How do I make the most of tulips?

Tulips are hugely popular because they are easy to grow and available in an endless range of colours and shapes. The tall, late-April and May-flowered tulips remain the most widely grown and we still adhere to the traditional use, putting them between wallflowers and other bedding plants for spectacular spring displays. There is nothing wrong with this and a bed of colourful tulips and fragrant wallflowers is a spring highlight that gardeners in tropical climates must dream of enviously. But with so much choice among tulips there are so many other ways to plant them.

Tulips and brunnera. Image:

Make tulips live longer

Part of our reluctance to break away from the norm with tulips is down to the way tulips grow. The bulb we plant splits and is replaced by several smaller bulbs as it flowers so all too often we end up with a cluster of leaves the second year and no blooms. Traditionally we lift them and keep only the biggest bulbs to replant the next year. But not all tulips are so ephemeral and deep planting tends to reduce this compunction to divide into small bulbs.

So you can plant clumps of tulips in flowerbeds and expect them to last several years. Do this with a spade, not a trowel, and you can plant them in groups of seven or more, about 25cm (10in) deep. A decent clump looks far better than the same number dotted around and the deep planting prevents you damaging the bulbs while working in the borders weeding and planting. I find that lily-flowered and viridiflora tulips with their elegant petals and green stripes through colourful blooms are among the strongest and best for this purpose.

Tulip ‘Ballerina’. Image:

Can I naturalise tulips?

Tulipa sylvestris Image:

The natural progression from this is the idea of naturalising tulips in grass. Unfortunately the idea of planting them so deeply in a lawn will put most people off and tulips are not as easy to naturalise as daffodils. But if you have a sunny lawn that is well drained then it really is worth a try, as long as you let the foliage die down naturally in spring. My favourite tulip for this purpose is Tulipa sylvestris, which may actually be a native tulip and so perfectly acclimatised to our conditions. The elegant buds open to nodding golden flowers in April that are more graceful than most, but still showy. Also worth trying are the Kauffmaniana tulips, which have showy, starry flowers in March and look perfect planted with blue chionodoxa and scillas.

These tulips and a host of other small species are also worth adding to the rock garden or planting through gravel and although their individual blooms are small, many produce a cluster of blooms and their jewel-like colours bring spring alive.

When do I plant tulips?

There is still time to plant tulips this month and into next month. Look for heavy, firm bulbs with no signs of mould on the skins or bulbs. If the skins have fallen off it is no cause for concern as long as the bulbs are firm and fresh looking. Some dwarf and species tulips have naturally small bulbs but will still grow and flower. And of course, they go in pointed-end up!


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