Question: Every time I plant tulips, they seem to come up only one or two years, then they disappear. Do you have any advice for getting tulips to come back year after year after year, like my daffodils and crocus do?
Answer: Hybrid tulips are not strongly perennial in most gardens. They are grown in sandy soil in the Netherlands, fertilized precisely and tended so that the maximum energy will be drawn into the bulb before being dug and stored in climate-controlled warehouses. This ensures large bulbs that will bloom well one year, but then they typically split themselves into smaller bulbs that can take years to grow back to blooming size. Also, tulips are native to areas such as the Turkish mountains where they receive no rainfall in summer and enjoy excellent drainage. Even in moderately damp conditions they can easily rot.
To increase your chances of having a repeat performance from tulips, there are a few things you can try:
1. Choose "Darwin Hybrid" tulips, Fosteriana tulips, varieties described as "Single Early" and "Single Late," and wild or "species" tulips (T. clusiana, kaufmanniana, gregii). These are all more apt to return for several years (they still require excellent drainage and dry summers). Species tulips also spread by seed. Pictured:Tulipa clusiana 'Lady Jane'.
2. Plant tulips in a site you will never water over the summer (see #5 if you don't have such a place).
3. Amend soil to improve drainage.
4. Let the foliage completely yellow before removing.
5. You can also dig up the bulbs after they bloom, lay them flat on bare soil (leaves in tact), cover the bulbs with a few inches of coil and wait for the leaves and stems to completely die. Then cut off the tops, let the bulbs air dry for a few days, and store them in a cool, dark, dry place. Replant them in late fall.
Plan your bulb planting with the Bulb Garden Wheel, a fun and effective tool for less than $8.
Check out the CobraHead, a versatile tool that's great for planting bulbs.
Learn about common and uncommon bulbs plus bulb-growing tips with our Bulbs CD