Tulips - To Lift Or Not To Lift?

Rainbow bed with tulips of purple, red, orange and yellow
A "Rainbow Bed" of Tulips in April
Tulips bring a welcome burst of colour to the garden in spring before everything else really gets going. They are a great low maintenance option too because you can just plant them in autumn, leave them and wait for the show to start the following spring. But they do tend to flower less each year which means you have a choice - buy new ones each autumn to add to the existing show, or lift them and store them until it's time to replant them again in October. So is it worth the effort?

Why bother lifting your tulips?
Tulips will usually deteriorate less year on year if left in the ground, but it depends on your climate and conditions. Their natural environment is warm and dry, so in many parts of the UK they will find themselves in much wetter soil in winter than they are adapted for. Here on the hillside above Cardiff they are definitely affected by the wet winters we get, and they tend to either rot completely if left in the ground, or if they survive then they perform poorly compared to those that are lifted. 
Isn't it too much effort?

Small formal bed with roses and tulips edged with box
Small formal rose bed
It depends where you are growing them. I lift all the tulip bulbs from the bed in the top picture, and replant them every autumn. But I also like to grow some in the small formal area amongst small box hedges and thorny roses. The tulips will grow through the box hedge and the rose foliage, but while this looks appealing it means lifting them can disturb the roots of the box and roses, and also can result in a few nicks to the arms when carrying out the task. I have decided not to risk it in future but will have to add a few extra bulbs each year to maintain the same planting scheme. The upside of this of course is that I can change the colours over time. 
What do you need to do?
In the rest of the garden, and in pots, I dead head the tulip flowers, and let the leaves die down naturally. Lift them too early and they won't have enough chance to feed the bulb sufficiently to flower well the next year. Leave it too late and the leaves disappear altogether and you'll be digging around blindly trying to find the bulbs to lift them. Avoid tidying the leaves by tying them together as this inhibits photosynthesis and reduces the goodness that gets transferred to the bulb.
If it looks a bit scruffy you can plant things nearby to disguise the dying tulip foliage. My rainbow bed uses wallflowers in the same colours as the tulips, and these continue standing after the tulips have finished. Growing tulips behind box edging is also a good way of hiding them once they're past their best, while the sun can still reach them from above. Other perennials like lupins and geum also tend to block them out at the right time. If grown in pots, they can just be moved out of the way.
So when the leaves have died back but before they get blown away completely, use a trowel to dig down beneath the bulbs and lift them. I prefer a trowel to a fork as the fork can spear the bulbs through the middle quite easily. You still need to be a bit careful with the trowel though, so that you don't dig in the wrong place and chop them in half.
All I do is pop all the bulbs in a plant pot and put them in the shed so they keep nice and dry. I replant them in late October, and by that time they are really dried out which gives them enough resistance to the wet winter weather that they won't rot. If left in the ground, they never dry out completely and are more vulnerable. Put them somewhere dry and dark (light can stimulate growth too early) and they'll be fine.
Zingy Orange Tulips in Pots
Zingy Orange Tulips in Pots
That's not too much effort really, and it will save a bit of cash on replacement bulbs, and give you a better display next spring from the ones you've already got.



  1. Morning! I've dug up and stored mine. Or most of them. I think I'm going to put them all in the borders this autumn (vs containers). This is a thinly veiled excuse to buy more bulbs for the containers. Do you think my wife will see through this cunning plan? I have taken to planting the tulips in plastic pot liners so they can be removed when gone over and left to it in a corner where the dying foliage isn't an eyesore. I like a tulip, definitely worth getting a year or two more useful life out of them.

  2. Hi JJ, thanks for reading my blog, and for commenting too. Great idea to use a liner for your tulips, I may try that one in the hope it will make them easier to find and harder to accidentally chop in two whilst lifting them! Thanks again,


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