The spring this year has been slow. A wet winter finally giving way at the end of February to a long and testing period without rain. This came with a relenting fortnight of frosts that saw us fleecing the wall-trained fruit nightly and praying for the plum orchard, which at the time was in full and vulnerable flower. It has been too cold to direct sow in the kitchen garden and the self-sowers, which I like here to make the garden feel lived-in, are looking sparse, the seedlings dwindling without the water in the top layer of soil in this critical period.
We knew the garden would find the water with well-established roots searching it out, but new growth needs rain and it began to show it in tardiness and a reluctance to get out of the blocks. This spring we have pined for the burgeoning that is so much part of an April landscape.
Cue the tulips which, although slower to appear than usual, have sailed through unscathed and oblivious. Miraculous for their ability to cover for the pause between the narcissus waning and the cow parsley filling the hedgerows, we would not be without their impeccable timing.
Despite the hiatus in the garden and their ability to plug the gap, I have deferred from including tulips there due to their immediately ornamental nature. Preferring the slow unravelling of greens against our rural backdrop, we have, instead, grown the tulips in the kitchen garden for picking where, in this productive setting, their flamboyance can sing and not shout.
It was on a trip to see the Dutch bulb fields while a student at Kew that I first saw tulips jumbled together en masse. They were in an old orchard at the back of a bulb farm where the spares had been thrown and provided (for me at least, desperate for naturalism) a relief from the rigour of the regimented rows in the fields. It was an unforgettable sight. Free and liberated and multi-layered with colour and juxtaposition of forms. We grow them together here in homage to that memory and to ease the tulips’ innate formality.
Each year we put together a collection that explores a particular colourway using early, mid-season and late varieties so that we have a month to six weeks of flower. Thirty of each and usually ten varieties planted randomly about 6” apart in November. We move the tulips from bed to bed so that they appear in a different place in the kitchen garden to avoid Tulip Fire, which builds up if you replant the tulips in the same ground repeatedly. A five to seven-year cycle means that the fungal disease goes without its host and, by the time they return to their original position, the ground should be ‘clean’ and ready to receive them again.
The annual selection sees us experimenting with new varieties, and returning to old ones that we favour. Inevitably, because one tulip bulb looks roughly like another, we curse the bulb suppliers who substitute one or two without letting us know so that there are some wild surprises. This would matter if you were planting them into a scheme, but it rarely matters in the mix and sometimes throws up an oddly welcome guest.
After ten years of enjoying growing the tulips in the knowledge that they provide us with a guaranteed respite after winter and a kickstart in spring, we are beginning to feel less easy about their disposability. We are particular here about reusing what we can and not more than we need and it goes against the grain to discard the bulbs, because we don’t have the room to keep them. So, a new place, which will be our equivalent of the Dutch orchard, will be found by the polytunnel for the bulbs to have another life and show us which ones have the potential to be recurring in our heavy, winter-wet ground. This may take some time, but it feels the right time to apply this rigour.
In the search for varieties that do well year after year, we are going to try a few in the garden, but only close to the buildings and used very sparingly so that they do not compete for attention. They will be worked in amongst the volume of the Paeonia delavayi at the garden’s entrance, so that the early flower coincides with the unfurling plum foliage of the tree peonies. We are referring back to our 2019 selection that focused on dark reds and plums. The moodiness of the almost brown ‘Continental’ and the glowing cardinal red of ‘National Velvet’ will sit well here. We will let you know next year how the association fairs amongst the peonies.
In order of flowering our selection was as follows:
First to flower in early April and with a long season of over a month. Tall, straight stems. Uncommon shade of lemon sorbet yellow. Widely listed as growing to 40cm, we found it to be one of the tallest at 55-60cm.
Difficult in a garden setting as the flower is so out of scale with the stem length, for cutting this wine-dark tulip is rich and lustrous. Almost as good as the peonies it precedes. Long flowering season. The shortest for us at 30cm, although listed at 45cm.
Opening primrose yellow with dramatic green flaming this lily-flowered tulip fades to cream and twists extravagantly as it ages. 40cm.
Another diminutive tulip better suited to a pot. A boxy shape we were not so keen on and a rather violent shade of scarlet in the garden. This mellows when cut and brought indoors though, where the exaggerated fringing and black eye can also be seen to best advantage. 30cm.
Delightfully elegant Viridiflora tulip with green flaming on gently waved petals of off-white, broadly streaked with raspberry red. 45cm.
Similar in colour to ‘Orange Sun’ which we have grown before, this Darwin tulip is taller and more elegant. The pure, citrus orange flowers have a satin sheen and a clear yellow centre, which is shown when the flower opens in sunshine. 50cm.
A more sombre shade of burnt orange which is accentuated by the matt petals, which age to faded apricot-gold at the margins. Deliciously sherbet-scented. For us this was the shortest lived at just two weeks. 45cm.
The court jester of parrot tulips. The flaming of primary red and yellow is utterly joyful. The yellow fades to a more subdued clotted cream as they age. 50cm.
Late and tall this tulip has huge flowers the size of a goose egg in a rich shade of deep crimson. With sturdy, ramrod straight stems it is ideal for a windy site such as ours or for picking. 55-60cm
The scarlet lily-flowered tulip in the main image is ‘Red Shine’, which we grew last year and would seem to be a good contender for perennial flowering.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs & captions: Huw Morgan
Published 8 May 2021