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Long Live Tulips: Home

Tulips; photo Courtesy of Flickr cc/Alan Light
Tulips; photo Courtesy of Flickr cc/Alan Light

Through the ages, the beauty of the tulip (Tulipa) has led many to make careers out of hybridization in a search for the latest sensation in tulip color, form and beauty. These efforts have brought the tulip from the obscurity of high mountain ranges in central Asia into the world market.

In the New York City area, tulips tend to be short-lived and are frequently treated as annuals. The best way to increase their longevity is to choose your bulbs wisely and provide optimum growing conditions.

Selecting your Bulbs

While tulip bulbs are purchased in the fall, spring is the season to start thinking about doing your window shopping. Visit different gardens and parks to see what the myriad of colorful cultivars from bulb catalogs look like in person.

As you admire these cheerful harbingers of spring take a look at their form, their height, their color. Stick your nose close to the blossom – some are fragrant – many are not. Many tulips change their color as they age. Many change their color with the light and have a translucent quality to them.

Tulipa 'Ballerina';photo by Danielle Colburn
Tulipa 'Ballerina';photo by Danielle Colburn

Choosing for Longevity

Many tulips last for only a few years in the New York climate. There are bulbs, however, that perform particularly well for a number of years and are good candidates for planting in this area. In ideal conditions in Holland, many of these tulips thrive for 10 to 15 years. In the New York City area, you should plan for 4 to 7 years before planting some new bulbs.

Some of the tulips that are recommended for longevity by the International Flower Bulb Centre are:

Tulipa ‘Ad Rem’, ‘Ballade’, ‘Ballerina’, ‘Cape Cod’, ‘Couleur Cardinal’, ‘Flaming Purissima’, ‘Golden Apeldoorn’, ‘Maureen’, ‘Menton’, ‘Negrita’, ‘Parade’, ‘Peer Gynt’, ‘Queen of the Night’, ‘Shirley’ ‘Showwinner’, ‘Spring Green’, ‘Spring Song’, ‘Toronto’, ‘Tres Chic’, ‘West Point’ and ‘White Triumphator’.


Like many bulbs, tulips are planted in the fall, preferably in October. They should be tucked 6 to 8 inches into the ground in areas with good drainage and full sun. Be sure to plant bulbs right side up (that is the pointed end where the leaves and flowers will emerge next spring). If you are not sure, lay the bulb on its side and it will find its way to the surface. Spacing is a personal preference and will depend on the look that you are trying to create. The bulbs should never touch each other when planted; if one rots, it may cause others to deteriorate. The bulbs put out roots in the fall and then wait until the snow melts and the temperatures warms before they shoot up and flower early in the spring.

Tulipa 'Couleur Cardinal' is a longer-lived tulip;photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Tulipa 'Couleur Cardinal' is a longer-lived tulip;photo by Ivo Vermeulen

Care Tips for Longevity

  • If planting just a few bulbs, build a mesh wire cage to prevent them from being dug up. Otherwise, cover newly planted beds with plastic bird netting to prevent squirrels and other animals from digging up your tulip bulbs. Alternatively, spray the newly planted area with hot pepper sauce.
  • Fertilize them early in the spring with either a slow-release fertilizer or organic matter such as aged cow manure just as the leaves start to appear above the ground.
  • Plant them in areas with good drainage and slightly deeper than normal, around 8 inches deep.
  • Once the blooms have faded, remember to deadhead your flowers by snapping off the seed head. The more foliage that you leave on, the more the plant will be able to photosynthesize, pouring energy into the bulb for next year’s flower.
  • Let the foliage die back on its own. Once the foliage starts to yellow it can be cleaned up. Bulbs need a six-week period for the foliage to photosynthesize and put energy back into the bulb for the following year's flowers.
  • Find creative ways of marking bulbs, so when the foliage disappears you know where they are planted. Suggestions include marking with golf tees, surrounding spring bulbs with fall-blooming crocuses, or marking the area with perennials. 
Geum 'Starker's Magnificum' is a good companion plant for tulips; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Geum 'Starker's Magnificum' is a good companion plant for tulips; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

Companion Planting

Some good perennial companions for tulips are lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), hardy geraniums (Geranium), blue star (Amsonia), phlox (Phlox paniculata), bugleweed (Ajuga), Siberian bugloss (Brunnera), avens (Geum) and bugbane (Actaea).

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