If you want the best way to bring colour, life, optimism, joy and conviviality to a spring garden, you cannot do without tulips. The variety of colours is unbeatable with something for every taste, from chic and sombre almost-blacks and royal purples through crimson reds and fiery golds to pastel pinks and whites. I have always found it a challenge to choose my bulbs for autumn planting, and I suspect I won’t be alone in this. If selecting the best colours from a choice of literally thousands were not hard enough, the range of shapes, heights and sizes adds another dimension to the challenge. Little wonder how easy it is to either over-order or just give up in despair.
I originally began this post with a sentence declaring that tulips were the ‘cheapest and easiest’ way to add colour to a spring garden, and then I deleted that sentence because tulip bulbs are not cheap when you come to think about it, especially not the ones that disappear after a season, nor the ones that get eaten by squirrels or mice, nor the ones that simply don’t appear for some unknown reason. Unlike other bulbs, tulips are most reluctant to increase their numbers, and only a handful of varieties can be relied on to come back year on year. As for declaring that tulips are ‘easy’ to grow, one has to remember that planting those hundreds of tulip bulbs every autumn can be back-breaking and repetitive; you need to plant so many of them to make a decent impression.
The quality of the bulbs you buy is important. Cheap, puny ones are usually a false economy because so often they come up blind or not at all. Not all bulb suppliers are equal; and even the better quality companies can get things wrong. By the time six months have passed and you are wondering why a patch of ‘Ballerina’ has appeared in your garden while there is not a ‘Charming Lady’ in sight, it seems too late to contact your supplier with a complaint. Challenges aside, tulips remain in my mind an essential key to bringing colour and joy to a spring garden, and with some judicious planning (and the wisdom of hindsight) it is possible to minimise the pitfalls and heartache while ensuring yourself a three month stretch of glorious, bouncy, elegant, exuberant tulips.
One thing I have learned is to take careful notes and lots of photographs during the tulip season, and store them somewhere that can easily be found when the bulb catalogues come out in August. Heaven knows but when you are surrounded by the florid hues of asters and dahlias you won’t be able to remember what spring feels like, much less care. And remembering what spring feels like is key to making insightful choices from the catalogues in order to recreate or even improve upon your garden of the springtime just gone.
Well, my safe storage place for my thoughts and photographs on tulips is the post you are reading at this moment. I’m going to talk about the varieties of tulips that I’ve tried over the past couple few years (successes, failures, surprises) and use it to help me decide what to order in three months’ time.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, the earliest tulip to appear and one of my most favourite tulips is the species tulip, Tulipa turkestanica, a heavenly little white and yellow burst of petals. For two years in a row I have filled two whole window boxes full of them so that I could enjoy them from indoors through the window, and they lifted my soul every time I looked at them. They would also look good in a pot with Muscari and primroses (pale pink or yellow) and the biggest bulbs can be lifted and stored once the leaves have died back.
‘Purissima’ is the best white tulip I have tried so far. A large single white tulip that flowers in April, its generous petals open in sunshine to reveal a splash of egg-yolk yellow at its heart. Like so many tulips it expires with great melodrama, the petals dropping one by one to the ground like enormous tulip teardrops. I thought it far superior to the double white ‘Mount Tacoma’ which I bought to take over from ‘Purissima’ but which was frankly a little dull. ‘Purissima’ looks wonderful in the border with ‘Apricot Beauty’, and would also look good with a yellow tulip such as ‘Golden Apeldoorn’, which flowers at about the same time. Both ‘Purissima’ and ‘Golden Apeldoorn’ made a good return two years in a row; however, I was disappointed that not a single ‘Apricot Beauty’ came back for a second innings. In my opinion, the latter is a lovely enough tulip to be worth the bother and expense of buying afresh every year, and vies with my old favourite, ‘Menton’, for the prize of best apricot tulip.
‘Menton’ is in a class of its own: a generous, peachy head sitting with remarkable poise on its tall, slim stem, a thing of exotic beauty that belies its sturdiness in a strong spring breeze. Such a carefully bred flower so far removed from the species should not be expected to grace us with its presence two years in a row, and yet twice mine returned, becoming one or two fewer each year; but I was so gratified that I forgave its eventual disappearance.
I was surprised at how much I liked ‘Prinses Irene’ (sometimes spelled Princess), a stocky, vibrant and vivid orange tulip with minky striped markings on the outer petals, which I planted around our circular brick terrace. One of my suppliers was giving her away for free in 2017, and she was even better value for coming back for another innings this year. Such a short-stemmed tulip also looked good in containers with Muscari: you just can’t beat orange with blue.
I adored ‘Bruine Wimpel’, in delicious shades of mink and rust, which I planted in pots, then collected and stored over winter before adding to my chaotic cutting bed with not a hope that something so classy would show up to the party two years in a row. To my enormous surprise, it reappeared this year in good abundance. ‘Bruine Wimpel’ is a good single alternative to the florists’ favourite double ‘La Belle Epoch’, which was everywhere on Instagram last year but can be so hard to get hold of.
Given that I do not prefer lily-shaped tulips and certainly hadn’t ordered it, the grace and beauty of ‘Ballerina’ was a pleasant surprise, especially alongside the dark heads of ‘Paul Scherer’, the latter first seen at Shepherd House Gardens where we were reliably informed that it is a good returner – in fact, both ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Paul Scherer’ returned in excellent spirits this following spring. Although almost-black tulips are extremely striking, it is important to pair them with a worthy background to do them justice. ‘Ballerina’, on the other hand, is the kind of tulip that would look good next to anything, and I can see myself buying more and spreading them around the garden.
‘Antraciet’ had dusky red double heads and looked old-fashioned and expensive like a well aged wine, and returned beautifully for a second year. At the cheap and jolly end of the tulip spectrum, a Gardener’s World special offer of a ‘Bumper Border Mix’ of tulips for a fiver, thrown haphazardly into a large plastic pot and shoved in a corner, became the prettiest thing in the garden. It was so successful that it made me wonder if I shouldn’t just buy five bags of these at a third of the cost, make up several generous pots of them and sit back to enjoy the show thirty or forty pounds better off.
Tulips that were less to my taste included ‘Brazil’, which I’d bought in the patriotic hope of its being tall and tanned and dark and lovely, but sadly it turned out to be short, swarthy, sallow, and clearly living on a diet of beer and churrasco, though it did return for a second year running and has some interesting hues as it fades. ‘Blue Parrot’ and ‘Nightclub’ came out so late that the tulip party was pretty much over by the time they did (although ‘Nightclub’ was admittedly worth the wait); neither returned for a second year. ‘Chato’, which incidentally means ‘boring’ in Portuguese, was anything but boring. A remarkable lipstick pink, it is gay and delightful and just a little too flouncy for my tastes, though again returned in the border for a second year (I think about three returned).
Tulipa saxatilis was pretty enough, but did not return and was not a patch on its classier sister, T. turkestanica, while T. humilis ‘Odalisque’ didn’t bother to flower at all. But the biggest disappointment was the non-appearance of ‘Charming Lady’, which I was so looking forward to.
So my strategy for ordering this autumn will look something like this:
- Buy the best quality I can afford
- Order early
- Store the bulbs correctly until planting time (after the first frost)
- Don’t spend too long agonising over flowering times. Just ensure that any chosen as partners will flower at the same time.
- Keep to tried and tested favourites that return: ‘Purissima’, ‘Menton’, ‘Ballerina’, ‘Antraciet’, ‘Bruine Wimpel’, and the non-returner ‘Apricot Beauty’.
- Try at least one new cultivar.
- For bulk planting in pots, buy special-offer tulips.
I would love to find out what your favourite tulips are. Which cultivars do you buy year after year or which in your experience perennate reliably? Which have you never tried before but are planning to buy this autumn? Or have you given up on the fuss and bother of tulips in favour of less needy bulbs such as daffodils and muscari?