How to Lift, Cure, and Store Tulip Bulbs

Tulips are bulb flowers that brighten spring gardens with a rainbow of pastel to bold hues.

Some, like non-hybridized botanical species and Darwin and Emperor hybrids, come up faithfully year after year.

Other cultivated varieties perform better as annuals because they are bred to make a grand showing the first year and don’t always return with equal vigor.

A close up vertical image of pink tulips growing in the spring garden, fading to soft focus in the background. To the top and bottom of the frame is green and white printed text.

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Suited to USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 7, tulips thrive in full sun with average, well-draining soil.

In these Zones, bulbs enter dormancy at season’s end and bloom again the following spring, unless they succumb to the following:

  • Foraging rodents
  • Frost heaving
  • Oversaturation

During the winter months, when food is scarce, burrowing rodents may feed on bulbs, entirely consuming them or leaving them irreparably damaged.

And although bulbs can withstand winter’s chill, when the ground freezes and thaws, they can heave up out of the earth and die from exposure to cold, moisture, and wind.

In addition, bulbs may rot from pooling snowmelt, and poorly drained moisture in the summer garden.

Avoiding these perils is one way to give your tulips a head start on a beautiful encore performance.

In our guides to selecting, growing, and caring for tulips, you’ll find all you need to know to cultivate these iconic spring flowers in your outdoor living space.

This article discusses the process of lifting, curing, and storing bulbs to avoid the potential pitfalls of off-season time underground. It is an optional aspect of tulip maintenance.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

Let’s get ready to lift!

Deadheading Spent Blooms

When flowers finish blooming, begin to fade, and drop petals, it’s time to deadhead or remove entire blossom-bearing stems.

A close up horizontal image of spent tulip flowers in the spring garden.

Use clean pruners to sever the stems near their points of origin without damaging the surrounding foliage. Angle the cuts downwards to facilitate water runoff.

By removing these finished stems, you prevent the setting of seed pods and redirect energy back to the bulbs where it is stored for next year’s flowers.

When to Lift

Post-bloom, the leaves remain lush and green. Please resist the temptation to cut them down and tidy up the garden.

The foliage is necessary for photosynthesis and contributes to the stored energy needed for a repeat bloom next spring.

A close up vertical image of a gardener digging up tulip bulbs for curing and storage.

When summer begins to heat up, the leaves turn yellow and then brown. Once there’s no more green, it’s time to lift or dig up the bulbs.

Here’s how:

Use a pointed-tip garden shovel to dig down eight to 10 inches around individual bulbs or clumps.

Work your way around and beneath them before gently unearthing them. Do your best to avoid tearing the protective papery sheaths.

Once lifted, discard blemished, brittle, discolored, malodorous, or soft ones. Use clean pruning shears to remove the remaining foliage and roots, and brush off the excess soil.

If you have conjoined bulbs, you can divide them at this time. The next step is curing.

How to Cure

Once lifted, pruned, brushed clean, and divided as desired, it’s time to let the bulbs cure, a simple process of spreading them out in a single layer to dry completely before storage.

A close up horizontal image of plastic containers filled with tulip bulbs for storage.

You can use ventilated plastic bins or boxes lined with newspaper to absorb excess moisture. Place the containers in a well-ventilated, dry location away from direct sunlight.

Over the next two to three days, excess moisture will evaporate. If the weather is exceptionally wet, allow extra time to dry before storing.

Off-Season Storage

Once dry, store the bulbs in mesh produce bags. Insert bits of newspaper between them to prevent touching and inhibit moisture buildup.

A close up vertical image of a mesh bag filled with tulip bulbs for storage, set on a white wooden surface.

Tag the bags to identify the contents and suspend them from hooks in a cool cellar, garage, or shed with dim light and low humidity.

The temperature should dip to 40 to 50°F for at least 12 weeks to mimic winter’s chill and induce spring blossoming.

You may read about storing bulbs in the refrigerator, but the ever-present moisture and ethylene gasses produced by some fruits and vegetables make this a poor choice likely to result in rotting.

Pampered and Peril-Free

With the odds stacked against a vigorous comeback, many gardeners lift bulbs at season’s end to store them out of the ground for the off-season.

A close up horizontal image of yellow and white tulips growing in the garden pictured on a soft focus background.

Non-hybridized botanical species, and hybrids like Darwin and Emperor, are the most likely to return for a stellar encore display. However, due to rodent foraging, frost heaving, and oversaturation risks, even the most robust varieties are not immune to off-season perils.

It’s time to take out your garden planner and note the following:

Deadhead blooms as needed in the spring.

Monitor the foliage in early summer and lift when the leaves are no longer green.

Cure and store in a cool, dark, dry location with at least 12 weeks of 40 to 50ºF temperatures.

And finally, as winter turns to spring, replant as soon as the thawed ground permits.

Pamper your tulips with lifting, curing, and storing to avoid the pitfalls of off-season time underground, and enjoy their iconic blooms every spring.

Do you dig your tulips up or leave them in the ground? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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About

Nan Schiller is a writer with deep roots in the soil of southeastern Pennsylvania. Her background includes landscape and floral design, a BS in business from Villanova University, and a Certificate of Merit in floral design from Longwood Gardens. An advocate of organic gardening with native plants, she’s always got dirt under her nails and freckles on her nose. With wit and hopefully some wisdom, she shares what she’s learned and is always ready to dig into a new project!

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Blue Oak
Blue Oak (@guest_29038)
1 year ago

Very helpful, thanks! I’m lifting my tulip bulbs now because I plan to redesign the bed this fall and I will be moving my perennials and bulbs to new locations.

Joanne
Joanne (@guest_30418)
11 months ago

If there is some mold on the outer protective paper sheath, but the tulip bulb is clear underneath, should we just discard the cover

Tommy Harris
Tommy Harris (@guest_31397)
10 months ago

I lost all of my beautiful tulips last year as they had a white grainy substance on some of them but I just brushed it off and stored them in a very dry area.