If you’ve ever grown tulips, you know that they can be temperamental. Some years, your bulbs will produce gorgeous flowers, and other years—or even decades—they won’t bloom at all. Why the difference?
Stubby tulips are usually an indicator of inadequate light or watering. It could also be a sign that your tulips are under some kind of stress, caused by either not having their needs met or an illness. Stubby tulips can usually be addressed and grow larger, but diseased or infested plants need further intervention.
Don’t throw out those tulips yet! Below, I’ll go over the top four reasons your tulips are growing stubby. Then, I’ll wrap up with a few tips on proper tulip growing.
Possible Reasons Your Tulips Are Stubby
Growing stubby tulips is no reason to call your garden a loss–in fact, it’s pretty common!
Most usually, when plants aren’t growing to their desired size, it’s an indicator that the plant is either in distress or not getting exactly what it needs.
Now, you may think, “but it’s getting water, sunlight, and is in the soil…what else can it need?” Plants are as picky as humans, and the wrong amount of water or the wrong type and amount of sunlight (six hours of unprotected sun for a plant that requires shade and indirect sunlight) can change the way your plant grows.
1. Sunlight and Temperature
Nine times out of ten, a stubby tulip directly results from the sunlight or temperature you’re growing in. Tulips are prized flowers for their beauty, smell, and symbolism, but they’re also prized because of how rare they are. This has to do with the ease of growing, dependent upon the hardiness zones you’re growing your tulips in.
You might have heard the term “hardiness zones,” a method of grouping plants by their ability to withstand cold temperatures. Hardiness zones are numbered from 1 to 10 (the lower the number, the colder the temperature) and are based on an area’s average minimum temperature.
For example, if your hardiness zone is 6B, your average annual minimum temperature is between -40°F and -32°F (-40 to -35°C). Here’s a video explaining hardiness zones:
Tulips prefer a temperature of under 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius) and above 29 degrees Fahrenheit (-1.67 degrees Celsius). For many of us in the United States, this seems like an impossible standard!
Especially for those of us living on the coasts or in the south, there are few days a year that fit that standard. This could explain why your tulips are coming up stubby.
How To Fix
To solve this, keep in mind the preferred temperature of your tulips and do your best to fit your growing schedule around them. If you live in a hardiness zone that does well with tulips, which are hardiness zones 3-7, just be cognizant of where you are putting your tulips. A shady spot may be too cold, or a direct sunlight area may be too warm. It depends on your garden!
On top of their temperature preferences, tulips also require six hours of direct, bright sunlight. Keep this in mind when choosing the spot where your tulips will grow! If you’re unsure of the temperature in your garden, you can always grab a thermometer or a sun meter to check it out.
2. Watering and Drainage
Another common culprit for stumpy tulips is overwatering. Especially in the early days of growth, tulip bulbs must be in moist soil. Still, keeping them too wet for too long can cause the roots to rot and eventually kill your plant.
Drainage and watering go hand in hand, too. If you’re watering the perfect amount and, for some reason, the tulips aren’t doing well, drainage or soil composition may be the issue.
Poor drainage can cause many problems, including stubby tulip flowers. If your tulips have poor drainage, they may not be able to grow their roots deep enough to produce sturdy stems that are strong enough to support the weight of their blooms.
How To Fix
When it comes to water, sometimes less is more. You don’t want to leave your tulips in a puddle of water after you’ve watered them. This can also lead to fungal diseases, which are as dangerous as root rot. If you’ve noticed your tulips are struggling or stumpy, your best bet is to check on your tulip once a day with your finger (or something else non-metal, like a stick or pencil) and make sure the soil is damp but not wet before watering again if necessary.
Your tulips need about ⅔ to 1 inches (1.69 – 2.54 cm) of water a week but proceed cautiously. This will be drastically different if you live in a rainy or tepid area or your soil retains moisture differently than the average gardener. Overwatering and underwatering are equally dangerous, so I suggest always ensuring your soil is moist.
If you’re still having trouble keeping track of how much water your plants are getting each day. If you have the means for it, consider using an automatic watering system that will provide your garden based on weather conditions and soil moisture levels instead. A moisture meter also takes the guesswork out of how moist your soil is for a much lower cost.
To check for drainage, dig up some soil from around your tulips during dry weather and water it well overnight. If there’s a noticeable difference in how much water is absorbed by the top layer of soil and how much continues down into the ground (usually about an inch or so), then you know you need to improve drainage by adding amendments like peat moss or coconut coir to loosen up hard-packed dirt at the bottom of your garden bed.
3. Nutrients and pH
If you’ve been fertilizing in hopes that your plants will grow taller and your tulips will stop being so stubby, you may have thrown off the pH balance. Fertilizers, made from chemicals and oil, can affect soil pH. Soil pH affects plant growth, nutrients, diseases, and pests — it’s one of the most critical factors in the health of your plants.
Acidic soils are more acidic than neutral (anything below 7.0), and alkaline soils are more alkaline than neutral (anything above 7.0). If you have an acidic lawn or garden because of fertilizer use, this could be an issue for tulip bulbs – tulip bulbs prefer slightly acidic soil to grow well (their personal preference is around 6.0-7.0).
How To Fix
To solve this, find a pH test at your local gardening or hardware store. You can also easily purchase these online, and they’re pretty user-friendly. Give your soil a quick pH test and see what you find. If it’s above 7.0 or below 6.0, you may need to adjust your soil accordingly. You can do this by liming, composting, or adding nutrients to your soil.
If you have a good feeling that your soil needs fixing and you have the means, you can send a sample to a local lab. This will give you tons of information – it’ll tell you the pH, composition, and nutrients available in your soil.
4. Illnesses and Pests
By their sheer nature, tulips may be a target for pests and illnesses.
They’re often planted in large groups and used as border plants or to fill an entire garden. This means they’re susceptible to diseases that can spread through plant sap and pollen.
The most common disease that affects tulips is known as “tulip breaking” (also known as “flashing” or “fading”). This is caused by a fungus called Fusarium oxysporum, which was a massive problem for greenhouse tulips in 2002. The fungus causes flowers to wilt and die prematurely, often before they open fully. Other symptoms include browning leaves and poor growth of the plant itself.
When this fungus infects bulbs that have already been planted in the ground (as opposed to those still in storage), it can cause them to not bloom at all or only produce one flower instead of two per stem.
Here are some other common illnesses that affect tulips:
- Tulip fire blight. This fungal disease causes leaves to turn brown, wilt, and fall off the plant, which can lead to the death of the entire plant if not treated quickly enough.
- Tulip bulb rot. This is caused by bacteria that can be introduced into the soil when bulbs are planted too deeply, or water seeps below them during periods of heavy rain. The bacteria produce spores that enter the bulb through cracks in its skin and cause it to rot from the inside out before sprouting new growth in springtime.
As for pests, look out for the usual suspects. Think aphids, slugs, snails, spider mites, and the like! Additionally, squirrels can be a major issue with tulips.
How To Fix
Depending on the pest, you may need to enact some more invasive measures. Most of the time, for aphids and spider mites, you can use a little neem oil on a Q-Tip or even spray a mixture of dish soap and water onto your plant (this makes it too slippery to stick to).
One of the biggest issues for gardeners with tulips is squirrels eating these plants. To learn more about this issue and about how to stop your tulips from being eaten, you can refer to my article on the topic: How to Stop Squirrels from Eating Your Tulips
As for illnesses, the course of action depends on how far gone your plant is. Mildew or mold is one of the easier ones to fix. If your entire garden is infected, you may need to begin digging up or isolating plants to ensure your entire yard isn’t going to fall ill. If it’s just one or two plants, you can isolate them and try to get as much of the mildew off. There are lots of natural antifungal solutions, too!
For root rot, try to dry out your bulbs as much as possible.
Helpful Gardening Tools for Growing Tulips
Like many plants, tulips have evolved to thrive in a specific environment. If this environment changes somehow (through climate change or habitat degradation), it becomes harder for them to survive as well as they once did.
When growing your tulips, just remember the following:
- Sunlight. Tulips need 6 hours a day of bright sunlight.
- Water. Tulips like moist, not flooded, soil. They usually prefer ⅔ an inch to 1 inch a week, but this depends significantly on the composition of your garden and the climate.
- Temperature. Tulips prefer temperatures above freezing but below 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius).
- pH preference. Slightly acidic soil between 6.0-7.0 is perfect for tulips and ensures they’ll get all the nutrients they need.
- Season. Depending on your hardiness zone, tulips do best in the spring or whenever cooler weather begins.
- Hardiness zones. Hardiness zones 3-7 grow tulips best, but tulip growing isn’t impossible if you live outside of these hardiness zones. You’ll just need to adjust!
- Companion plants. Growing your tulips near crocus, bluebells, or grape hyacinth can support their growth.
- Composting and mulching. Composting or mulching your soil can suffocate illnesses and pests while adding more nutrients than soil.
They should thrive as long as your tulip gets all of the above!
As you can see, there are many reasons why the tulips in your garden might be stunted. Most typically, I see that sunlight and hardiness zone (or planting in the wrong season in the wrong hardiness zone) can make tulips come out shorter than most prefer.
Many of these issues can be fixed by simply adjusting your watering and fertilizing habits or by looking at your gardening practices and pivoting. But if you’re still not seeing any growth, it might be time to check in with a professional, do some soil testing, or look for higher-quality bulbs!