Why Didn’t My Tulips Come Back?

Red tulips in the spring sunshine.Last year they bloomed and were BEAUTIFUL. What did I do wrong?

It’s a dilemma that happens every year. People plant tulips, knowing that they’re a perennial bulb, and only get one year of flowers. The next year there’s hardly anything there. Gardeners wonder: what did I do wrong?

Set me straight . . . before I again buy tulips

Best hope for tulip perennialization

Top Tulips that Come Back Every Year

Are you tired of seeing disappointing fizzles and mostly mulch where the “party” should be? There are a couple of logical explanations. They’re just not widely known.

The kind of tulips that bloom once and then self-destruct are called Triumph. When you buy tulips, they’re almost always labeled with the variety and the class. A package may say “Greigii” or “Fosteriana” or “Single Early” or “Darwin Hybrid.” All of these are classes of tulips, and they’re all more perennial than Triumph bulbs.

Now, this distinction might raise the question of why businesses would sell Triumph tulips besides the ulterior motive of creating more business in the future. I can’t speak for others so they can speak for themselves. Feel free to ask them!

In reality, some heirloom varieties in the Triumph class do have a long life span. But from now on, if you buy tulips and avoid Triumph types, you’ll be one step ahead.

Are there other possible reasons?

If the tulips were planted in a bed that is watered well they might have rotted over the summer. Other bulbs such as daffodils tolerate moisture better. Tulips are better off dry while they’re dormant. It helps to realize that they’re native to dry climates, not Holland, and in Europe tulip bulbs are often dug up for the summer and stored. That is, most of the displays you can see in European parks and public gardens are planted each fall, not permanent installations.

Maybe they didn’t return since they were not planted deep enough. It’s okay to put tulips with the base of the bulb 8 to 10 inches below the soil surface. Sometimes they last longer this way.

Tulips also need fertility for longevity, according to Dr. Paul Nelson of North Carolina State University. Nitrogen appears to be the key element, and it’s needed both at planting time and in the spring. The importance of bone meal has been discredited in recent years. Linda Chalker-Scott has addressed that topic on her web site, which is full of research-based recommendations that will surprise you.

A color photograph of a squirrel pausing in a green lawn.Squirrels and voles may eat the bulbs and deer may eat the flowers. If you have fewer than you planted, they may not have petered out. They got eaten.

So your lack of success may depend on the variety you chose, how deep it was, abundant or scarce nitrogen, whether it got eaten, and whether it rotted last summer.

The other part of the bigger picture is that some experts say it’s best not to think of tulips as a plant that will persist. People also avoid the problem by saying the species live longer than the cultivated varieties, but the species are–despite their charm–certainly much smaller, less to look at, and probably not what you had in mind.

Frank of katob427 (location: Pennsylvania) says that it doesn’t matter what tulip variety you plant, and also says that tulips return for him even in heavy soil. He likens his problem to having too much money, and doesn’t expect to get sympathy!

I hope this article brings you closer to what you did have in mind, and if you sign up for e-mails, I’ll share some sources and more perspective this fall when it’s time to plant.

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