I love all the flowers in my cutting garden but there are some that I have a real problem resisting. My habit for buying new varieties of roses, sweet peas, dahlias and tulips has become a bit of a joke among my team. It doesn’t matter how hard I try to resist, I always give in and buy something new for the garden (experimentation, changing fashion – all vital to the business, that’s my excuse). My love affair with roses and sweet peas is more to do with form and scent, but with dahlias and tulips it is all about colour. These flowers are able to give you such intense saturated colour at times of the season when you really crave it, and in such variety. From soft delicate ivory, apricots, pastel pinks, through to burnt orange, magenta and rich almost blacks. Looking at the packets of tulips waiting to be planted I can see that this seasons ‘experimentation’ has been no exception – I didn’t think I had ordered that many, but oh well!
Tulips should be planted later than other bulbs as they don’t start producing roots until late autumn. The idea is to wait until we have had a couple of really hard frosts before planting and this can help to prevent disease such as tulip fire, a fungal disease which produces brown spots and twisted, withered leaves. Tulips like a fertile, well-drained soil in full sun – if you have heavy clay it is vital to add lots of grit when you plant them out. We are conventionally advised to plant at least twice the bulb’s width apart and at a depth of two or three times the bulbs height, but I follow the advice of Sarah Raven, who suggests that tulips perform better when planted 10 inches or so deep. This way of planting means that you don’t need to stake, and also that the tulips will flower more reliably year after year. I have found that when planted this way varieties that are reported to be unreliable have come back for several seasons. So, although planting this deep can be hard work, it is certainly worth it, and it means that I can happily plant half hardy annuals on top of my tulips without worrying about disturbing them.
You can treat tulips like annuals and re-plant every year, or you can lift them out of the ground to save until next year, but I leave mine in the ground and replace a few in the bed every year. Planting deeper, I think has enabled my tulip patches to keep going strong and choosing varieties that have the RHS Award of Garden Merit is a good way of ensuring good, disease resistant, repeat flowering varieties. Although that is not to say that there is no room for indulgence when it comes to choosing tulips – I am not always guided by common sense and the RHS AGM! I am always tempted by the parrot tulip ‘Green Wave’. It is absolutely stunning with stripes of pale pink, green and cream, but I know from previous experience that it will be magnificent in late April/May but then is unlikely to re-appear, or if it does it will be much reduced.
However, there are some tulips which combine romance and practicality and which flower brilliantly year after year and these include ‘Exotic Emperor’ a double fosteriana tulip of pure white with green markings, the parrot tulips ‘Black Parrot’ and ‘Rococo’, the viridiflora tulips ‘Groenland’, ‘Artist’ and‘Spring Green’, the lily flowered tulips ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Mariette’.
My favourites however are the double late tulips, sometimes referred to as peony flowered tulips, and the best of these are ‘Angelique’ a very pretty pink, ‘Mount Tacoma’ like a white peony and ‘Black Hero’. I have grown these every year for the past 12 years and they perform brilliantly. I also love a double late tulip which has been everyone's darling for the past couple of years - tulip Belle Epoque - just gorgeous and the love affair with it is fully justified.
I have discovered tulip 'Danceline' this year - it looks just like a peony and is pink, white and a bit stripy. I am yet to try it so don’t know yet whether it is any good, but it looks so gorgeous it can do what it likes!