4. Tulip Pests & Common Ailments
As with most plants, pests and disease are unfortunately things we must deal with, but not without hope. In most cases, if you take preventative measures you can avoid the heartbreak of dealing with the loss of your tulips in the first place.
If your tulips fail to emerge in the spring or they develop stunted, yellow leaves, or brown spots on your bulbs may be experiencing bulb rot. If you notice this, the best thing to do would be to dig up and inspect your tulips bulbs first hand. Any diseased bulbs should be tossed and even remove some of the soil surrounding the bulbs as well, just in case there are some fungi or bacteria still present in the surrounding area.
Bulb rot can be avoided if you follow the proper planting instructions, in particular if you have well-drained soil (do what you can to improve air circulation) and your bulbs are planted at the proper depth.
Botrytis Blight (Gray Mold)
Botrytis Blight is a fungal disease that can cause buds and flowers to become speckled and brown, or rot quickly. Sometimes the weather can cause the blight to show up as a gray mold on the plant, in particular if you’ve just experienced consistent damp and cool weather.
To prevent the blight in the first place, good pest management strategies include avoiding overcrowding when you plant to promote good air circulation, avoiding a fertilizer high in nitrogen and avoiding overhead watering so you don’t get water on the flowers or foliage, especially on cooler, cloudy days.
If you notice any blight on your tulips, dispose of the infected parts of the plant right away.
Rodents seem to love to dig up tulip bulbs for a snack and oftentimes right after you’ve planted them! If you have a lot of wildlife around, like squirrels or rabbits, loosely wrap some wide, wire mesh around the bulbs before you plant, which will deter pests from digging up your bulbs.
If you find aphids crawling all over your tulips, there are several actions you can take to get those pests away from your blooms. Neem oil or other horticultural oils (make sure you read the packaging before applying the oil to your tulips) is an effective method at getting rid of aphids. You could also apply a mixture of water and a couple drops of dish soap to a cloth or spray bottle and gently wipe or spray the infected area (apply every 2-3 days for a couple of weeks for best results). Sometimes simply spraying the aphids with cold water will dislodge them and prevent them from returning. Diatomaceous earth, an organic powdery compound, can be used successfully against an aphid infestation by simply sprinkling it over the plants.
Beneficial insects will compete with aphids and keep their population at bay, so it might not be a bad idea to plant a beneficial pollinator flower mixture in the area to help deter these pests if they are a recurring issue.
Slugs and Snails
Placing shallow containers of beer around your garden act as little slug and snail traps. It’s a nasty bit of business but you don’t want them wrecking your tulips!
Other gardeners swear by placing little bits of pine needles, coffee grounds, sand or crushed eggshells around the base of your plants to prevent slugs and snails from getting to your plants in the first place.
Or you could do it the old fashioned way and pick the little slugs off by hand.
To prevent these little buggers from getting into your plants in the first place, every spring you should give your garden a good rake, that helps to limit the moist surfaces and debris that attract snails and slugs, also eliminating any eggs that might be hiding in the soil.
Common Problems With Tulips
If your blooms are falling over because they’re one of the Double varieties or the stems are on the taller side like the Lily-Flowered types, it might be a good idea to stake your flowers and even more so if they are in shadier areas, which encourages legginess.
If your tulip stems are growing soft, droopy or begin to collapse, it’s most often from root or stem rot caused by excessively moist soil. Remember-tulips do not like too much water! If you have a bunch of droopy plants, try your best to add some drainage material at the base of your plants and most importantly, if the extra watering is not due to excessive rain, stop over-watering.
If your flower buds are streaked or distorted, this is usually a symptom of a serious fungal disease that will require you to dig up and destroy the bulb before it can spread to other plants.
5. Saving and Storing Tulip Bulbs
If growing tulips in cold-winter zones, garden tulips require no special winter protection, since tulips enjoy a cold dormant period. But if you are in an area with a milder winter, or if you want to give bulbs away as gifts the following season, there are tried and true options to keep your bulbs happy while they’re tucked away for winter.
If you want to grow your bulbs for next year and don’t think they will survive in the ground overwinter, then digging them up and storing them is your best bet.
Wait until the plant’s foliage has died or you’ve cut it back, before you dig up your bulbs, but make sure it’s before the first frost! Otherwise the bulbs may rot.
Brush off as much soil as possible when you dig up your bulbs, but do not peel away the layers that surround each one.
Allow the bulbs to dry indoors for at least two weeks and then prepare them for storage by placing them in a breathable material, like a paper or mesh bag. After you have them wrapped up, place them in a container and fill the container with peat moss, saw dust, vermiculite or newspaper at least one inch thick over each bulb. Air flow is key! So make sure whichever vessel you’re storing your bulbs in, paper box, plastic container, etc., has enough circulation to prevent your bulbs from rotting.
The goal is to keep them dry while they’re dormant or risk losing your stored bulbs when you take them out to plant in the springtime.
How Do You Maintain Tulips Year After Year?
Every year you should add compost to your tulip site, preferably in the fall or after the blooming season has passed in order to provide some added nutrients to the bulbs for the next season.
A good practice for maintenance would be to continuously split your bulbs every couple of years. Even if you don’t store them or replant the daughter bulbs, it would be a good idea to limit the amount of bulbs at the planting site to avoid overcrowding to prevent diseases and resource competition.
6. How To Propagate Tulips
There are a couple of methods that can be followed to propagate tulips, the simplest being bulb division and the most challenging being saving your tulip seeds to grow the bulb yourself. Whichever method you choose, both can be rewarding in the long run.
The best way to propagate your tulips is through bulb division. Although tulips do produce seeds, it can take years for them to eventually become bulbs and then produce flowers. So bulb division is your best bet!
The fall is the best time to start this process because the bulbs need a good amount of time to cool, or “chill down”, which allows the bulb to store energy for growth.
You can propagate your tulips by digging them up in the fall and removing the smaller bulbs, the “daughter bulbs”, that have developed during the growing season off of the parent bulb. As you would expect, these daughter bulbs are smaller than the parent bulb and should be easy to identify. Once you have them separated, plant them as you would new bulbs, paying attention to drainage, sunlight and proper spacing.
Ideally, you should be dividing and propagating your tulips every three to five years. This is to avoid overcrowding and promote healthy growth year after year, otherwise you can have too many bulbs crowding each other, which could lead to fungal growth, drainage issues and damage your tulips.
Growing Tulips From Seed
Propagating tulips by seeds can be done, but it is a bit of a long process and can take 2 to 7 years to produce a bulb. But if you’re adventurous and patient, you can try your hand at growing your own tulips from seed.
When your tulips bloom and begin to fade, don’t cut them back and let them go to seed. Once they are brown and faded, collect the pods that are left behind. Open the pods up and collect the seeds then place them out on the counter in a container for about a week or so to dry out.
Once they are dry, wrap the seeds in a damp paper towel and place them in a plastic bag. Store these seeds in the refrigerator for 12 to 14 weeks, similar to how you would store a tulip bulb overwinter in a cold spot to replant in the spring.
When spring arrives, sow your seeds on the surface of small pots filled with potting mix, as you would start any type of seed indoors. Place the pots in a sunny location and keep them moist until the seeds sprout, which could take a while! The pots can be moved outside once the weather warms and you should be fertilizing the seeds weekly with a balanced fertilizer. It might seem excessive that you have to fertilize every week, but you need to get them to bulk up and grow a bulb, so this type of heavy feeding is needed.
If your tulips haven’t germinated by late fall or developed two true leaves, you’ll have to move the tulips back into the refrigerator or a cold frame to once again mimic the chilling process for another 12 weeks.
After the chilling period is complete, bring the pots back out into the sunshine and warmth. As soon as you see two true tulip leaves sprout out, you can transplant the seedlings into the garden. At this point the tulips could still take another year or more to fully grow, but you’ve made it this far, so why not see what happens?
A Final Note
Tulips are a great, colorful addition to your garden. If you choose healthy, blemish-free bulbs and give the plant what it needs- lots of sunlight, proper soil conditions and drainage, and a good dose of fertilizer on an annual basis- then you can count on these flowers producing beautiful blooms in the spring every year. Choosing an heirloom variety will also give you a better chance of your tulips coming back the following year, so check for these types at your local nursery or preferred online retailer. And lastly, keep an eye on how much water your tulips get to avoid damaged plants and attracting pests.
Have fun and get growing!