There are two good reasons to mix together different varieties of tulips at planting time.
Firstly, by selecting early, mid-season and late flowering varieties you can create a splash of colour lasting maybe six or more weeks long, rather than the two to three weeks that a single variety would offer. Secondly, I always see tulip flowers as blobs of colour ready to paint a garden landscape. The pointillist school of artists mixed their dots of colour to create magical shimmering scenes and we as gardeners can do the same thing by bringing together harmonious and contrasting tulip flowers.
Ten years ago when I was working on Gardening with Tulips it was a real struggle to find locations in which tulips were used well and even more difficult to find schemes to photograph which showed mixtures of different coloured tulips. This year in the Keukenhof – Holland’s bulb industry show garden near Amsterdam – everything has suddenly changed.
For decades, Keukenhof planting consisted of block plantings of different varieties. Pink next to yellow, orange, violet, green and blue – the cacophony was unabating in a loud celebration of spring – visitors seemed to love it!
This is a typicale old style scheme greeting you at the entrance to the park this year.
A couple of years ago, perhaps urged on by my own writing on the subject, a few tulip mixtures started to be planted at the Keukenhof. But bulb growers are not always gifted designers and the mixtures they put together were muddled and far from inspiring. So imagine my surprise last week when making my annual pilgrimage there to find not one or two, but dozens of examples of mixed bulb planting displays – and many were really quite attractive.
As well as being a huge tourist attraction, the Keukenhof is there to promote the bulb industry with each grower being allotted space to display their wares. Many are still planting in the old way, but it seems that a new generation are trying to show their plants in a more creative manner.
However, the growers are trying to sell bulbs and their schemes are almost entirely created using bulbs from their firms assortment. Real gardeners, on the other hand, will add bulbs to their beds and borders to complement the other plants growing there; the Keukenhof is only open for a few weeks in spring and need not look good all year round.
The few demonstration gardens that are to be found in one area of the park are so bad I could not bring myself to photograph them. They consist of the sort of pots and ornaments you might find for sale in a garden centre arranged into cluttered tableaux that bear little relationship to real gardens. One day maybe they will create real demonstration gardens at the Keukenhof and show their visitors how bulbs can be used to enhance them. But lets not be negative; I am sure that the mixtures of bulbs that have now started to appear there are interesting and will inspire many visitors to be more adventurous with bulbs in their own gardens.
How many different colours and varieties of bulbs you add to a scheme is a matter of personal taste. In my own garden I allocate a specific theme to its various areas and develop these using mixtures of either complementary or boldly contrasting varieties. For example, by my entrance gate – tall pink and low dark red tulips pepper the ground cover of white flowering perennials. Another border has large flowered yellow/orange ‘Daydream’ tulips amidst a yellow field of lower growing, starry flowered ‘West Point’, one of the Lily-flowered Group of tulips.
A few of the successful schemes at the Keukenhof follow a similar approach by mixing two or three contrasting cultivars together or alternatively more varieties, but within the same colour range.
Unfortunately many more schemes use a much wider range of colours and forms to create splashes of colour which from a distance look great, but on closer examination appear muddled.
One of the biggest problems, in my opinion, is the regular addition of daffodils to these tulip mixtures. We are used to seeing tulips and daffodils together in our gardens in spring, but in nature they come from very different habitats. The daffodil is a woodland edge plant and usually requires plenty of moisture in autumn and spring to thrive. The tulip comes form high mountain, well-drained, steppe habitats which are bone dry in summer and moist and very cold in winter. They are different characters and need using differently in planting schemes.
Here is the daffodil being used well and in sympathy with its nature to create wide sweeps of colour around the edge of woodland.
When mixed with the refined form of slink tulip flowers the daffodils look untidy and serve only to add colour to the schemes they are used in.
This scheme looks fabulous from a distance, but close too I found it less satisfying, but you may disagree.
The one thing I did learn form what I discovered at the Keukenhof this year was that the smaller, multiflowered daffodils worked much better in the mixed schemes than any of their larger family members. However, used in this way, they simply serve to fill in the background to the prima donna tulip flowers.
Clearly the wind of change is blowing through the Keukenhof and the rate of change is fast – I cannot wait to return next year and see what happens next.