil if required.

Bulb fibre compost can be used for tulips grown in pots, but you may find it expensive if you have a large garden.

When and how should tulips be planted in the UK?

I plant my tulip bulbs in late October, November or early December.

If you live in a warm part of the UK, plant in December, as planting in colder temperatures kills off diseases that may pose a threat when the ground is wet and warm.

I always plant the tulip bulbs to a depth of around three times their size, and I’ve never had a problem.

If you want to try and grow tulips in the UK as perennials, try planting them a little deeper. I tried planting them at 4-5 times their size, but it didn’t make any difference; they looked lovely the following year but performed poorly in year 2.

Tulip pests and diseases

Squirrels often dig up tulip bulbs, and they can be very persistent, I have had issues with these pests over the years and in my garden, they seem to prefer the tulip bulbs above all else.

In my potted tulips, I’ve found a great way to keep them safe is to embed a layer of wire mesh above the bulbs; just make sure the gaps are big enough for the stem of the tulip to push through. This worked for me but it’s not practical to do this in a border or other large area.

Chilli flakes will keep them away in the garden, but it may not be a practical solution if you have a large area to cover.

Slugs and snails may nibble on the foliage but I’ve never seen these pests cause serious damage.

The only disease I’m aware of is Tulip Fire, a common disease that causes brown or dark yellow foliage. You can prevent it by planting after November when the ground temperatures are cooler.

When do tulips flower and how long for?

My tulips flower in mid to late spring and are typically at their best between April and May.

The blooms on my tulips usually last for 7-10 days, and I’ve had success by growing different varieties together as they each have slightly different bloom times.

Are there any water and fertiliser requirements?

After planting the bulbs, I usually mulch with good quality compost or other organic matter.

I water after planting and then leave them alone, although I water my potted tulips more often.

Are tulips toxic or harmful?

Tulips are toxic to horses, cats and dogs, but neither of these animals are known to eat the tulip bulbs. My pets have never been attracted to them.

Read more: Toxicity for cats, dogs and horses.

Humphreys Garden Triumph Tulip Mixed x 100 Bulbs Size 10/11
Cottage Garden Bulbs: Mixed Tulip Bulbs - Spring Flowering - Packs of 50 & 100 Available - Free P & P (50)
Humphreys Garden Triumph Tulip Mixed x 100 Bulbs Size 10/11
Cottage Garden Bulbs: Mixed Tulip Bulbs - Spring Flowering - Packs of 50 & 100 Available - Free P & P (50)
Humphreys Garden Triumph Tulip Mixed x 100 Bulbs Size 10/11
Humphreys Garden Triumph Tulip Mixed x 100 Bulbs Size 10/11
Cottage Garden Bulbs: Mixed Tulip Bulbs - Spring Flowering - Packs of 50 & 100 Available - Free P & P (50)
Cottage Garden Bulbs: Mixed Tulip Bulbs - Spring Flowering - Packs of 50 & 100 Available - Free P & P (50)

How to Care For Tulips After They’ve Finished Flowering

Tulips are often grown as annuals as the weather conditions in the UK are far from ideal, and most are only good for one or at most, two years.

I’ve had some limited success trying to get them to bounce back strong, so if you want them to come back strong, try my tips:

  • Deadhead the tulip flower after it’s finished blooming as this will divert energy to the bulb.
  • Leave as much of the stem in place as it helps send energy to the bulb.
  • Don’t cut back the foliage until it’s discoloured and pulls away from the bulb easily – the foliage also sends energy back to the bulb to prepare it for the dormant season.
  • Check for tulip fire, a common disease. Remove and burn any diseased tulips.
  • Mulch over the tulips with a couple of inches of organic material in autumn.

I have lifted tulip bulbs before (6 weeks after flowering) and stored them in a dark, warm shed before replanting them in the autumn but it didn’t help them at all.

From my experience, the UK climate just isn’t ideal for tulips to come back year after year, those that do are often very short and stubby with small flowers.

Common Tulip Problems

Here are some common problems and solutions I’ve found work:

Tulips Are Very Short

This happens to all my tulips after the first year, and is because the tulips aren’t suited to the UK climate. I’ve also seen it happen to tulips that were planted too late.

The Tulips Aren’t Flowering

This is common after the first year and is one of the reasons why tulips are grown as annuals in the UK. If the tulips aren’t flowering in the first year, it may be because of:

  • Lack of sunlight.
  • Poor soil/lack of nutrients.
  • Lack of water/drought.

Tulips Drooping

Most likely due to a lack of water or, as happened to me, the stems snapped because I grew them in a windy spot.

Tulip Bulbs Rotted

The soil is most likely too wet/boggy and lacks drainage. I’ve prevented this from happening to my bulbs by adding grit, turning the soil and taking steps to improve drainage.

Yellow Leaves on Tulips

This happens 6-7 weeks after flowering and is normal. However, if you want to grow them as perennials, the leaves should be left in place until they pull away easily. I usually try to hide the yellow foliage by growing leafy or bushy plants nearby; I’m currently experimenting with hardy geraniums as they grow quickly and cover the ugly yellow foliage.

Companion Plants For Tulips

Through experimenting over the years, I found that these six spring-flowering plants go well with tulips:

Elizabeth Smith’s 5 Tulip Growing Pro Tips

Elizabeth Smith reviews our content before publication, and she asked us to add this:

1) Plant from late November to prevent disease if you live in a warmer part of the UK.

2) Double tulips are far more showy than singles, but based on my experience, singles are more likely to come back in year two.

3) If the location is shady, go for white, cream or other lightly coloured tulips, as they perform much better than darker varieties in the shade.

4) Tulips can be top-heavy, so choose a large or heavy pot to prevent them from tipping over.

5) Tulips have a long flowering season, with early varieties blooming from the end of March and late varieties as late as May, so mix them accordingly to get the most from your tulip display.

Elizabeth Smith – qualified horticulturist

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This guide was reviewed and fact-checked by qualified horticulturist Elizabeth Smith.

Explore: Elizabeth's profile and qualifications.

Meet The Author: Hannah Miller

Hannah is a keen gardener who grows organic fruit and vegetables in her Surrey garden and is moving towards a more sustainable lifestyle. 

She is also the proud grower of a dahlia and herb garden.

Hannah worked for the NHS for 12 years but also has a level 3 qualification in horticulture and is currently studying for her level 4.

More About Hannah Miller

Hannah Miller

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This tulip growing guide was published by DIY Gardening

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