Tulips are for me the icing on the cake in my gardens. Choosing the different sorts and deciding how and where to use them in designs is a particular pleasure. You could make a garden without them, but it would not be as dramatic or beautiful.
Tulips bring the garden alive in spring when used well. Together with other spring flowering bulbs, tulips can be planted to rise up between the other permanent plants in your garden borders to form bold or subtle combinations with them depending upon your wishes.
What few people realise is that there is more that can be done with garden tulips than the jolly clumps that we often see growing in our neighbours front gardens or the serried ranks of red and yellow Darwinhybrid tulips planted by the local council in our parks and on traffic islands.
Different species of Tulipa and their many garden selections and cultivars together flower over a season stretching from late March to mid May and in a good year even later. Since individually each bulb flowers for about three weeks, it is clear that there are some varieties that flower early and others much later. The trick is choosing a selection of different sorts to flower in succession to guarantee flowers throughout spring and on into early summer.
In early spring the garden is beginning to awaken from winter’s rest. Perennials will have died down and now are just stating to reemerge from the bare ground. Shrubs are bare in spring and may quickly earn their keep by rushing into bloom. Essentially, the garden is open, flat and awaiting its green mantle, just the moment to seize upon and flood the space with colour and here tulips are my greatest asset.
I use tulips in two ways in the garden. I plant hundreds of a limited number of early-flowering varieties to create wide drifts of colour across the open canvas offered by the empty, open garden floor. For later in the season, I choose different varieties that will enhance neighbouring shrubs and perennials that will be bursting into life in April and May.
Tulips described as early and mid-season flowering are the ones I look to for mass plantings in gardens. Many wild species flower early and amongst these selections derived from Tulipa kaufmaniana are some of the most dramatic and beautiful. Known as waterlily tulips, they have large flowers that open flat and wide in bright sunshine. Glowing red ‘Showwinner’ is one of the very earliest of these to flower, but the one I use all the time is ‘Stresa’. This fresh yellow tulip’s flowers are boldly stroked by a rich red flame on the outside. These bright flowers offer a sophisticated wakeup-call at the very start of spring.
Emperor tulips are derived from Tulipa fosteriana. These taller growing bulbs are the ones to choose if you are only going for one main tulip display. Not only are they dramatic but, because they flower early when temperatures are low, they are regularly in flower for a very long time. ‘Orange Emperor’ is always my first choice, but a mixture of them all is also well worth considering.
Darwinhybrid tulips have very large flowers held on sturdy stems. Their use in municipal planting schemes had earned them a poor reputation, but I implore you to give them a second look. These tough tulips will almost definitely return to flower in your borders for years to come, which is something that cannot be said of many others. In the second year, their flowers will be considerably smaller and more in scale with a private garden setting.
‘Apeldoorn Elite’ and ‘Parade’ are well-known reliable varieties to consider using and typical of the group, but my all-time favourite here is ‘Banja Luka’. This dramatic Darwinhybrid tulip has red and yellow streaked flower of uncompromising brashness.
Triumph tulips are the classic mid-season tulips available in a vast range of colours. Plain colours such as the indispensable purple ‘Negrita’ are typical, but also exciting bicolour varieties such as the dramatic white with raspberry red streaked flowers of ‘Happy Generation’.
If there is one Triumph Group tulip you must try it is ‘Princess Irene’. This famous variety is rich orange with a dark purple outer flame. Over the years it has given rise to a number of sport offspring such as ‘Pretty Princess’, ‘Ravana’ and even a double, ‘Orange Princess’. Mix them together to create a truly sumptuous focal point.
Late flowering tulips come in a bewildering array of shapes, sizes and colours. There are late flowering varieties with single flowers on very tall stems, some have pointed lily-flowered blooms and others are low-growing with double flowers. Varieties abound: Parrot Group tulips with tortured and twisted petals, Viridiflora Group tulips with gentle green streaked flowers and Fringed Group tulips with fine filaments fringing their petals.
Use these late flowering tulips in carefully considered associations with your other garden plants paying particular attention to their heights. Tall Single Late Group tulips such as ‘Menton’ or ‘Apricot Giant’ can rise up between shrubs and perennials at the rear of mixed garden borders. Lily-flowered tulips such as ‘Red Shine’ and ‘White Triumphator’ might be planted as a drift to rise up through an ornamental grasses border. Yet shorter growing varieties like fringed ‘Cummins’ and delicate Viridiflora Group ‘China Town’ are best placed near to the front of a planting scheme where their details can be fully appreciated.
If you know what role the tulip bulbs you plant are to play in your garden, their use should guide you towards choosing the most suitable varieties.