The only way to encourage tulips to reflower next spring is to absolutely nail your tulip care after blooming. But it will only work on perennials.
Hybrid cultivars are annuals, so reflowering on those will always be a hit or miss. You can certainly take your chances with annuals, but for guaranteed new blooms, grow perennial or Species tulips that are cultivated to reflower year after year.
Sometimes though, you may have to bite the bullet, dig the bulbs up and replant new bulbs.
Understanding How Tulips Grow
Tulips are bulbous plants. The bigger the bulb is, it (usually) produces bigger flowers. Planted in late fall, they emerge in early spring and as they do, the bulbs split. Once tulips have bloomed, the bulbs in the ground are divisions of the parent bulb.
Rather than having the single large bulb you started with, the following year, there’s more smaller bulbs, and the cycle continues annually with perennials. Annuals won’t return. They’re deliberately hybridized for a single burst of intense flowering.
Of the Species tulips that do return the following spring, because the bulbs are baby divisions, they produce less flowers. That’s partially because the bulbs are smaller, but more so, because of crowding. A cluster of baby bulbs will need more nutrients.
Bulbs Get the Most Nutrients Right After Blooming
Tulip bulb care after blooming is the most important part of caring for perennial tulips. The bulb is the heart of the plant. It’s where energy is stored. The more energy the plant can soak up before it goes into dormancy in the summer, the better it’ll reflower next spring.
Provided you’re growing a Species tulip cultivar and not an annual, you’ll have a high success rate of getting your tulips to reflower with good blossoms each spring when you use the following tricks.
Tips and Tricks to Encourage Vibrant Reflowering of Tulips
1 – Deadhead Early
Tulips need the spent flowerheads to be removed early. As soon as the colors begin to fade, take them away. The reason this ought to be done early is because if you don’t, the plant will go to seed. Instead of storing energy in the bulb for next spring, it’ll be using energy to force flowering seeds.
You can’t prolong the flowering season, so there’s no point in letting flower seeds emerge.
When you’re deadheading your tulips, only cut the flower stalk to above the first set of leaves, then…
2 – Leave the Leaves Alone
For up to 6 weeks anyway! The leaves play a vital part in capturing energy to store in the bulb. As long as they’re above ground, they’re absorbing energy from the sunlight.
That’s going to help build up energy reserves. Tulips are one of the few plants that you actually want to see with yellowing leaves on them.
If it’s going to bother you, surround your tulips with companion plants to hide the unsightly leaves. Just make sure nearby plants don’t need to be watered much because too much water rots tulip bulbs.
The only time you should be worried about yellowing leaves on tulips is if it happens before it blooms. It’s perfectly healthy after it blooms, but never before it. When it does, it’s a sign of too much water, either caused by overwatering, or a lack of soil drainage.
3 – Divide the Bulblets
Were you paying attention to the “How Tulips Grow” part above? Know how tulip bulbs divide each year, like having little baby bulbs?
Well, if you don’t divide those, you’ll wind up with congestion under the soil. Eventually, there will be so many little bulblets competing for nutrients that none of them get enough to flower.
You need to dig them up, divide them, and replant them with sufficient space to grow.
How to Divide Species Tulips
Do remember that this only works on perennial / Species tulips. If you’re growing garden bred varieties, aka, the hybrids that are mainly cultivated for a flash burst of color one year, then nada the next, those are dud and should be dug and discarded. You’d be wasting your time otherwise.
Species tulips care after they’ve flowered is more hands-on because you have the little darling bulblets to nourish. You should expect to be dividing these at least every three to five years. Dividing your bulbs every three years is good practice to avoid overcrowding.
Do this after all the foliage has turned brown. Remember yellow leaves still let energy reach the bulbs. Leave the leaves until they decay (when they turn brown) then cut it back to ground level and dig out the bulbs.
Digging them up ought to be done with a small garden fork. They aren’t deeply planted but if you take a spade or shovel to the soil, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll split some bulbs, so use a hand fork to till the soil until you reach the bulbs.
You can do this anytime from when the leaves turn brown to before the first ground freeze. If you don’t plan to dig them up as soon as you cut them back, it’s a good idea to mark the spot with a plant marker so you know where the bulbs are buried.
Not All of Your Bulbs will be Growable!
Wouldn’t it be great if every bulb division would flower? Sadly, some will be lost to disease or insect damage.
When you dig your bulbs up, inspect them for signs of disease and insect damage. If you see spots, discard of the bulb. Healthy bulbs will feel firm and spot-free. If it’s spotted or feels mushy, it’s probably going to be no good.
Some of your bulbs will be undersized and others will be double-nosed (two bulbs joined together). Both can be used so long as they’re healthy. Size doesn’t really matter. Firmness does.
For the bulbs you intend to replant, place them on a seedling tray and leave them in the shade for a couple of days to dry out. If you have different varieties, it’s probably wise to label them.
These can’t be planted until the fall so you’ll need net bags or mesh sacks to store your bulbs. Ideal temperatures for storage should be somewhere dark and dry with a stable temperature between 65oF to 68oF.
Tempering Tulip Bulbs Before Replanting in Fall
Tulip bulbs bloom better when they’re tricked into thinking they’ve been dormant underground. You can do that by tempering the bulbs, which is best done by placing them in paper bags (or opaque plastic bags that are open at the top), and put them in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.
While they’re in there, you can’t keep apples, bananas, pears, tomatoes, melon, avocado, peaches, plums and figs in the fridge. Those release ethylene gas and that’ll kill the flowering buds inside the bulb rendering it useless.
Tulip bulbs need a chilling period of at least 12 weeks. Outdoors, the bulbs bloom best when they’ve had up to 14 weeks of soil temperatures under 55oF. Refrigerating mimics those conditions, then when the spring rolls around, soil temperatures rise above 60oF, and that’s when the fun begins as the tulip starts blooming. It only happens on tempered bulbs though.
That’s why garden centers and nurseries sell Forced Tulips, referred to by that name because they’re pre-chilled bulbs used in warmer climates to force the tulips to bloom.
By taking your bulblets out of the ground, pre-chilling, then replanting, you’re replicating the exact same process to force your baby bulbs to bloom.
How to Replant Bulbs
The real magic happens when you take care when replanting your bulbs. The ideal depth to plant them at is the same depth they were growing in before, which should have been 6” to 8” deep.
Each bulb should be placed with up to 6” spacing, but undersized bulbs can be grouped together. How you do it is a matter of preference. If you’re content with dividing your bulbs every few years, give each bulb at least 6” of space.
Grouping the bulbs closer will result in a cluster of flowers the first year, but due to the bulbs splitting and congregating under the soil, if you plant them closer you’ll probably need to divide them again sooner.
With 6” spacing between bulbs, you could get good flowering for as much as five years before you need to dig them up to go through the rigmarole of storing and pre-chilling bulblets for replanting again.
Protecting Your Bulbs from Pests
Bulbs in the garden are candy to burrowing wildlife. Squirrels, moles, mice, and gophers love to feast on the bulbs of tulips. Even potting up your tulips isn’t enough because squirrels still find their way into potted plants. And tulips bloom best in the ground soil anyway because there’s less compaction.
Don’t let your local wildlife ruin your garden for you. Protect your bulbs when you plant them.
The simplest way is to install chicken wire, or run mesh netting around the area your bulbs are being planted. Use the same installation process as the steps for erecting a fence around a vegetable garden to keep rabbits out.
Bury the chicken wire to a depth of one meter below ground to protect your bulbs for burrowing wildlife, and over three meters in height to deter most pests from leaping over your fence.
The biggest threat for bulbs is burrowing wildlife, particularly gophers.
Take care of your bulblets, then protect them when you plant them, then each year you’ll enjoy a vibrant burst of colors to usher in the spring.
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.
Saturday 19th of March 2022
I enjoyed your article about getting bulblets to re-grow. Is there a reason one couldn't divide them and immediately put them back in the ground?
Thank you! Beth