Planting tulip bulbs
I don’t like this time of year. The darker nights, shorter days, the incessant rain and the cold. I’d like to head south, like the swallows and swifts that fly above the garden in summer, to somewhere warm and sunny, a place where I don’t need to swaddled in multiple layers of clothing, returning home in February to see the snowdrops emerging. Unfortunately this isn’t a lifestyle that’s likely to happen, so I have to console myself with embracing the best aspects of this time of year: roaring fires, delicious casseroles, autumn leaf colour, sparkling frosts and the best distraction of all, planning and planting for next year’s garden display.
November is all about tulips. Planting these bulbs is an action that is imbued with such hope – taking these non-descript brown, onion-like structures and burying them in the soil when the weather is cold and grey, knowing that in 5 months’ time they’ll provide a welcome shot of colour, gleaming in warm spring sunshine. This is certainly the image I try to keep in mind as I’m bent double planting more than 300 tulips. “It’ll be worth it,” I keep telling myself.
If I’ve been organised and the weather has been kind I’ll have managed to plant the daffodil bulbs in September or October. These are best planted in early autumn so that the bulbs have a chance to get established, putting down roots before the weather turns cold. It’s recommended that tulips, however, are planted when the ground is cold because they’re prone to a range of diseases which are more prevalent in mild weather. I’m not sure whether this is one of those unfounded garden myths that is perpetuated without any real scientific studies or not. Certainly climate change means that even in my garden high up in the Pennines in Yorkshire, frost before Christmas is now uncommon, so I’m not sure that planting in November would make that much of a difference. Leave it any later and the wetter weather makes planting impossible. For me, planting tulips in November is more about staggering the task of bulb planting, which can be a back-breaking job.
Tulips like well-drained soil and dislike being planted in heavy clay, so in my garden where rainfall is high and the soil can be waterlogged in winter I only plant tulips in containers. This approach has lots of advantages as it allows me to create impactful container displays; I don’t have to put up with unsightly bulb foliage as it dies back in the borders; and it’s so much easier planting into containers than having to dig holes in the ground.
Plant breeding means there is a vast choice of tulips, whether it’s classic goblet-shaped blooms; the pointed petals of lily-flowered cultivars; blowsy doubles with multiple rows of petals; or the weird and wonderful parrots with their ruffled, fringed, twisted petals in multicolours. Then there are colours. Tulips come in pretty much every shade you can think of, which makes choosing difficult. I find it easier to narrow things down by going for either pastel shades or rich, jewel-like tones. And it’s the latter that I’m planting at the moment – tulips such as ‘Ballerina’, ‘Merlot’, ‘Slawa’ and ‘Cairo’.
On a snowy January day, I’ll picture these pots filled to bursting with their plum, magenta and orange tulips and spring won’t seem so far away.
Om Louise Curley
Louise is a horticulturalist, garden writer and author of the award-winning book The Cut Flower Patch. She’s passionate about the power of plants to make us feel happy and is an advocate for organic gardening and encouraging wildlife into gardens.Get to know Louise Curley
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