How to plant and grow tulips for a stunning display

April 17th, 2021
Posted In: Gardening know how

If you want to knock everyone’s socks off in spring, then you have to grow tulips. Tulips can do everything from exquisite good taste to a riot of carnival colours.

And they are very easy to grow. Almost the only thing you can do wrong is not to plant enough of them. Tulips definitely like to party.

Tulip growing tips

How to grow tulips and show them off beautifully. A combination of tulips in pots, troughs and borders in Hever Castle’s Italianate Garden.

So I went to Hever Castle, where their Festival of Tulips runs in the last week of April to talk to head gardener, Neil Miller, about how to grow tulips.

Spring bulbs at Hever Castle

Hever Castle, with spring bulbs reflected in the moat. Hever Castle is famous for growing tulips.

I also talked to Sue Oriel, who planted 2,500 tulips in three standard raised beds for her niece’s wedding. The wedding, sadly, has had to be postponed due to regulations, but the tulips are a lesson in getting a large number of tulips into a small space.

Sue runs Country Lane Flowers with her business partner Stephanie Bates. They grow flowers for bouquets and events in their gardens, growing in domestic-sized borders entirely with the seasons. ‘We grow entirely with natural light and warmth,’ says Sue. There are no polytunnels or extra heat or light, and all plants are grown from seeds, bulbs or cuttings in the garden. Sue gives her advice on growing cut flowers from your garden as a small business here.

Cottage garden tulips

Cottage garden tulips – Sue Oriel’s one acre garden is divided into different areas. She grows flowers for sale from the former kitchen garden and has a ‘cottage garden’ area close to the house. This is ‘Menton’ tulip with emerging rose foliage in the cottage garden.

If you prefer to watch a video rather than read a blog post, see How to Grow Tulips on the Middlesized Garden YouTube channel.

How to choose tulips

Although, obviously, colour is the first thing you think about when choosing tulips, Neil suggests that you also think about the height. ‘Think about where you’ll be planting the tulips and how the heights compare.’

For example, it can be better to choose shorter tulips for pots if they’re in exposed positions, because they’ll be blown about the wind.

Otherwise, it really is just a question of what you like.

Parrot tulips for showiness

Parrot tulips are amongst the most showy you can grow. This is a parrot tulip called Estella Rijnveld in my garden. Neil Miller says that the showier tulips come back less reliably. Looking at my photographs, I can see that my Estella Rijnveld have slowly dwindled in the garden.

Where to plant tulips

It’s also a good idea to plant some tulips in sunny spots and others in shadier borders. The tulips in the sun will come out first (and probably will go over quite quickly). The tulips in the shade will come out later and last longer. ‘So you get a good progression,’ says Neil.

Neil likes to plant tulips in blocks of the same type and color together – he thinks they have more impact en masse.

Plant tulips in blocks of one colour

Peach tulips planted in blocks of one colour at Hever Castle.

Sue also prefers big blocks of high impact tulips. ‘I don’t plant in threes, fives and sevens,’ she says. ‘I plant in thirteens, fifteens and seventeens.’

Tulips massed together

This photograph also shows how good tulips look when massed together, either in a border or in a pot. See more of this stunning garden in this video on the best evergreen shrubs. This is Tulip ‘Bleu Aimable’. Photograph by Gry Iverslien.

Which plants go well with tulips

At Hever Castle, there are a number of displays where tulips are combined with either violas or wallflowers. Heuchera are another good partner for tulips.

Plant tulips with blocks of wallflowers

Here at Hever Castle there are blocks of tulips planted with blocks of yellow wallflowers, as well as borders where tulips are intermingled with wallflowers.

Naturalistic planting of tulips

In this border at Hever Castle, wallflowers and tulips are planted in a spectrum of yellow, reds and peaches.

Combine pink tulips with blue

Pink tulips at Hever Castle are a good combination with blue aubretia. You would get a similar effect with blue forget-me-nots.

Tulips underplanted

Hot pink tulips underplanted with delicate pink forget me nots (or flowers that look very like forget me nots!).

tulips with euphorbia robbaie

‘Burgundy’ tulips with Euphorbia robbiae, otherwise known as Mediterranean spurge.

Grow tulips with perennials and shrubs

You can also grow tulips in herbaceous borders to add colour. As the emerging leaves of perennials begin to cover the soil, tulips add splashes of brightness.

Neil has also considered the evergreen shrubs when choosing tulip colour. I particularly like this combination of dark copper Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ with the bright carnival stripes of Abu Hassan tulips.

Pittosporum 'Tom Thumb' with tulip Abu Hassan

Yellow and red striped ‘Abu Hassan’ tulip with the dark copper foliage of Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb.’

Pale pink tulips

These particularly pretty pink and white tulips (Tulip ‘Angelique’) look good against the dark red emerging foliage of roses and peonies. These tulips are in a particularly beautiful garden in the Kent countryside and you can see more of this garden in The 3 best alternatives to box topiary.

Roses with tulips

I particularly love the combination of tulips with emerging rose foliage, seen here with Burgundy tulips in Sue Oriel’s garden. However, be sure to feed the roses as roses are hungry plants and don’t like competition from other plants growing close.

Cottage garden style

A dark leaved heuchera in Sue Oriel’s cottage garden area makes a beautiful foil for Amazing Grace tulips. See this post for more about cottage garden style.

How to grow tulips in pots

Neil says that it’s better to grow tulips in terracotta pots than in plastic ones, because plastic ones get hotter in sunshine and colder in frost.

There are wonderful pots and troughs at Hever Castle, all planted up with tulips as you can see from these pictures.

pots and troughs of tulips

A good contrast between tall white tulips and low dark violas in a trough at Hever Castle. Pots of tulips look best when filled tightly and massed together.

‘Put some chicken wire over the pots to keep squirrels from digging the bulbs up and eating them,’ says Neil. ‘You can take the chicken wire away as soon as the tulips start to shoot as squirrels don’t eat the bulbs at that stage.

Tulips in a terracotta pot

Three shades of tulip in one pot – harmonious pink and peach plus a contrasting white. Note the different heights of the tulips – it’s part of what makes this pot so successful. Photo by Gry Iverslien.

Tulips in pots

All-one-colour pots of tulips – a wonderfully simple and effective combination of white tulips tinged with pink in three matching pots. Photograph by Gry Iverslien.

How to plant tulips

They plant their tulips at Hever Castle at about three times the depth of the bulb.

When I went to a flower growing workshop at Sarah Raven, she advised us to plant tulips very deeply if we wanted them to come back – even as deep as 12″. That was over ten years ago. I planted a group of Ballerina tulips at 12″ and they still come back year after year.

Plant tulips later than other spring bulbs. At Hever Castle, they plant them in November, but many people leave it until December or even January. Ulting Wick, a garden in Essex which opens for the National Garden Scheme, is famous for its tulips. Philippa Burroughs and the head gardener plant around 12,000 tulips in January. ‘As long as they’re all in by the end of January, that’s fine by us,’ says Phillipa.

How to stop squirrels from digging up your tulips

Squirrels love tulips. ‘They’re like caviar to squirrels,’ says Neil.

At Hever Castle, they did some tests on what would stop squirrels from digging up their bulbs. ‘We found a mix of chilli powder and garlic powder, lightly sprinkled on top of the soil just after planting really did stop squirrels from digging up our bulbs,’ he says.

If you are planting tulips in pots cover the pots with chicken wire. Remove the chicken wire once the tulips start to shoot, as the squirrels will no longer be interested.

How to grow tulips very close together

As Sue is trying to grow as many tulips as possible, she dug out the whole flower bed to about 6″ (the same as Neil’s 3x the size of the bulb). They then added feed and garden compost before laying the bulbs out. ‘I plant around 100-200 bulbs in a square metre,’ she says.

Tulips packed tightly

There are four different kind of tulips here, planted in a border in Sue Oriel’s former kitchen garden, now the heart of her homegrown flower business. Country Lane Flowers.

But only choose the best bulbs. ‘Don’t try to grow tulips that are slightly mouldy or not full size. Their flowers will be disappointing.’

‘And we don’t add any grit or gravel for drainage,’ she says. ‘That’s now considered to be very old-fashioned advice and it can create space under the tulip where water can puddle.’

‘We place them closer together than the manufacturers recommend,’ she says. ‘We leave about a tulip bulb’s distance between each tulip bulb. And it’s very important to avoid the tulips touching each other.’

Then she covers the bulbs with soil and garden compost, mixed with some more feed. ‘That was in November.’

Sue hasn’t had to care for her tulips over winter, but once the leaves began to emerge, she watered them in dry periods. ‘I could see that their leaves were looking a bit more shrunken than usual, which can mean lack of moisture, ‘ she said. As they’re planted so close together, they would be competing with each other for water.

They perked up once they’d been watered.

How to care for tulips once they’ve flowered

Neil says it’s important to dead head the tulips if you want flowers next year. However, he says that many tulips really only flower best in their first year. That’s why so many people dig them up and replace them year after year.

However, sometimes tulips do come back. As well as the Ballerina tulips, I also have some Queen of Night that have come back over many years, and some yellow ones planted by my predecessors over 20 years ago.

Tulips that come back

These Ballerina tulips were planted very deeply around 12 years ago. They continue to come back.

If you want tulips to come back, Neil also advises feeding them with an all-purpose fertiliser or tomato feed. And make sure you don’t cut back any foliage until it has died. It will then come away in your hand, leaving the bulb in the ground.

As a cut flower grower, Sue doesn’t cut the tulip off the bulb in the ground. She harvests tulips by digging up the whole bulb, with the flower attached. ‘You can then wrap it in newspaper and keep it in the fridge for a few days, and only cut it when you want to put it in a vase.’

A locally grown tulip, dug up like this, will last in a vase for up to two weeks, she says. But supermarket flowers that have been flown and chilled for a long period of time after being cut away from the bulb ‘are effectively dead already,’ she says. So they won’t last as long in the vase.

But before tulips, there are daffodils…

If you’re planning your spring garden, you’ll want to start with daffodils. I sometimes think we forget how much they lift our spirits after winter. See daffodil tips here.

And if you’re thinking about the most effective places to plant spring bulbs, then see this advice from Lucy Adams. She’s the head gardener at Doddington Place Gardens, which was short-listed for Historic House Garden of the Year in 2021.

More about Hever Castle and Country Lane Flowers

As well as the gardens, Hever Castle is an event and wedding venue. It has a golf course, bed & breakfast accommodation and a number of special attractions, such as the lake and jousting.

Country Lane Flowers offers tailor made bouquets and event flowers, featuring only locally grown seasonal flowers. There is also a roadside stall, open from April to October on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from mid-morning onwards. The address is Owens Court Road, Selling, Kent ME13 9QR, opposite Newhouse Farm Cottage.

Shop my favourite gardening books, tools and products

I’m often asked for recommendations so I’ve put together some lists of the books, tools and products I use myself on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. Note that Amazon links are affiliate, see disclosure.  For example, there’s a list of some good books on plants.

Pin to remember how to grow tulip tips

And do join us every Sunday morning for more garden tips, ideas and inspiration. To get the Middlesized Garden free to your email inbox, see here.

6 comments on "How to plant and grow tulips for a stunning display"

  1. Carol clark says:

    I planted my first set of tulips around 400 or so and there coming up already and I keep putting dirt on them cause I’m in Texas and it’s cold I assume I didn’t plant them deep enough lesson learned I put my whole hand in the trench but like I need to get a better next time like a ruler duh anyways found you on Pinterest love the blog

  2. I started to forget tulips because of the perennial nature. I’m in the mid-Atlantic region of the US – do the clay pots stay out over winter ? We have fairly mild winters but they ten to crack… I’d love to plant tulips in pots here – the clay soil is so hard!

    1. If you want to keep clay pots out over winter, they need to be frost proof, otherwise choose pots of a different material such as metal or resin. Tulips should be fine through the winter in USDA zones 3-8. If you’re worried about the pots cracking, you can often protect them by pulling them very close to the house. A house’s walls will give off a certain amount of heat and close to the house will also be protected. I hope that helps.

  3. Peter Lovell says:

    I’ve never grown tulips before, but after reading your
    comprehensive article I can’t wait to get started next January!
    Best wishes Pete.

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