When it's spring again

Jo Arnell shares her pick of tulips and advice on how to keep them blooming

I think I'd have to choose tulips as my luxury item, if I were sent to a desert island, as they do feel like a bit of an indulgence. Some years I dither over whether I should buy them at all, because the ones I particularly love (isn't it always the way) are fickle and unrewarding and never seem to do well after their first dazzling performance; in fact some barely show up at all in following years. I could stick to reliable Narcissi and Alliums I suppose, or at least be content with those big red Fosteriana types that pop up without fail, all hearty and overbearing in the borders. But I love the more demure and refined kinds, so, ever the optimist, I've just taken delivery of a box full of some delicate lovelies. The bulbs look fat and healthy, their lustrous chestnut skins packed with promise, but will they keep going? And should I try harder to make them, or just accept their brief moment of glory and treat them like annuals?

Getting them to flower again...

Tulips naturally grow on free draining slopes in places like Turkey, where they've adapted to the brief spring rains, scorching summers and bitter (but dry-ish) winters. Most plants that grow from bulbs are the same. A bulb is really just a squashed up, dormant form of the plant, waiting out the difficult growing conditions until it's safe to grow again. So, replicate the slopes of a Turkish hillside through the year and all will be well with your tulips. Claggy Wealden clay, unpredictable summers and too much rain gets most of us off to a bad start where this is concerned. We quite often manage the wet spring part, which enables them to flower well initially, but our summers aren't usually dry and warm enough to bake the bulbs and the winters aren't cold enough to kill off the many diseases that tulips are prone to, so the bulbs don't bulk up enough to flower again.

Pests and diseases...

They do tend to suffer from quite a few diseases, the worst of which is 'Tulip Fire', a nasty fungal disease that attacks the flowers and leaves, causing them to have brown patches and twisting the growth (so that they look as if they've been damaged by fire). Fungal and virus infections are suppressed in cold conditions. This is why tulips are planted in November - or December, (or - best not to spread this or we'll never get them planted - even in January). Then there are the slugs - keel slugs that live underground and burrow into the bulbs. And I can't even bring myself to mention squirrels, except to say that the sight of one sitting on a fence post happily chewing on a freshly planted bulb is enough to make even the mildest-mannered nature lover turn violent (I shout and bang on the window, which is a bit pathetic).

Cultivation...

Tulips will flower better if you:

  • Try to ensure that the soil is rich and moisture retentive in spring, but free draining the rest of the time - try adding lots of gravel into the planting hole.
  • Plant them once conditions are cool enough to limit the action of viruses and fungal diseases.
  • Try either lifting them after flowering and keeping them somewhere dry, or leave them in the soil, preferably in a dry sunny situation (Turkey) and then try not to dig through them when planting new plants or summer bedding.
  • Plant them deeply - 3 times their height and add a little bonemeal into the planting hole to help the bulb bulk up again.
  • Discourage squirrels in any way you choose (banging on the window is next to useless); planting under chicken wire can help, especially if you're planting in pots.

Here are some good varieties that will give you a spread of interest right through April and May:

Early...

Try Fosteriana types like Orange Emperor, or if you'd prefer something more muted - Purissima (pale cream). These are tall stately tulips, coming into bloom when the daffodils are still in flower.

Mid season

Lily flowered - of all the tulips these are the ones I rely on most. They're elegant and long lasting and reappear fairly well. 'Ballerina' is a gorgeous orange colour, then there's 'China Pink', which is a good clear pink and 'White Triumphator' looks very classy against the dark green foliage of something like Box or Yew

Mid/late season...

The Viridifolia tulips have a stripe of fresh green running down the backs of the petals. My favourite is 'Spring Green' - it lasts well in the borders and looks great among new foliage and other spring plants.

Late...

Of the single late varieties, it has to be 'Queen of the Night', a statuesque tulip with petals of deep burgundy/black. It's a glamorous addition to any situation - looking good in containers or borders. There's a lovely blousy double flowered tulip that flowers late called 'Angelique' if you're looking for a soft, romantic look. The flowers are pale pink and Peony shaped. The outrageous Parrot types also flower late - around mid May - and are worth a go for their show-stopping potential, but they are quite fussy; be pleased if you get a good show in the first spring, but don't expect them to come back the following year.

Reliable varieties...

Stick to species tulips or those in the Darwin and Fosteriana series if you want to be sure of them flowering for several years. Species tulips are generally smaller and earlier than the cultivars, but they naturalise well and look good in informal settings. The big, bold varieties are useful in bedding displays and among cottage garden plants.

If I am banished to that island, I shall spend my marooned years in true Robinson Crusoe style, developing a robust and ever-flowering strain of fabulous tulips to tip toe lonely through. Either that or I'll breed so many of the big red ones that I can spell HELP in bold bedding letters across a free draining hillside.

Contact Jo for gardening advice and consultations on 01233 861186 email jo@hornbrookmanor.co.uk or visit www.hornbrookmanor.co.uk