Tulips in Pots or in Gardens

The tulip season is coming to a premature end in the Netherlands with temperatures hitting 28 degrees (82F) this weekend. Tulipa sprengeri is coming into flower weeks earlier than normal, but every cloud has a silver lining as this early display stands more chance of being seen as its companion perennials are lower than they normally are when it usually flowers. In Gardening with Tulips, Tulipa sprengeri is one of my so-called Classic Tulips; not only is it the last to flower, it grows well in shade and will return for ever. The sting in the tail is that you will never be able to buy it. The bulb world is very conservative – production methods are standardised – and T. sprengeri can only be increased, for technical reasons, by seed. Beg, steal or borrow(!) seed and it will flower for you within four years, which for a tulip is fast.

Tulipa sprengeri

Tulipa sprengeri

Now is the time to assess this year’s bulb display and make plans for next spring. The bulb catalogues are not out yet, but there is no time to waste as you will quickly forget things and prospective sites for next time round which are maybe obvious now – in a few months time they will have slipped your mind – or at least if you are anything like myself.

Four years ago I had a serious problem with voles in the garden who demolished my tulip show; thereafter I was forced to growing them in pots. Hoping that the critters would have forgotten about me and moved on I took the risk and tried again last autumn – it worked – a few bulbs were eaten but more than 600 survived. For security I also grew a few in pots again and this has taught me something I had not really thought about before.

Tulip 'Couleur Cardinal'

Tulip 'Couleur Cardinal'

Tulips in pots look best when used singly, in other words, not mixed and matched. I tend to use the same variety in three or four pots and this gives me the opportunity to line them out along paths or dot them around within a flower border. By choosing early, mid and late season types there are endless possibilities to explore. Mixtures in pots tend to look messy as mixtures of tulips need to fill a large space in order to work.

Tulip 'Couleur Cardinal' with wisteria

Tulip 'Couleur Cardinal'

When planting in the ground I like to plant tulips singly and spread them far and wide amidst their border companions as opposed to the traditional approach of squeezing them together into clumps. My approach is far more work and you will never be able to lift them after flowering, but why bother, some will return and others will not. The one caveat to this approach though is that you need to choose certain colour themes for various areas of your garden and stick to them year on year – otherwise your garden may turn into a sweet shop of mixed colour each spring.

Red tulip mixture in Michael King's garden

Red tulip mixture in Michael King's garden

My main “grass/prairie” plant border has red tulips, this year I mixed Darwinhybrid Group tulips Red Impression and Parade to start the display, the Lily flowered Dyanito for the main season and currently Single Late Kingsblood is persevering with the heat.

Darwinhybrid Group Tulip 'Leo" with Tulip 'Gudoschnik'

Darwinhybrid Group Tulip 'Leo" with Tulip 'Gudoschnik'

Two long borders were filled with one of my favorite Darwinhybrids – Gudoschnik. The flowers are pale yellow streaked with orange/red; no two tulips are the same which creates a fine medley of warm colour. I added the new and unique, and very expensive, cultivar Leo for added interest when nearby. This remarkable tulip has scarlet red flowers with petals ending in a fringe of dramatic points – I have never seen this flower shape before in any tulip.

Darwinhybrid Group Tulip 'Leo"

Darwinhybrid Group Tulip 'Leo"

My most complex display had a purple theme. I mixed more than ten carefully chosen cultivars, both singles and doubles to create a long display season. It started with the Single Early Group tulip Purple Prince over five weeks ago and the display has just ended.

Purple tulip mixture

Purple tulip mixture

Looking back over what has been a most rewarding tulip show I have decided to repeat almost the same next year. I can see a few places for improvement but overall it has worked well. I will probably plant exactly the same number of tulips of each type again. This will guarantee the display and will hopefully double its impact where and if this year’s bulbs return. All the Darwinhybrids will return, albeit with slightly smaller flowers, but many of the purple mixture, especially the triumph tulips it contained, will not.

Purple tulip mixture

Purple tulip mixture

Hopefully this short series of posts will inspire you to be adventurous with tulips next spring. If you missed them take a look at red tulips and blue tulips.

Don’t wait until your garden is filled with asters and tall flowering grasses to plan you bulb displays – do it now – I have.

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4 Responses to Tulips in Pots or in Gardens

  1. Pingback: Taking Cuttings of Perennials | Perennial Meadows

  2. I love the mixed purple tulip planting. What do you grow to hide the dying foliage? That’s what has always put me off growing tulips in the ground – at least pots can be moved out of sight while the foliage dies back.

    • Michael says:

      The tulips in my borders are surrounded by perennials that grow fast to detract from their foliage. The borders shown in this post are new and the perennials are not as dominant as normal. Hemerocallis is very quickly effective – see also my post on calamagrostis grass in the top perennial section. The section on complementary planting in Meadows 101 and in the eBook “Perennial Meadows” goes into this aspect of meadow gardening.

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