Behind the Bulb: An insight into Head Gardener Tom's favourite tulips

Tuesday 23rd April 2024

One of the highlights of spring is the joyful colour of Tulips, who’s flamboyant arrival at the start of April is one of the greatest antidotes to a long grey winter. Most of our tulips come back each year, behaving as short lived perennials, but we always top them up in the autumn, planting pockets through the borders. This gives the display variation in height, with older bulbs flowering shorter than new ones, creating a looser more naturel feel to the planting. One of my favourite combinations is when they flower through carpets of sky blue forget-me-not, and amongst the structural foliage of perennials such as Cardoon and Lupin.

With so many different kinds to choose from it can often be difficult to narrow down a selection for planting in the garden. Each year we always like to try something a bit different but there is a handful of varieties that, over time we have become particularly fond of and now repeat each year.

The pastel lilac Candy Prince along with Candy Purple are two excellent earlys that go quite well together and of the mid-season Triumph Tulips I always find that Attila is one of the most consistent performers. Its light purple-violet works well amongst in combination with Honesty and forget-me-nots and it seems to come back well as a perennial tulip. The striking lily flowered tulips with their elegantly pointed petals are always fun to grow and of these I am especially fond of Ballerina.  Although its rich orange is quite strong, it always makes me smile and it has a lovely scent of tangerine. Possibly some of the most effective are the Single Late Tulips, that have such a long season and will combine with the azalea, welcoming in early summer. Of these I will have to pick two - the coral pink Dordogne and lovely Blue Aimable. There is no true blue tulip but Blue Aimable is probably the closest we have and its interesting lilac is beautiful in its own right and works so well with the vibrant Dordogne.

The hybrid tulips are bold and showy and effective in the border as a reliable show of colour. But as each year goes by I find myself falling more deeply in love with the wild species tulips. Tulips turkestanica will flower early, alongside the last of the snowdrops, with a delicate scent on a warm day. Tulipa bakerii has also been a success, established outside the restaurant, its purple and yellow flowers always seem to draw comment. But loveliest of all and the last to flower is the pillar box red Tulipa sprengeri that will often continue flowering into the beginning of June. It is hard to find commercially and often rather expensive when you do, so because of this we have been cultivating it from seed for some years.  Seed sown in the autumn usually germinate well the following spring and although it takes about four years to flower it really is well worth the wait for such a wonderful thing.

Tulips are one of the most fascinating and rewarding groups of bulbs to grow and their flowering is one of the highlights of the gardening year. For anyone interested to learn more or is looking for inspiration to develop their own plantings I have to recommend the recently published The Tulip Garden by Polly Nicholson published by Phaidon. Polly has been growing and collecting Tulips for the past 15 years and shares her knowledge and passion in this inspirational and beautiful book.

Text by Tom Coward, Head Gardener

Images by Mark Bolton

Tulip 'Dordogne'

Tulip 'Ballerina'

Tulip 'Candy Purple'

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