Bright, bold and beautiful, tulips are a must for perking up your garden in spring. Self-confessed tulip addict Stephen Anderton casts his eye over the incredible range of colours and shapes available
People say tulips are easy to grow. But easy is not the right word. With tulips there is nothing to do - nothing to be easy - except plant them. It’s like buying a rail ticket from a machine. In goes the money and out comes the ticket. In goes the bulb and up comes the flower. It is such a simple transaction that gardeners should be generous with tulips almost more than any flower.
Think what you can do with them. You can plant dwarf species like Tulipa tarda, greigii and biflora to brighten up a rockery or the edge of a border. You can plant the taller ones in amongst herbaceous plants to bring an early peak of colour to a mixed border, long before most summer perennials are strutting their stuff. You can even play at making colour combinations between tulips and other early flowers. Imagine white tulips amongst variegated honesty, or the orangey-bronze flowers of ‘Abu Hassan’ amongst the new spearing foliage of plummy Euphorbia griffithii.
And tulips come in all kinds of shapes. There are the classic, demure, incurved shapes, like the cap of a Madonna. There are tulips like ‘West Point’ and ‘White Triumphator’ which have long elegant petals arching outward and upward. There are striped tulips and parrots, and even multi-headed tulips, each one a ready-made bunch of blooms. There are earlies, and mid seasons and lates, and if the truth be told, a tulip lover could have them in bloom from the first days of March until late May.
Why have a busload of dumpy hausfrau hyacinths when you could have a choir of elegant delicate tulips? You’ll say the hyacinths are perfumed perhaps? Well, you are right. By and large tulips have no perfume to speak of. But I can live without that, when they offer so much else. Who’d run off with a hausfrau just because she smelled good?
For a less formal look you can plant tulips in a dozen different colours into rough grass. They will not look natural but they will dazzle, in a meadowy, star-spangled way. You might want to plant just one vivid variety through long grass, to tone with early rhododendrons, or primulas. Gardeners with little courage and bags of good taste might use ‘Spring Green’, as it’s a quiet mixture of green and white. The real purists, or those who want tulips to look more natural than this, might plant the late scarlet Tulipa sprengeri, to self seed through borders and shrubberies, followed in due season by those pale, gherkin-like pods, full of shining seed.
What price all this generosity of flower? All you have to do is plant the bulbs, now. November is just the right time, and you can often snap up some bargains at this stage of the season. Plant them deep, a good 6-8 inches down, and they will come up year after year, even in grass, unless you are on heavy clay soil. When they start to dwindle, buy some more. They are cheap enough.
My only trouble with tulips has been mice, which seem to be able to smell them there under the surface. If they are shallowly and newly planted amongst the roots of other plants, mice can tunnel down and eat them. The knack to avoid this is either to plant so deep the mice can't get down there, or to plant only into freshly-dug loose soil, into which they find it dangerous and impracticable to dig down. What price a tulip, if you end up buried nose down in 6 inches of loose earth?
If you live on boggy land or in slug heaven, tulips can be tricky too. This is not the place to try growing them in rough grass. They succumb here all the faster. Where slugs are at home on the range it’s better to go for bulbs that they dislike, such as bluebells.
For the rest of us, which is most of us, tulips are one of the great dividends of spring. So invest a little now. Set up a nest egg for next year.
Find out more about tulips in our Essential Plants guide
See also the Helping Hands workshops:
Planting bulbs in earth
Planting bulbs in grass
Visit our Superstore to see its amazing range of:
other spring-flowering bulbs