Tulips: annuals or perennials?

Understanding tulip physiology is helpful to the home gardener

There’s still time to plant tulips for spring. Pictured here: Lily flowering tulips with Euphorbia polychroma and Ligularia ‘Britte Marie Crawford’ in the rear.

Last year, I tried to treat my tulips right. I fed them bonemeal and compost. I deadheaded them after they bloomed, so they wouldn’t set seed. I let the leaves linger in the garden, soaking in summer light. When the leaves yellowed, I lifted the bulbs, dried them, then stored them in a cool place. All this and you’d think I’d have some decent stock for this fall. But no: my tulip bulbs are so small I’m reluctant to re-plant.

What did I do wrong?

Understanding tulip physiology is helpful to the gardener and also explains why tulips cost so much to replace.

Tulips flower using the energy stored in their bulbs. In the wild (a mountainside in Kazakhstan, for example), the plant would be naturalized in grass. The bulb-to-bloom technique is an adaptation, much in the way our native camas has adapted to our summer droughts: store carbohydrates one year, in order to flower with the spring rains of the next.

A single ‘mother’ tulip bulb may produce only two or four daughter ‘bulblets’. The main bulb, after flowering, often dies. Given a healthy environment, these daughters will bloom. Without enough nutrients, drainage, cold, or space, a tulip bulb may only send up a leaf or fizzle out altogether.

To better perennialize tulips, plant the bulbs deeper than the packet recommends, approximately 8-10 inches, in well-drained soil, sun to part-sun. In our soils drainage can be difficult, so think creatively – a hillside, a sloped bed, or an area beyond irrigation could work. Also, look for tulip varieties that are intended to be naturalized, such a the small species tulips. The large Darwins and Triumph tulips also have a good reputation for repeat bloom.

There’s still time to plant tulips this year. Garden centres tend to offer discounts on bulbs once their Christmas stock arrives and they’re pressed for space. Try not to balk at the price of specialty tulips: A tulip grown from seed can take a full seven years to produce one flowering bulb. A new variety may take 20 years to develop as a result.

I’m growing tulips as annuals this season as I’ll be using them as cut flowers. I planted my bulbs egg-carton style, densely packed, and not very deep. (Dense planting works in pots as well, but only for a season.) I’ll be harvesting the blooms with the bulbs so I can plant summer annuals in their place.

Christin Geall is an Oak Bay gardener and UVic  creative non-fiction writing professor