Everyone loves a pot of beautiful tulips, especially in the middle of winter when the world seems cold and harsh, as they remind us of the spring beauty that is to come. If you received potted tulips, and want to save the bulbs, it can be done. Just keep in mind that it may take some time before they bloom again.
The problem with potted tulip bulbs is that they were most likely forced to grow. When bulbs are forced, it requires that they spend a lot of energy to bloom before nature intended. Minnesota Master Gardeners doesn't recommend trying to save potted tulip bulbs, but if you are up for a challenge you may want to. Just be aware that after you save the bulbs and plant them again in an outdoor garden, it can take two to three years to see a bloom. If the bulbs were a special gift, or from a sentimental event such as a funeral, you may want to try saving them to bloom again.
Start by cutting off the tulip flower heads when they have lost their beauty and are fading. Cut the heads off below the flower, at the top of the stem. Set the pot in an out-of-the-way spot and let the leaves and stem die off naturally. This allows the bulb to gather up some additional energy. Once the leaves and stems have turned brown, you can pull them away. Take the bulbs out of the dirt, lightly brush excess dirt off, and allow them to dry completely. If the bulbs have any soft spots, mold or damage on them, don't bother saving them, but rather throw them away. If they are healthy, place them in a shallow cardboard box with a layer of newspaper on the bottom, and a layer of paper on the top. Make sure the bulbs are not touching each other.
Store the box in a cool area, as they need to be subjected to a prolonged period of cool temperatures during their dormant months. If you choose to store them in the refrigerator, do not store them in the same drawer with fruits, as fruits give off ethylene gas which can damage the bulbs. Don't store them in plastic, as this can encourage rot and mold.
Unless you live in a zone with harsh winters, you should plant your bulbs in the fall and allow them to remain dormant there over the winter. Cover with a layer of mulch, such as hay or leaves, for added protection from the cold.
In zones with harsh winters, plant the bulbs in the spring, as soon as the ground is thawed enough.
If you received your potted plants in the spring or summer, you can leave the bulbs in the pot until you plant them in the fall. However, if you live in a very harsh climate, you will still want to follow the above directions--after the foliage dies back, take the bulbs out of the pot and store them until spring. In areas with very harsh winters many gardeners pull up even their established tulip bulbs in the fall and store them for the winter.