Growing Tulips

by Deanna Williams

Tulips in crates at North Star Farm + Flower

Tulips are an incredible cut flower. There are thousands of varieties that are grown with different bloom times and come in almost every color and shape. You can find traditional, single-petal varieties or ones that look like peonies or have ruffled edges. 


For those of you who follow me on social media, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been talking a lot about tulips. And there’s two really good reasons for that!


(1) Tulips are the only flower actively growing at North Star right now. And


(2) The third Saturday of January is deemed National Tulip Day.


There was also a little bit of fun here on the farm a few weeks ago. We had a cold snap that neared -30ºF so thousands of tulips that were growing in crates out in the high tunnel had to be moved into the house to ensure they didn’t freeze.


The crates had just started to sprout and to keep their growth on track, I needed to make sure they were kept warm enough to continue growing. Some of the crates had plants act had grown almost six inches before making it back outside!

Tulpis with roots in crates
Deanna Williams holding crate of tulips

The pictures above show the crates on the day they moved inside (left) and then again on the day they went back out to the high tunnel (right). While there wasn’t a lot to see as far as bulbs sprouting when the plants were young, if you look closely, you’ll see roots coming out of the bottom.


There still aren’t any blooms yet, but the plants are starting to become fragrant. When you walk through the door of the greenhouse, it’s heated to 55ºF and smells like spring! 


I didn’t grow tulips my first year farming because bulbs were expensive and there is quite a bit of research supporting problems with bulbs carrying disease that can live in the soil. My second year, I placed a substantial order through Johnny’s Selecedt Seeds and I loved the varieties, but again, the expense was pretty substantial.


This year, I ordered my bulbs wholesale (through A.D.R. Bulbs, Inc.), and while there weren’t as many varieties to choose from as I am used to retail, the pricing was something that made sense and I opted to grow the majority of the bulbs in the field and then trial bulbs indoors. 

It’s safe to say that moving forward I will be growing and forcing tulips indoors throughout the winter months!

Deanna Williams with arm full of tulips at North Star Farm and Flower

Growing Tulips

One of the most important things to know before deciding whether or not you want to grow tulips, is that they need at last six weeks of cold weather to flower properly and perennialize (come back year after year). So if you live in an area that doesn’t drop below freezing, you’ll want to be sure to order pre chilled tulip bulbs and it is likely that you’ll need to plant new bulbs each year.


They are one of the easiest, and least demanding bulbs you can plant and whether they’re in pots on the patio, serving as a colorful boarder in your garden, or being grown en masse for cut flower use, they always make for a great show in the spring.


Tulips should be planted in the fall to ensure beautiful blooms after winter and perform best when planted in areas that receive full sun exposure.

Growing as Perennials (home use)

(1) Find a growing area that receives full sun (at least 8 hours of sun each day).


(2) Plant bulbs in the fall and space them about 4 inches apart. This will give them room to grow over the years as bulbs multiply. After three years, you can dig and separate the bulbs to transplant.


(3) For depth, a good rule of thumb is to plant the bulbs three times as deep as they are tall. So if the bulb is an inch tall, plant them 3 inches deep.


(4) Give them a good water and then cover with soil


They won’t need to be watered through the winter and usually do well without water in the spring unless the season is incredibly dry. If the soil feels dry, give them a water but be sure not to over-water and rot the bulbs.

Growing as Annuals (cut flower use)

Growing as cut flowers is a little bit different….

(1) Find a growing area that receives full sun and dig a trench that’s about 3 feet wide and as long as you would like. 

(2) Bulbs can be planted pretty close since they won’t be multiplying….think 1 cm, or ticking them in like eggs in a carton

(3) Give them a good water and cover with soil

Tulips can also be planted in crates similar to how they are planted in trenches. Typically, you can fit around 90-100 tulip bulbs in each bulb crate. Be sure to use pre chilled bulbs if you plan on forcing tulips or growing in crates.


Depending on your soil you may need to add fertilizers or amendments. If you’re unsure of the health of your soil, you should be fine with a fertilizer that has an NPK of 3-5-3.


If you’re growing for cut flower production, it’s highly recommended that you have your soil tested each year through a lab so that you can ensure the investment you’re making in your bulbs is worth it and you have a good environment to promote healthy growth.

Tulips planted in trenches at North Star Farm and Flower

Harvest + Vase LIfe

For the longest vase life, harvest when the flowers are still in bud, with just a hint of color showing on the outer petals.


When harvesting flowers as an annual (like we do here at North Star), you’ll want to pull the entire bulb out of the ground when harvesting. This keeps the food and nutrient source attached to the flower and will allow it to last longer in dry storage until you’re ready to use it. Often times, with the bulb still attached, tulips can be stored in a cooler for up to two weeks and then when they’re ready for use, simply snip the bulb off to be composted and place the flowers in water.


If you are wanting your tulips to come back and bloom the next year, make sure to cut the stem while leaving at least two sets of leaves attached. These two sets of leaves are required to replenish the bulb in the ground and give it what it needs to multiply bulbs and bloom again the following year.


A lot of people ask why the bulbs go to compost when tulips are harvested at the farm and the reason for this is because without those sets of leaves attached to the bulb, it might get enough energy to come back the next year, but it will only come back as foliage and will not bloom. 


Typically, tulips from the grocery store will last 4 to 5 days in the vase, but when you harvest your own tulips at home they usually persist for at least a week and a half. 


Post harvest, tulips have a tendency to bend and twist so it’s recommended to wrap them in a sleeve of paper and stand them upright in water for a few hours. Once the flowers are completely hydrated, go ahead and unwrap them and they’re ready to design with and will stand straighter in the vase.


It’s also important to keep in mind that tulips are a flower that will continue to grow and extend in stem length (especially the first few days after harvest), so if you’re planning to use them in designs, take into account that it is very likely the tulip stems will grow a couple more inches.


Quick Hits

  • Tulips are native to Central Asia and were first cultivated in the Ottoman Empire (think modern-day Turkey). The tulip is actually the national flower for both Turkey and Iran.
  • Tulips will continue to grow after harvest, sometimes even up to an inch a day while in a vase of water!
  • They will also follow the sun you’ll notice them move around if you have them in a vase near the window.
  • The petals of tulips are edible and can be used in place of onions in chilled dishes.
  • The industry for tulips got its start in Holland and Holland continues to be the largest supplier of tulip bulbs in the world.

17th Century Tulip Mania

At one point in time, were tulips worth more than gold?

Some say that in Holland during the 17th century, tulips became more valuable than gold and caused the crash of the Dutch economy.

Legend has it that tulips had been introduced in Europe by the Ottoman Empire when the Netherlands sent tulips to Vienna. The flowers became so loved and were such a hot commodity that they became worth more than some houses….could you imagine trading tulips for a home in 2024?

The prices of bulbs skyrocketed and attracted wealthy merchants who had hopes of reselling the bulbs at even higher prices because of the high demand. The market was unregulated and speculation was running rampant and those who were jumping in to the market were driven by completely irrational behavior which ultimately lead to the market bubble bursting.

Recent research challenges how widespread the actual impact was from those who had Tulip Fever and while the tulip bulb market crashed after the bubble burst, the crisis only affected a small group of people and not the general population.

The belief is that the story was exaggerated and spread as an economic cautionary tale against speculative bubbles and irrationality of financial markets. So, whether Tulip Mania was as bad as we originally thought, it is still good to heed warning and make sure you’re investing in assets driven by intrinsic value and not unsupported expectations that you can sell something for more than you bought it for based on hope.

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