Flowering passion: Tips on caring for tulips

PUBLISHED: 13:00 25 November 2015

The dark maroon 'Queen of the Night' tulip

The dark maroon 'Queen of the Night' tulip


Philippa Pearson looks at the remarkable history of the tulip and gets planting tips from St Albans’ Aylett Nurseries

Tulips are perfect for container displaysTulips are perfect for container displays

Originally a wild flower growing in Central Asia, the tulip was cultivated by the Turks and introduced to Western Europe during the 17th century where they were grown in botanical gardens in Leiden, Holland.

Tulips, named after the Turkish word for turban, became hugely popular in Holland, especially as a trading product, where demand and interest was high. Botanists hybridised the flower and these decorative hybrids and mutations were seen as rarities and a sign of high status. Soon bulbs started selling for unbelievable prices - ‘Tulipmania’ had arrived and everyone wanted to become tulip traders. People sold their businesses and personal effects to join in the rush to be a trader but inevitably, too much supply led to lower prices and the market crashed. Many people lost everything. The Dutch retained their devotion to tulips however and commercial production continued at a less frenetic level.

Tulips are traditionally planted in November, later than other bulbs, to avoid ‘tulip fire’, a fungal disease which attacks the bulb. You can order or buy varieties a little earlier, but keep the bulbs in a cool, dry place until ready for planting.

'Ballerina' is a lovely deep orange tulip that flowers over a long period'Ballerina' is a lovely deep orange tulip that flowers over a long period

Gardeners often dig up tulips after flowering and throw them away, replacing with new stock in autumn as bulbs don’t always produce good flowers year after year. The secret to successive blooms is to plant bulbs deeper to discourage the production of bulbils; baby bulbs. This lets the plant put its energy into producing flowers not offspring. Other advantages of deeper planting are no staking requirements for taller varieties and it’s easier to plant other things on top of deep bulbs. Plant tulip bulbs 10 inches deep on a sunny site, adding sharp sand or horticultural grit to the planting hole if you have heavy soil. A handful of bone meal or slow release fertiliser mixed with the soil will help flower production. Scatter bone meal around the plant after flowering to promote flower production the following year.

Tulips look good in both informal and formal planting schemes and are fantastic for containers. A row of pots, each planted en-masse with one kind and colour of tulip, will create a simple but stunning display. Or plant layers of different colours in huge containers for a wow factor.

'Estella Rijnveld' bring drama toborders'Estella Rijnveld' bring drama toborders

Adam Wigglesworth, director of Aylett Nurseries in St Albans, says traditional as well unusual styles of tulips are popular choices for gardeners. Estella Rijnveld is a striking parrot tulip with fringed petals and fiery red markings on a white background. ‘This is an old variety,’ says Adam ‘but is consistently a bestseller every year. Gardeners love this tulip.’ A new variety, Ice Cream, is also turning gardeners’ heads as the large deep-pink outer petals open to reveal fluffy soft-white petals inside, making the tulip look like its delicious namesake. ‘This is such a fun tulip, and looks good in containers as well,’ Adam says.

Another interesting variety that gardeners are talking about is Antoinette - a ‘chameleon tulip’ which changes colour as it ages. Flowers open pale yellow then change through shades of yellow-pink and finally salmon pink as they age. 
‘Dwarf tulips such as Red Riding Hood are always popular,’ says Adam, ‘and look good at the front of the border and in containers. Gardeners often ask for colour combinations and one of my favourites is the dark purple Queen of the Night with the brilliant orange Ballerina tulip, a perfect match.’

Another tip from Adam is to choose the biggest bulbs you can as this is the energy source of the plant. ’The bigger the bulb, the better the tulip,’ Adam explains. ‘At Ayletts we only sell grower-sized bulbs as we want our gardeners to get the best out of their plants.’

In my own garden I plant tulips as deep as I can to keep the bulbs cool and to stop bulbils forming and weakening the plants. And I cram in as many bulbs as I can in certain borders for a striking display in spring. I lift the bulbs in summer and replace with seasonal planting such as dahlias and cosmos. I also grow tulips in a separate cutting patch for cut flowers in the house.

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