The queen of spring bulbs: the tulip
I did not really discover the joy of tulips till I came to Berlin 10 years ago. My attempts at planting them in my Cotswold garden ended in failure. All tulips disappeared almost as fast as we planted, as our garden was a favourite haunt for pheasants (they loved the food we put out for our chickens). For those who think they are pretty birds (which I admit they are) the idea of eating them appeals after discovering ours they had earthed up and eaten all of the 600 tulips but 4 we had planted one autumn. The four that survived were ones they could not reach…
Ten years on, I have come to like the wide variety of them. The wild forms and their close relatives have great charm. The finest, most expensive one is the tall, sleek very last one to flower Tulipa sprengeri with red petals, whose backs are scattered with gold dust- or so they seem. The slender clusiana types are graceful and dainty whereas the small, fiery praestans varieties whose red multiheaded flowers can be seen from a great distance, do not seem to mind growing in partial shade of trees. For naturalising in slightly shady areas I also love Tulipa sylvestris with its slightly untidy habit bringing lightness into the garden.
I have always had a soft spot for the parrot tulips with their feathery flamed petals. The rather short ‘Rococco’ with intense red flowers, or the genteeler ‘Texas Gold’, that starts of plain buttercup yellow, with a fine red line developing along the petals margins that slowly bleeds down the petals as they fade. I find these Parrots particularly suited to growing in pots, as one can observe them from closer by.
For the borders I am very fond of the lilly-flowered types with their pointed petals and often sexy hour-glass waistline. The yellow ‘Westpoint’ and ‘Burgundy’ are particularly well-shaped like a sixties filmstar. I find many of them, like ‘China Pink’ and ‘White Triumphator’, reliable coming back year after year. The viridiflora types, with their green stripe up the back of the petals also good “do-ers”. My favourite being ‘Spring Green’ with its creamy white colour it suits both cool and hot mixtures.
The nearly black ones never loose their fascination, so there are quite a number available. An old classic is ‘Queen of Night’ who is also reliable. Otherwise there is also ‘Black Parrot’, Black Hero’ with filled flowers on shorter stems (great combined with auriculas!) or slightly redder ‘Ronaldo’. The corner of the dark-coloured ones in our bulb house takes up considerable space.
The cool tulip mixture
Selling them by the hundreds during our first autumn season in 2008, I thought I’d better put some into the big cool border to see how they coped with our weather and soil. In went large amounts of ‘White Triumphator’, ‘Spring Green’, ‘China Pink’ and ‘Queen of Night’. In later years the selection was extended to include the early ‘Light and Dreamy’, ‘Burgundy’, ‘Blue Parrot’ and ‘Victoria’s Secret’. The last two are prefect partners for Allium aflatunense and Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ as they are the last to flower when the Alliums start, and have wonderfully matching colours.
The hot tulip mix
The year after a hot mix followed suit. MY favourites ‘Spring Green’ and ‘West Point’ were joined by the delightful ‘China Girl’ that starts pale lemony yellow, fading to almost white. That is where the subtlety ended. ‘Sun Lover’ does not look like a tulip at all, rather a yellow peony. Orange ones like ‘Princess Irene’, ‘Ballerina’, ‘Orange Favourite’ and ‘Professor ‘Roentgen’ bridge the gap between the yellows and reds. ‘Red Shine’ is a tall elegant red Lilly flowered one I always used to grow in pots, and ‘Uncle Tom’ a wonderful dark, blood red filled on as is ‘Black Hero’.
Planted at about 30 tulips per square meter, I mix them up, throw them in the border and where they drop, they get planted. Avoid putting any bulbs in the very first row of a border: I prefer to keep the front 40-50 cm a bulb-free zone, so that the dying foliage can quietly disappear behind the front-row stars like Alchemilla mollis and Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’. By the time the tulips finish flowering, they seem to be drowning behind the rapidly growing perennials.
Give them a bulb feed in spring time when the green noses appear, and allow them to die down fully. Most important of all though is to plant them deep enough. Lazy, half-way measures, thinking “oh that’ll do” will perhaps do for the fist year, but not for successive years as the bulb will waste energy at getting there in the soil where it wants to be, rather than re-investing in next year’s flowers. At least 3 times the height of the bulb!
Be bold, be courageous and do not pussy-foot about, otherwise in spring time you will be confronted with your meanness of the autumn.