Designs on tulips

Posted on Friday, September 16th, 2011

When we moved into our house our front garden contained a scrappy piece of lawn, about 3m², with a rather unhappy Mahonia in the centre. A combination of an apathetic attitude to mowing this small area and my desire for a tidier aspect for the front of the house lead us to take up the turf, move the Mahonia with a ‘kill or cure’ approach (it survived) and create a rather pretentious (for the size and stature of our house) ‘parterre’ with box hedging.

A couple of years later the box is doing well in places, not so well in other spots, and some last minute ground cover sweet peas are rampaging over the plot in my attempt to give it a bit of colour when I had no time for planning further forward than popping a few seeds into the ground. So, with next spring in mind, I sat down with a bulb catalogue to plan properly for next year, specifically with a colourful display of tulips in mind.

Browsing through the catalogue I had no trouble finding tulips which I liked, in fact I could quite happily fill several acres with my choices, but struggled rather with narrowing it down to a more realistic, and well combined, selection. Therefore I went back to basic and, instead of starting with the varieties available, I started with the basics of how to plant tulip displays.

The first principle I worked to was that the smaller the space, the fewer varieties it can cope with. A small border would look very cluttered with four different colours of tulip vying for position, but one type, or perhaps two in either complementary or contrasting colours, would give a display with much more visual impact.

On a larger scale the options are more numerous, though I still favour blocks or waves of one or two colours over a general cacophony of different varieties. In a long border a drift of a single type of tulip, weaving between other plants, creates a sinuously dramatic affect. If the border is particularly deep or wide then you can incorporate several drifts of different tulips, which can be truly spectacular to behold.

In a bedding scheme dedicated to tulips and other spring bedding you can plant striking, geometric shapes in different colours. Perhaps rectangular rows of different varieties, or concentric circles creating a rainbow effect.

In pots, just one colour often looks best, although combining two complementary or contrasting tulips can be simple enough to still perform well in such a small area. Containers are also ideal sites for the more ostentatious tulips, such as Parrot or Double tulips; bringing them nearer eye level allows them to be better appreciated.

Of course, this is all very well and good, but it doesn’t take into account my desire to try out lots of different bulbs! In the end I’ve stuck to mainly reds and yellows (colours which I mainly use for cut flowers in the house, which some of the tulips will be sacrificed to). In each of the four sections of my parterre I’m planting one early variety and one late one, but in colours which will match should they be out at the same time. So I’ve managed to cram in 8 different kinds of tulip and, I will admit, am a little worried that this will be a bit over the top for such a little space, but then I’ve never really been one to practice what I preach! Perhaps I’ll be a little more sensible when choosing bulbs for my spring containers…?

A few more tips about planting tulips:

  • You should aim to plant a minimum of 6 plants (in containers) or 15 (in beds/borders) together so they don’t look ‘lost’ among other plants, though you need 30+ to get a really dramatic display.
  • As well as considering the colour of the tulips you’re planting you should also consider the flowering time (particularly if you’re intending two varieties to be in flower at the same time), the height of the plant (to ensure that you don’t have shorter ones hidden at the back of displays) and whether the colour of the flower is the same throughout its flowering period (you can now get some ‘colour change’ tulips which start in a light colour and age to darker).
  • If you fancy having a real mix of colours try to purchase the bulbs in separate colours and mix them yourself; if you can’t identify the different bulbs you won’t be able to ensure a ‘random’ spread of colours through the display.
  • Always put all your bulbs out on the soil surface before you plant them, to ensure that you have enough for the area to be covered and to enable you to mix different coloured bulbs to give a natural effect. If you’re dealing with more the one colour flower, or just have trouble spotting bulbs on the soil surface, place something bright next to each bulb and used a different colour for each type of bulb. The tops from plastic milk bottles are useful for this or plastic plant labels.