My bulb habit owes a bit too much to the dressing-up box: a bit of this, a bit of that, a feather boa, a cowboy hat… My spring bulbs, in particular, are all over the place. So I’ve decided to get a grip: I intend to create a capsule collection and stick to it.
The end of October is the perfect time to get tulips in, so they’re a good place to start. Plant them too early in the season, when the soil is not cold enough, and you risk mould rotting the bulbs. Too late (after November), and they are unlikely to flower next spring.
Most hybrid tulips don’t last long in the ground, particularly on clay. You may get a few more years out of the Darwin hybrids, but many either flower poorly after year one or never reappear. If you have somewhere cool and dry to store the bulbs (as well as a hefty dose of patience), there’s thrift in lifting and replanting.
There are a few reliably perennial tulips, however. I am stealing a trick or two from Sarah Raven, who has trialled every tulip so we don’t have to. She recommends three as “super-perennial”: ‘Spring Green’ (tulip petals are edible and this one looks lovely in salads); ‘Artist’, which is golden-orange and green; and ‘Groenland’/’Greenland’, whose flowers are edged with rose.
These are all Viridiflora types, featuring a single flower about 45cm high, with green feathering to the petals. They all tend to flower in May.
Other tulips known to repeat-flower include creamy white ‘Purissima’; ‘Mistress’, all pretty in pink; orange ‘Ballerina’; bright red ‘Apeldoorn’; ‘Golden Apeldoorn’; royal yellow ‘Roi du Midi’; ‘White Triumphator’ (purer than ‘Purissima’); and any species tulip. I also like dwarf tulips ‘Red Riding Hood’ and the multi-headed ‘Fusilier’, both of which are suited to pots, balconies and window boxes.
The trick with tulips is to plant deeply. This stops the plant from toppling over if we get a very wet April and you don’t disturb the bulbs the rest of the year, so you can plant lettuce, for instance, on top once they have disappeared. Usually you plant tulips 15cm deep (three times the depth of the bulb), but I’d suggest going down as much as 25cm. Add grit to the bottom of the hole if you are on heavy clay and space each bulb at least double its width apart from the next.
Once the tulips have finished flowering, remove any seedheads, allow all the foliage to turn brown before you pull it off, and you can all but guarantee that they will be back next year.