Time to talk tulips

By Tamsin Westhorpe

Goodness only knows what spring 2021 holds for us all, but the one thing that I can be sure of is that a garden with a wonderful display of tulips is bound to be a very welcome sight.

It’s now that you need to make tulip planting your autumn priority - you won’t regret it.

This time last year I was surrounded by thousands of tulip bulbs. I was holding a mini tulip festival at Stockton Bury Gardens and enjoying helping customers choose which tulips to buy for a fantastic show in 2020. Little did I know that the resulting spring flowers would be so important to gardeners as they coped with lockdown at home. In late April and early May I was overwhelmed with emails and tweets from customers who wanted to show me their tulip displays. It seems that planning ahead for spring had never been so important.

Bulbs event at Stockton Bury 2019.

Inevitably we had tulips unsold at the end of our event – but we weren’t sorry! My uncles and I planted them under our dwarf apple trees and filled every pot we had. The display was outstanding, and I was only sorry that the garden wasn’t open to show them off.

A mix of tulips planted under the dwarf apple trees at Stockton Bury Gardens.

If you haven’t ordered your tulips yet don’t panic as they are always better off being planted in early November. A late planting is said to reduce the risk of them getting tulip fire disease. This year we ordered our tulips from Bloms Bulbs (blomsbulbs.com) and as ever we were tempted to try some that we’ve never grown before. On our list is the lemon yellow ‘Daydream’ (height 55cm), the pure white ‘Maureen’ (height 70cm) and the bright ‘Yellow Angel’ (height 60cm). I have also bought some of my favourite tulips ‘Brown Sugar’ (height 50cm) which is not only slightly scented but has the most glorious burnt orange blooms.

Hold off planting your tulips until November.

I learnt so much about people’s attitudes towards tulips during my event last autumn. The biggest shock to me was the quantity people bought. Five tulips will go nowhere and to create an uplifting display, that I suspect we will all need, I suggest you buy double what you’d planned to. Many gardeners were horrified about the fact that we only keep our tulips for one year at Stockton Bury. The reason for this is that they never give that uniform display again. If you want a formal display, then you’ll need to replant every autumn.

When buying bulbs choose those that are large and firm.

Height seemed to be more of a concern than colour choice with so many gardeners eager to choose shorted growing tulips. The taller types that tower to 70cm were not popular as gardeners feared they would snap. I adore the taller tulips, especially if you are doing a lasagne planting and growing a shorter growing tulip below. Imaging a display of the flamboyant yellow and red striped ‘Flaming Parrot’ (height 70cm) with an underplanting of yellow ‘West Point’ (height 50cm).

Spread all your tulips out before you start planting.

Parrot tulips are the ostentatious choice, but I was astonished as to how few people were drawn to them. Who wouldn’t fall for the crinkled pink, lilac and cream petals of ‘Silver Parrot’ (height 40cm) or the orange and green ruffled petals of ‘Professor Rontgen’ (height 50cm)?

My prediction is that this autumn gardeners will be more adventurous with their choice of tulip. In our search for spring excitement I am convinced that we will throw caution to the wind and the bright, the bold and the over the top will be the choice. I suspect the candy colours that will lift our spirits such as the bright pink of ‘Light and Dreamy’ (height 35cm), the deep purple of ‘Negrita’ (height 45cm) and the red and yellow blooms of ‘Reputation’ (height 45cm) will be top choices. Be confident and go for it. I’m hoping to receive tweets from readers of this blog in the spring showing off their outrageously showy tulip displays. Go for it.

Tamsin Westhorpe

With over 25 years’ experience in the horticultural industry, Tamsin has plenty of practical, hands on advice to share. Her career has seen her edit The English Garden magazine for six years, write scripts for TV gardening, lecture at Kingston Maurward College in Dorset and care for parks and gardens. She is now a freelance writer and curator and gardener of Stockton Bury Gardens, Herefordshire (listed by The Times in the top 20 gardens to visit July 2017). Tamsin is also an RHS Chelsea Flower Show Judge, co-Chair of The Garden Media Guild and a prolific speaker at many high profile events. She has recently written her first book ‘Diary of a Modern Country Gardener’ published by Orphans Publishing and is the voice of the popular Candide Gardening podcast ‘Fresh from the pod’.

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