Container Tulips for Highly Distracted Gardeners

This is my annual post about planting tulips in containers, but with a twist. If you’re tired of reading about growing tulips in containers, I won’t hold it against you. If not, read on.

Over the last few years I have become a container tulip enthusiast.

I love hybrid tulips with bright luscious flowers, but I prefer to plant smaller bulbs (including species tulips) in beds and borders. Larger bulbs can be a nuisance, especially those hybrid tulips that bloom well only for a year or two (experience varies widely on this point, depending on both climate and tulip variety). Broad tulip leaves can get in the way of emerging perennials.

Container tulips
Container tulips blooming last May.

When tulips are done blooming in a container, just pull the foliage and plant the container with summer annuals. The spent bulbs usually go on the compost, though sometimes I will plant them in a new bed.

Another advantage of container tulips: they can be moved to wherever you think they will have the greatest impact. I like to line them up on the walk to our front door. Also, you can pack them densely to maximize the impact even more.

To plant containers with tulips, I pour the old potting mix into a bucket, where it gets refreshed with a couple of handfuls of compost or rotted manure. I then return a few inches of mix to the bottom of the container.

Tulip bulbs ready to be tucked in for winter.
Tulip bulbs ready to be tucked in for winter.

The bulbs go on top of the potting mix, leaving just 1-2″ between them. The top of the bulbs should be at least six inches from the top of the container, but deeper is better.

In my opinion, it’s best to use just one variety of tulip for each container. This gives you the greatest visual impact and simplifies the transition to summer annuals when the tulips are done. I try to have a mix of early, mid-season, and late varieties.

planting container tulips
Containers with tulips bulbs ready to go in the ground.

Once the bulbs are planted, fill the rest of the container with the remaining potting mix, firming it down when done. I throw on some fresh mix if the level of the potting soil is much more than an inch from the top.

The next big issue is how to store the containers. Here in zone 5, I either bury the containers to the rim or place them in our unheated garage. I have had good results with both approaches. In zone 6 or 7, I think it is possible to leave the containers in a protected area outside.

Ten containers, but do they all have bulbs?
Ten containers, but do they all have bulbs?

However, don’t forget the squirrels and other varmints who love to eat tulip bulbs. My anti-varmint defense system consists of chicken wire weighed down with pavers. I also added some tin chickens to provide extra protection.

But here’s where the distracted part comes in. I was in such a rush to plant that I’m almost positive I filled one container with potting mix but no bulbs. I didn’t realize this until after all the containers were buried.

I ordered 160 bulbs, and based on how I thought I was planting them they should be divided among nine containers. However, when I finished there were somehow ten containers buried in the herb/cutting bed. Unless something really spooky is going on, the tenth one did not bury itself.

Even so, I’m not going to dig them up one by one in order to make sure. If I did, I fear the neighbors might start to wonder exactly what or who I was burying in our garden.

And another thing: I had twelve containers full of tulips this past spring, but next year I will have only nine (or ten) because I was cramming in more bulbs per pot.

'Princess Irene'
‘Princess Irene’

This does not seem right (having fewer pots of tulips, that is), so I ordered another 40 bulbs from John Scheeper’s. However, in order to have the minimum size order for shipping I had to add another 20, which means a total of 220 tulip bulbs. But it seems to me I had absolutely no choice in the matter.

The extras I ordered were our three most favorite varieties: ‘Ballerina’, ‘Princess Irene’, and ‘Couleur Cardinal’. They will go in another three containers to be stored in the garage.


So I cannot stress this point strongly enough concerning tulips in containers: do not plant them while highly distracted. And watch out for pots that bury themselves.

48 Comments on “Container Tulips for Highly Distracted Gardeners”

  1. Spooky indeed, but then it IS almost Halloween! I am trying a few tulips in pots for next year… digging those deep holes is way too much like hard work in our soil though, so I will put them in the garage. Nice post Jason!

  2. I’m probably going to try planting some tulips in pots this winter. I’ve never done it before. I’m in zone 7b, so I think they’ll be ok if I leave them outside. I worry they’ll get soaked from our winter rain, though, and turn to mush. Well, I’ll never know if I don’t give it a shot.

  3. A great post with good tulip tips, including the one about thinking up a good justification for buying even more bulbs. I realise now I haven’ t ordered nearly enough. That minimum order thing is handy. Obviously I’ m going to need a lot more.I never bury the pots though. Too much like hard work.

  4. I had my first laugh of the day reading this. This is certainly a distracted thing to do, planting a pot without bulbs. Just thinking about the neighbors wondering what you are planting in the garden again and again…I will giggle a time or two about that too. You will have to have Judy go outside a few times to make sure the neighbors know she is ok. 😉

  5. ‘Princess Irene’ is my absolute favourite – it looks as though the colours are painted on. But I also love most other tulips in the ground, in pots, as cut flowers… You can never have too many. I love your squirrel defences! I never bury my pots but I do have two cats and a dog who like to chase squirrels.

  6. This made me laugh, Jason:) I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who gets distracted. I suppose you’ll know for sure next spring if you have one pot that never blooms. Perfect timing for this post–I usually plant all my tulips in the ground, but the last two years I’ve tried one container. The first year I discovered–too late–the pot didn’t have a proper drainage hole, and the tulips all drowned. Last year, I don’t know what happened, but I suspect the pot got too cold because I never got around to insulating it. I remembered your posts from the spring about burying your pots, which sounded like the perfect solution. Sophie has already kindly dug a big hole in my vegetable garden for me, so I think I’ll try one pot and see how it turns out. Plus, I ordered way too many tulips, too:)

  7. Wow –literally burying the pots! That is too much work for me. However, we have a new, well-insulated, garage. And I have a handful of tulip bulbs left that aren’t in the ground yet, so I think I’m going to try the pot thing. Thanks for the primer!

  8. Hi Jason, this post had me chuckling; the case of the self-burying pot and they way you were forced into buying more are bulbs – simply shocking. I’ve decided that after all the border work this season, I won’t be doing a mega-spring-bulb-planting session and so I particularly looked forward to your annual “tulip planting” post.

  9. I think I could do this actually. I am trying to put another cutting bed together and use it for tulips in the spring….you remind me to cover it with chicken wire….that is next year. But I could plant some in tulips in containers and bury them in raised beds. This year I am overwintering containers of perennials and small bushes for next year’s garden, but I will try some containers next year.

  10. Pingback: Garden Clubs | NewEnglandGardenAndThread

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