Tulips are one of the most popular spring-blooming bulbs in the world, and understandably so. You can find tulips in a wide range of colors from white, to salmon, to bright yellow. In fact, there are ten color varieties of tulips, making them a desirable centerpiece for any home garden.
However, as with everything else in the world, things change — even those beautifully colored tulips. Sadly, tulips have a short life cycle, especially when compared to other spring blooms. Tulips will only bloom for up to a few weeks, and if left in direct sunlight, that length of time can be reduced to just a few days.
There’s still hope, though. Once your tulip blooms are gone, there’s ample opportunity to prepare them to come back again next year as bright and vibrant as ever. This is where storing your tulip bulbs comes into play.
What Are Tulip Bulbs?
If you’re new to growing tulips, you may not even know what tulip bulbs are.
Not all plants have root systems as trees and shrubs do. Some use bulbs to store energy and develop over time. Onions, garlic, and shallots are good examples of common bulbous plants, and share similarities with tulip bulbs.
Tulip bulbs are known as tunicate bulbs as they have a protective, paper-like layer surrounding the bulb, much the same as onions and garlic. If you want to see some tulips in your garden this spring, though, you’ll need to acquire tulip bulbs, as new tulips will require time to develop into a flowering plant — possibly even years.
Why Save Your Tulip Bulbs?
In reality, there’s no natural reason why tulip bulbs need to be removed from the ground and stored over the summer. If you were to leave your tulip bulbs in the ground and simply trim the bloom, stem, and leaves as they wilt, there’s a good chance that they’d be fine by the next spring season.
In fact, tulip bulbs need cold temperatures in the soil (55 degrees F or 13 degrees C) to activate their natural biochemical process of breaking down energy stores in preparation for the coming spring season.
So if you’re growing tulips in a warm climate, you’re likely to have trouble getting them to flower if temperatures during winter don’t drop low enough for at least 12 weeks.
Animals also love digging bulbs up and eating them, so many gardeners prefer to pull them from the ground and store them over the summer before replanting them in the fall.
But the best reason to store your tulip bulbs is to remove offsets and separate them from the mother bulbs. Doing this will ensure that you have flowers next spring.
Can Tulip Bulb Offsets Be Stored?
Tunicate bulbs are survivors, so they do everything they can to ensure that they have a future. One means of survival is producing offsets. Over time, tulip bulbs begin to deteriorate, so the main bulb diverts energy toward growing new bulbs.
These new bulbs are known as offsets, and if left attached to the main bulb, they can result in poor flowering, or prevent flowering altogether during the next season. So removing the offsets is necessary, and also gives you brand-new tulip bulbs to plant in the fall!
This process is known as propagation, and can help your tulip garden grow exponentially. Remove the offsets by gently twisting them off of the dried mother bulb, and replant in the fall. You may not see the new bulbs flower for a season or two. They simply need time to mature.
Either way, tulip bulbs bloom only once, so make sure to save your new offsets.
When to Unearth Tulip Bulbs
The first step in storing your tulip bulbs is digging them up. This step must be done with care and requires attention to detail. If you lift your tulip bulbs too soon, you could kill the plant entirely, so getting the timing right is crucial.
As the spring season progresses and moves closer toward summer, you’ll notice that your tulip blossoms die quickly, as we mentioned earlier. Once the flowers have wilted, take a pair of sharp gardening shears and remove them from the plant along with the stem. This process is called deadheading.
It’s important to note that you don’t want to remove too much greenery at this stage. Once the tulip blossoms are gone, the tulip bulb begins to store energy for the next growth cycle, so leave as much green as you can and apply a high-quality bulb fertilizer if possible.
The tulip’s foliage will naturally wither, as the bulb draws nutrients from the stem and leaves. Once the foliage has completely withered and turned yellow, it’s okay to lift the tulip bulb from the ground. This should occur sometime in early to mid July.
We know that dried and crispy-looking tulips aren’t the most attractive thing to have in a garden, but waiting for the plants to wilt completely before unearthing them is essential.
How to Dig up Tulip Bulbs
The process of lifting tulip bulbs is simple, but can have serious consequences for future growth if done carelessly. Tulip bulbs are still alive, so it’s important to pay special attention to the way in which you lift and store them.
You don’t want to accidentally stab or slice them, since that will kill them, so be careful.
To lift your tulip bulbs, you’re going to need a gardening spade. Use your spade to dig around each individual tulip bulb, loosening the soil and being extra careful not to cause any damage.
Once the soil is loosened, you can use your hands to lift the tulip bulbs from the ground. You’ll probably notice that each tulip bulb has grown offsets of its own. Leave these on until you’ve dried the bulbs out for storage.
You can use a bucket or basket to move the lifted bulbs to a workbench or shed where you can begin to prepare them for storage.
How to Prepare Tulip Bulbs for Storage
The next step in storing your tulip bulbs is preparation. This is an important step, as it can save your entire batch from ruin.
To begin preparing your tulip bulbs for storage, you need to spread them out on a tray, away from direct sunlight, and in a cool area. Allow them two to three days to dry and check on them often, turning them over as you see necessary.
As they dry, more excess soil, dried foliage, and roots will fall off. It’s tempting to help this process along with your hands and remove bits as they dry out, but you need to leave everything attached until drying is complete. The bulbs are still pulling nutrients from the attached parts, so leave them there.
Cleaning up your tulip bulbs with a dry cloth or paper towel is important, but only once drying is complete.
It will allow you to see how healthy each bulb actually is. You might notice some discolored, spotted, or softened bulbs. These should be thrown out, as they could be diseased and carry the risk of infecting your entire batch later on.
As we mentioned earlier, tulip bulbs only bloom once, so you’re going to need to salvage the offsets and prepare them for storage if you want to have tulips again next spring.
Preparing Tulip Bulb Offsets for Storage
Preparing the offset bulbs is as simple as drying them. You’ll notice two or three offsets per mother bulb. You can easily save these by gently twisting them off of the mother bulb.
Make two piles, separating the offsets from the mothers, as you won’t be needing the mothers in the fall. Instead, use the mother bulbs for composting. This way, you’ll be able to enrich your soil for the next growing season and leave nothing to waste.
Once you’ve separated the offsets from the mother bulbs, leave the offset bulbs spread out on a tray or a drying rack to continue drying out.
How to Properly Store Tulip Bulbs
There are several different ways in which you can store your tulip bulbs until the fall planting season. Storage usually takes place mid-summer and lasts until you’re ready to plant them in the fall, as the weather begins to cool before the first frost.
No matter how you choose to store your tulip bulbs, you need to ensure that certain conditions are met.
Your bulbs need to be able to breathe, so it’s important to avoid using plastic storage bags, storage bins, or any other type of non-breathable, sealed container. Most gardeners prefer to use mesh bags, paper bags, or any type of bag that breathes well.
Pro tip: If you buy onions or potatoes in bulk, you can reuse the bag for storing your tulip bulbs and save some extra cash in the process.
Even when removed from the ground, tulip bulbs continue to develop their flower buds, so proper storage will only help this process along and make your next spring that much more colorful.
The temperature of the storage space is paramount as the bulbs develop. Tulips are not native to warm climates. In fact, they will struggle to survive if left in a storage space that’s too hot, so make sure that you select an area you know will be cool enough to keep them alive, but warm enough to support bud development.
It’s recommended to keep the ambient temperature of your tulip bud storage space no warmer than 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you live in a warm climate, you’ll likely have trouble finding a suitable outdoor storage space. In these situations, it’s okay to store your bulbs in a drawer in your refrigerator, as long as they’re in a drawer that receives no light.
The no-light rule also applies to outdoor storage (even more so, actually). Make sure that they are far away from direct sunlight.
Keep your tulip bulbs in a dark, dry, well-ventilated place for 12 to 14 weeks to allow ample time for the flower buds to develop, and make sure that you check for moldy or shriveled bulbs every week. You can store tulip buds for up to 12 months at a time.
How to Save Tulip Bulbs Grown in Pots
Flowers with bulbs such as tulips go through more stress when grown in pots. It’s typically best to grow tulips in a garden, but if you’re left with no choice, what can you do? Gardens are ideal, but if you live in an apartment or house without a garden, you need to be able to make do.
Tulip bulbs bloom only once, so it’s probably best to save yourself the extra work and simply plant fresh seeds or bulbs later on.
If you lift your bulbs from a pot and find offsets, you’re in tremendous luck. In this case, just follow the guidelines above and you’ll be set up for another colorful spring next year!
How to Get the Most Out of Your Tulip Bulbs
Tulips aren’t always a one-hit-wonder. While it’s not likely that your mother tulip bulbs will flower again next year, there are some simple steps that you can take to give them another chance next year.
For example, if you deadhead them when the flowers are finished and allow their foliage to wilt naturally before lifting them from the ground, there’s a chance that they’ll flower one more time, as they’ll have had ample time to store the energy needed for flowering again.
They may flower smaller than the previous year, but if getting the most use out of your tulip bulbs is the goal, then it’s important to time the preparation, storage, and replanting accordingly.
Tulips are some of the brightest colored flowers in the world and it’s no wonder why everyone wants to relive the magic of that first bloom. Unfortunately, tulip bulbs’ life cycles are short, and almost never see more than one bloom, but that’s what makes them so sensational.
It might require a little extra work at the end of each spring, but if you follow this guide, we’re certain that your next spring will be rich, vibrant, and filled with healthy flowering tulips!
Growing up with a mom who filled her home (inside and out) with all sorts of plants, Lisa got her start in gardening at a young age. Living now on her own with a home and yard full of plants (including an indoor greenhouse), she shares all the gardening tips she’s gained over the years.