Steffie Shields confesses to a passion for tulips.
A fair-weather gardener these days, and not one for routine, I have two rituals. The first is to ensure that, at least once this month, I stop by Rasell’s Nurseries at Little Bytham to wander through their fabulous tulip display. Tim Rasell’s daughter Claire is so creative with huge pots, I always come away inspired, buzzing with new ideas and admirable planting combinations.
Secondly, every September, I make a beeline for another family-run business, Parker’s Anwick Garden Centre, recognised for their splendid selection of choice bulbs. Aisles in tiers, lined with cardboard boxes, each labelled with a colour photograph, containing hordes of dry, brown treasure. I move slowly, pondering with as much, if not more, pleasure and stimulation as if browsing in a dress shop, library or jewellers. I try to imagine possible outcomes in our garden, in terms of height, tone and habit, finally deciding which obsession to pop in my shopping basket.
Who needs anti-depressants? Plant tulip bulbs massed in large patio pots near both kitchen or living-room windows. Then look out, in anticipation, to follow your new spring collection’s progress from emerging, pallid green buds to dazzling, full-blown, cups of colour catching raindrops. Tulips in sunshine encourage well-being and make family and friends smile. Deter marauding squirrels and pecking pheasants by inserting twiggy cornus and hazel cuttings around each pot edge. Another deterrent – remember to sprinkle the compost occasionally with chilli-powder!
Considering most tulips are best regarded as an annual, rarely flowering as strongly or as vibrantly in the second year, I am amazed by the longevity of parrot tulips. A host of these perennial, hardy bulbs originally planted by previous owners continue to multiply in full sun and well-drained soil near our garden gate. When the wind blows, their fancy flowers flutter, almost as if taking flight. I love how low, early evening sunbeams filter through their large, mobile petals, painted in rich, warm, feathered tones, as if exotic birds caught in a theatrical spotlight.
Tulips are fascinating. Their natural splendour has been portrayed in old Dutch Masters paintings and in Ukranian ‘Pysanky’, the pleasing folk art of decorating Easter eggs.
Yet it proves a challenge to capture such photogenic beauty with camera and Photoshop. Fiery streaks or tonal variations continually change from cool diffuse early morning light to a warm afternoon’s sunshine. I have studied the art of flower photography with tulips more than any other flower; their voluptuous form, silky, sometimes velvety, sheen and singular wayward habit. Parrot tulips remain my firm favourites. Here, a world away from cheap, random bunches picked up at the supermarket, I share twelve other class acts.
Top of the bill is the April and May-flowering Triumph tulip, ‘Lasting Love’. This handsome, long-flowering, deep burgundy red tulip lives up to its name. Soft florets of acid lime-green Euphorbia robbiae make perfect planting companions, also with another fine, equally long-lasting, mid-season, silken Triumph tulip: maroon-red ‘National Velvet’. In fifteen individual divisions of tulips, Triumph tulips, the largest group with perfect, classical, symmetrical tulip-shape, earn their popular title. Easy to grow, they shine like gaily-coloured eggs on long, strong stems. The eye-catching, stalwart ‘Gavota’, rich wine-red to plum purple, edged with cream to golden yellow, is well worth growing, sturdy and weather-resistant. One of the greatest Triumph tulips, fragrant ‘Princess Irene’ sports orange petals uniquely flushed with purple.
After several years of grey, interior decorators are focusing on ‘in’-colours, apricot and pastel peach, also destined to be omnipresent at this year’s RHS Chelsea Show. If you wish to add a subtle, sophisticated ‘designer-look’ dimension to your May garden, choose the gorgeous, delicately-scented, award-winning ‘Apricot Beauty’ one of the world’s most popular, early-flowering tulips. Compact, single, cup-shaped flowers brushed in delicate salmon-pink with orange margins look fabulous amongst forget-me-nots, even when fading to soft, sunset tones just before the petals fall. Graceful ‘lily-flowered’ ‘Ballerina’ and ‘China Pink’ are equally striking in colour, if frailer in the wind. ‘Elegant Lady’ is enchantingly transparent in sunlight.
Purple flowers signifying the concept of love, fasting and faith in art, are also linked historically to royalty and nobility. Many gardeners add drama with ‘Queen of Night’, a single late, sultry, distinctive deep maroon flower, up to 60cm tall, almost black in sunshine. I prefer ‘Night Rider’, a viridiflora tulip, mixed purple and green. Another hybrid, ‘Green Star’, a curvaceous, reflexed, lily-flowered, viridiflora tulip with green flames and a hint of yellow, is a sensational ‘show-stopper’.
May-flowering tulips, in a wide range of colours, with some of the tallest varieties over 55cm, make excellent cut flowers. Glorious battalions, beloved by English park-keepers, march across flowerbeds, towering over gaudy pansies, primulas, or wallflowers. Have we come to expect this traditional approach? Do such formal arrays still stop us in our tracks? A newer trend favours a wilder, less-regimented natural look, following the influence of Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf’s ‘prairie’ planting. Notice how Chelsea’s top designers incorporate tulips in show gardens this year exploring themes of children’s play areas, natural woodland habitats and feelgood benefits of gardening. Make a list of any new, ‘must-have’ tulips.
Bulb-growers, Taylor & Sons of Holbeach now produce ‘Carpet of Colour Trays’ inspired by iconic spring-flowering landscapes of Keukenhof Gardens in Holland, ideal for massed colour or to give as gifts. This reminds me of Howick Gardens in Northumberland, where I came across a spellbinding meadow with fritillaries and gaudy tulips dotted around like Smarties. Singleton tulips amongst spreads of bluebells and cowslips in dappled, woodland glades, known as Lady Lindsey’s Groves at Grimsthorpe Castle, are equally magical. I have tried to replicate this kaleidoscopic effect in our old orchard. Reluctant to throw away year-old bulbs from my pots, I remove fading blooms to prevent them setting seed, let green foliage absorb the sun’s energy while dying down, and store dry bulbs in the cool garage. Come cold November, I plant them in a clearing between apple and plum trees where the sun shines.
Relish the season I call ‘May Madness’. Grass and clouds of cow parsley grow like crazy as nature shows off her spring wardrobe in wild profusion. Visit hall gardens open to the public including Belton, Doddington, Elsham and Gunby and look out for tulip ‘rivers’, in many-hued swathes in Springfields Festival Gardens in Spalding. All weekend, 4th-6th May, Holbeach will host a Flower Festival at All Saints Church with flower displays and craft stalls. Tulip Festivals are again on the rise. Be warned. ‘Tulip mania’, first coined in the seventeenth century, when prices rocketed, could happen again.
This month, motivated by Chelsea, take time to assess every aspect of your garden. Is one colour of the rainbow missing? Visualise a sunny corner or two where the finest purple lily-flowered tulip ‘Purple Dream’ could add pizzazz or ‘bling’. Look forward, come autumn, to shopping for ‘new to you’ varieties, and the expectation of 2020’s better and brighter spring show!