Answers From the Tulip Garden Expert
Spring 2013
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Special thanks to University of Minnesota Professor Mary Meyer for providing her time and expertise to respond to your tulip garden questions.

This page contains questions and answers from 2013.


Mary Meyer

From: Saint Mary's Hall students grades 3 and 4. San Antonio, Texas.
Q: My tulip sprouted and the bud formed, but the petals appeared to be deformed and wilted. What caused this?  Kay D.

A: This is disappointing, and I hope not all of the tulips were like this. Something damaged the petals when they were developing. It could have been too warm where the bulbs were stored or too warm in the soil this winter, or something bruised the developing cells. Tulip bulbs are alive and need proper care from when they are dug one year through their growth the following spring. 

Q:  Many of our tulips appeared to be “albino’s”…were pale, mostly white with very little red coloring.  Could the squirrel repellent have caused that?  Other than that they were tall and healthy. The tulips that did keep the red color were dwarfed compared to past years.  The actual blossom was normal size.   Phyllis S.

A: Colorless tulip petals could be caused by damage to the flower bud from ethylene gas (given off by maturing plants or fruit) or other environmental factors such as high temperatures in storage, very dry conditions during the winter in the soil. It may be possible the squirrel repellent did this, but unlikely if the leaves and stem are ok. It is also possible, but not so likely, that the lighter colored tulips were not ‘Red Emperor’, or the correct variety.

Stem elongation is affected by weather temperatures in the winter and spring when the tulips are growing and coming up. In general, the warmer the weather, the shorter the stem  may be. This is a common problem in warm climates where the winter may be short. Its good weather for people, but not as good for tulips! 

Q:  I was wondering if we can dig up the bulbs and use them again the next year? If yes, do they bloom successfully? Laura

A: Yes, this may work, if you allow the bulbs to naturally grow through the yellowing of foliage, which may take 6-8 weeks. By mid summer the bulbs are dormant and will have stored as much food for the following year’s flower as possible. You can dig them and replant in the fall, or leave them in place and see how they do next year. Just leave the foliage on and do not cut it off, allow it to die naturally. Tulips will not always re-flower the second year. 

Q:   Do the heights of tulips vary much? Remy W

A: Yes, depending on the kind, they can be less than 12 “ to nearly 3 feet!

Q:  Why did Jake’s tulip have two blossoms while my tulip only produced one flower?  Martita H

A: Jake’s tulip was a very large bulb with two flower buds in the bulb, which means it had the best of conditions when it was growing and developing. Most tulips have only one flower blossom. 

Q: How many new tulip bulbs will be produced by my tulip bulb that I planted this year? Madison

A: Usually just one, in ideal conditions, one bulb may develop into 2 or 3 smaller bulbs that will get bigger the following year. Normally, 1 “mother” or first year bulb has just one “daughter” or second year bulb in tulips.

Q:  Why is the tulip bulb so much bigger than most other flower seeds? Jake R

A: This is just the way tulips “are”. They developed this way to live through the dry summers in the climate where they are native, in the Mediterranean. Cold, wet winters allowed the plants to develop bulbs, that would go dormant in the hot dry summer. In the fall, the bulb begins to grow and develops in the wet winter, then escapes the dry summer because it is a dormant. How cool is that - A plant that adapted to ‘sleep’ during the dry season when conditions were not good for growing?

Q:  How do tulips get their colors? Jack H

A:  Flower color is due to the genes that are within a plant. Just like you or me, our hair color and eye color is due to the genes within us, so it is with plants. Flower color is determined by gene expression and the production of pigments that show up as colors with the cells of the petals.

Q:  Why do some tulips come up earlier than others that were planted in the same garden at the same time?  Why do some tulips grow faster than others that did come up at the same time in the same garden? Annika H

A:  Most likely this has to do with variations with the soil temperature, soil moisture and planting depth. Tulips like moist but not soaking wet soil. They rot easily in very wet soil. Shallow bulbs come up quickly and bulbs planted deeper come up later. Shallow bulbs can also be more affected by warmer weather and may have shorter stems.

Q:  How many kinds of tulips are there in the world? McKenzie K

A: WOW, I had to look this question up!  Botanically, there are 109 species of tulips with 4 sub species and many sections. Horticulturaly, there are 16 divisions or different groups based on floral appearance. There are over 3,000 different registered varieties of tulips!! So you have grown just 1 of at least 3,000 different kinds of tulips! 

Q: Does the shape of the bulb affect the sepal’s structure?  (Can you tell fourth grade is studying plants and photosynthesis?) Jennings S

A: Great question! No, the shape of the bulb does not affect the sepal, but the SIZE of the bulb does affect the size of the flower and the leaves. The larger the bulb the larger the flower and foliage will be.

Q: Where in the world is the best place to grow tulips and when? Sean M

A: The best climate is likely where they are native, Turkey and central Asia. Here the weather and soil is the best for growing tulips. Other climates that have cold winters and dry summers are good also.

From: Nelson Rural School grades 2 and 3. Miramichi, New Brunswick Canada

Q: We planted our tulips in October. Our friends in Dallas told us they could not plant their bulbs until later. They had to keep them cold until they planted them. Why do you have to keep the bulbs cold?

A: Because tulips developed in a climate with cold winters, they will not grow and flower unless the bulbs are kept cold. In Dallas, it is too warm outdoors for tulips, even in the winter. So the bulbs are stored indoors in the cold, until they are ‘chilled’ to meet their cold requirement, and then they are planted outside. 

Q: Do all bulbs take the same amount of time to grow if they are in the same temperature or climate?

A: Yes, if they are all the same variety of tulip, they will all grow similarly if they are treated exactly the same. Plants are very sensitive to the environment, however, and they can often detect and react to differences we humans cannot feel or see.

Q:  Our teachers told us to make sure we plant the bulb the right way. What would happen if you planted the bulb upside down?

A: Bulbs planted upside down usually cannot grow properly. Some might, but they must use a great deal of energy and grow much further, so they often die or develop poorly. This would be a good experiment to try, especially in a container indoors and watch what happens. Bulbs planted on their side will be ok. Upside down bulbs must make a complete u-turn with the stem and come up, so that is a lot of effort and work.

Q: Our weather keeps changing. On the weekend it was nice and 10C or 50F. Then on Monday we had snow and ice pellets. Today it is cold and windy with a temperature of -16C or 4F with the wind chill. Our tulips have still not emerged. If they were up is it possible they would freeze?

A: Yes, temperatures below 28 degrees F will kill bulb tissue and damage the leaves. Soil is a good insulator and helps to moderate the air temperature. Soil temperatures are about 30 degrees most of the winter, and soil temperature does not vary like air temperatures. Snow will not damage bulbs or leaves, as long as it is not below 28 degrees. But with cold weather it will take longer for the bulbs to grow. 

Q: Does the ground have to be a certain temperature for the tulips to emerge? How do they know when it is time to come out of the ground?

A: Yes, the ground has to be above freezing, and usually about 40 degrees for the tulips to start growing. The plant tissues are very sensitive to temperatures and the temperature and availability of water allows the plant to begin to grow. When water is available the plant root hairs take it up and growth begins in the plant cells.

Q: Once the tulips have emerged, how long does it usually take for them to bloom?

A: This depends on the weather. The warmer it is the faster the flowers will appear. The floral bud is developed in the bulb, it just has to elongate the stem and open. Usually if the weather is warm, in the 60’s F, the flowers will come in 2-3 weeks.

Q: We planted our tulips in October. Our friends in Dallas did not plant theirs until January. Our tulips have still not emerged and theirs have already emerged and bloomed! Is it because of the temperature why some bloom a lot faster than others?

A: Yes, tulips develop their flower buds within the bulb when it is cold. Then when it is warm, the stem elongates rapidly and we see the flowers in a few weeks. If it is cold, the bulbs wait for the warm temperatures before they grow. 

Q: How long do tulips usually stay alive, and do they live longer in the warmer climates?

A: Tulips can live for many years in the proper climate. In good conditions, some species of tulips live for 10-20 years. They live the longest where the winters are cold and wet and the summers are dry.

Q: Would it ever be possible for our tulips to bloom in New Brunswick before the ones in Dallas?

A: Not outdoors, I think! But indoors, you could plant some in containers that have been treated to the same cold conditions as the bulbs in Dallas. And then compare the growth.

Q: We had a lot of snow this year on our garden. When we measured one time in February there was about 45cm of snow on the garden. Does the snow help or hurt the tulips?

A: Snow is a good insulator and helps to keep the soil cold, it helps prevent the soil from freezing and thawing, which can harm tulips, especially if they are planted too shallow. Soil temperatures stay about 30 degrees under the snow and tulips need the cold to develop their flower buds, so they do not mind the snow!

From: Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary School, Charleston, South Carolina GR 3

Ms. O’Neills class, 3A

Q. Is too much rainfall an issue only when tulips have already emerged as it seemed the late bloomers fared better (as they were under the ground still when the heavy rainfall occurred)?

A. Good drainage is essential for all successful gardens. Good soil will drain water after a heavy rainfall. Soil high in clay, or soil that has become compacted doesn’t drain well.  Tulip bulbs can easily rot if they sit in wet soil for a long period of time.

Q. Is it necessary to change the planter soil every year?

A. Soil nutrients in a planter box can be used up after growing tulips. The soil should be replaced each year or at least a portion, half or more replaced.

Q. Could a rotten bulb contaminate the soil so as to negatively affect the other tulips?

A. One bulb that decays will not necessarily infect other bulbs. The fungi and bacteria that cause a bulb to break down can become part of your soil ecosystem.

Ms. Wiggins’ class, 3B

Q. Students are wondering if bone meal is always beneficial. When is it not?

A. . Adding bone meal to your tulip garden soil would be beneficial if the soil is lacking in phosphorus. If you have enough phosphorus already, adding more is not a good idea. And bone meal is a slow release fertilizer and requires soil microbes to convert it to a usable form for plant roots.

Q. Is bone meal like vitamins for a plant? Can it be a substitute for a poorer plant diet like it is for us?

A. Bone meal is a good source of slow-release phosphorus, and phosphorus is a major or macro element used by plants, it is more than a vitamin.

Q. Would it account for the success differences in our experiment? Students want to know if bulb pruning is helpful or was the one that thrived (the only one cut) just a fluke?

A. The fact that the cut bulb grew best in this experiment was probably a fluke!

Ms. Sires’ class, 3C

Q. How much is too much rain for tulip bulbs? Is there a difference at what stage the rain falls, before the tulip emerges vs. after the tulip emerges?

A. A lot of rain as the bulbs are developing is ok, and during bloom rain is ok. A lot of rain after the bulbs are finished, during the summer can rot the bulbs and is not good.

Good drainage is essential for all successful gardens. Most soil will drain water after a heavy rainfall. Soil high in clay, or soil that has become compacted doesn’t drain well.  Tulip bulbs can easily rot if they sit in wet soil for a long period of time.

Q. Are some insects good for tulips? Which ones?

A. Maybe we can say that tulips are good for insects! Since tulips generally reproduce through creating bulblets instead of seeds, bees aren’t actually needed for propagation. Tulips provide pollen and nectar for bees and other insects. That’s a good thing!

Q. Which insects are harmful to tulips and how can we better protect them?

A. Thrips are a small insect that can damage tulips. Many animals like to eat tulips, deer, squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits all will eat tulip bulbs and perhaps the flowers and bulb.

Q. Should the soil be replaced every year especially after a ‘bad tulip year’ like this one?

A. Soil in the planting boxes or pots should be replaced each year. The weather can also affect how the bulbs grow. Soil should be moist in the fall with adequate moisture so the bulbs will develop good roots. The fall of 2012 was very dry for many parts of the U. S. and the bulbs may not have gotten enough water.

Ms. McComas' class, 3D

Q. Is bone meal always good for bulbs? Are there other substances that could be a substitute for bone meal? Did the bone meal cause the bulbs to have the bulblets?

A. Bone meal can be a good addition for bulbs in soil that needs phosphorus. Many soils are high in phosphorus and bone meal is not needed. Commercial bulb fertilizer can be used if your soil is low in nutrients and a soil test shows nutrients are needed. Bone meal contains a good amount of phosphorus which can be beneficial for root and bulblet formation.