It’s been a dreamy summer holiday. We’ve been swimming in the sea, learned to ride without stabilisers, lost baby teeth, wandered around maize mazes, explored woodland dens and returned from the allotment stained with raspberry and blackberry juice. Now, in the first week of September, there’s school on the horizon for both my 7 year old and my reception baby – how can 4½ years go so quickly? Tonight I watered the garden in the dark for the first time for months, the first James Grieve fell off the apple espalier and my Rosa ‘Jacqueline Du Pré’ dropped her final petal. There’s still plenty to celebrate in the garden – the never-ending greenhouse chilli, tomato and cucamelon harvest, the thriving purple Brussel sprout plants in the allotment and the quinces maturing under their furry down in the side garden. But there’s been a subtle shift in both my family and my gardening life, and I can’t help feeling that it will never be quite the same again.
When the September blues strike, I am grateful that the cycles of life draw me forwards, planning, reading and shaping the new year in my mind. As the autumn catalogues arrive on the doormat, my thoughts turn, squirrel-like, to bulbs which can be buried over the next few months ready to herald the arrival of the new spring. Over the past few years I’ve spent countless hours on my knees with a trowel in the back and front gardens planting daffodils, fritillaries, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, alliums and tulips – hundreds of massed tulips. Mostly this furtive activity takes place at dusk, in the snatched half hours after the children are asleep, with evening life going on all around me, unaware that I’m crouched in the shadows, preparing for spring.
Planning my tulip display involves remembering old friends and opening the door to new acquaintances. I do browse catalogues with a cup of tea in hand, but I also revisit old photos – reminding myself of displays which lit up my garden in the past and also combinations in other gardens which I’d like to get to know better in the future. Over the years my love of tulips (the thrill of seeing such vivid colours and delicate forms so early in the year) has grown as I’ve explored their use in public and private gardens. Now I’d like to share my favourites in the hope that they might help and inspire others in turn.
One of my favourite tulips for its perennial nature, its zingy colour and the way its shape and hue changes as it matures. Initially almost red, it matures to a bright orange with red stripes down the middle of each petal. It looks stunning on its own, for example as an edging plant in these images taken at Capel Manor gardens…
It thrives in my gravel garden despite clay soil, although I do plant all of my tulips with a handful of gravel beneath each bulb. I combine ‘Ballerina’ with ‘Queen of Night’ in the front gravel garden. In the back flowerbed it blooms alongside ‘Purple Prince’, ‘Queen of Night’ and blue forget-me-nots and never fails to lift my spirits when I see it emerging in the spring.
The versatile ‘Ballerina’ thrives in the back garden, front garden and in pots
2. ‘Swan Wings’
Generally I favour simple shapes and colours with my tulips, but I photographed ‘Swan Wings’ years ago at RHS Wisley and have always wanted to grow it. I think this year it’s time to try it out and I might pair it with red Bellis perennis as in my image, to create contrast and impact.
3. ‘Queen of Night’
I love deep purple/black flowers and foliage, and I use them in my garden and my work as often as I can. I’ve been growing ‘Queen of Night’ for years and find it reliably perennial. It combines well with lighter purple and orange tulips, but also looks stunning with white or off-white bedding plants. I’ve combined it this year with the wallflower ‘Ivory White’ which I grew from seed and was very pleased with the result.
I can’t resist getting up close and personal with plants and ‘Queen of Night’ has the most glorious interior
4. ‘Monte Carlo’
As a general rule I’m not that keen on bright yellow flowers and only have this tulip because it was sent as a part of a mixed set. However, when it emerged this spring I was surprised to find myself making detours past its pot in order to get another blast of its exuberant power.
5. ‘Prinses Irene’
Possibly one of the most beautiful tulips I’ve ever grown, ‘Prinses Irene’ is a subtle, understated winner. I love the Sarah Raven ‘Venetian Tulip’ collection and have grown it for several years both in pots and in the ground. I’ve never had much luck in the border beneath the apple espaliers as the bark mulch seems to attract the slugs early in the year which then eat holes in the tulip leaves and flowers, twisting them as they emerge. This year, in pots at the front, they have thrived and I’ve been impressed by the new addition to the collection – ‘National Velvet’ in place of ‘Couleur Cardinal’ – which has a superb colour and sheen.
‘Prinses Irene’ and ‘National Velvet’
Another favourite (perhaps I should admit they’re all favourites!) is ‘Purissima’ with its white/cream flowers which open up to a dinner plate size in the sun. It is another good perennial tulip and has lasted several years in big pots in the garden.
In pots with wild strawberries at the back and with mixed muscari at the front
‘Shirley’ was the only tulip in the first garden I owned, although I didn’t know its name at the time. I loved its soft markings and photographed it in wonder. I think it’s about time I grew it again…
‘Shirley’ in my first ever garden
It looks great in a pot (here at Capel Manor with ‘Jackpot’) or in borders (here with ‘Paul Scherer’ at the back)
8. ‘Purple Prince’
I grew ‘Purple Prince’ a few years ago to create a purple accent against the orange of ‘Ballerina’ and dark purple of ‘Queen of Night’. Then I decided I preferred the orange and dark purple on their own and marked the ‘Purple Prince’ tulips so I could remove the bulbs after flowering. Two years on they are still appearing en masse in the flowerbed and I’ve decided they can stay. Instead I grow ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Queen of Night’ on their own in the front. Then a serendipitous combination this spring pleased me very much – ‘Purple Prince’ emerged in front of the foliage of my Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’. Try taking my ‘Purple Prince’ out of the border after that and I’d have something to say about it!
When we moved into my current house 6 years ago there was a purple and white rembrandt tulip in a border we had to remove to make room for the apple espaliers. I replaced it the next year with ‘Zurel’ – a striking, upbeat tulip. Unfortunately the bulbs didn’t reappear this year – probably because I overwintered the pineapple sage which was sharing the same pot in the greenhouse and they dried out. The area at the end of the vegetable beds hasn’t looked the same and we definitely need to get our stripes back next year.
10. ‘Paul Scherer’
This tall, almost black tulip creates maximum impact paired with white tulips like ‘White Triumphator’ or ‘Snowstar’, or with other white flowers. Here the underplanted white forget-me-nots (Mysotis sylvatica ‘Snowsylva’) make the tulips look like little black holes floating above the ground, absorbing all the light.
More tulip images from my albums which have me reaching for the catalogues…
Which tulips can’t you be without and which new ones have bewitched you? Leave me a comment so I can make my wish list even longer 😉
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