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Gardening: Plant Hunters Article - April/May 22

A Triumph of Tulips by Martin Blow

Tulips have always been spring flowering favourites with gardeners, from massed plantings floating above a sea of Forget-Me-Not through to dwarf varieties in containers and window boxes. They are undergoing a bit of a renaissance at the moment as an essential part of jewel gardens – planted singly in a rich tapestry of vibrant colour.

There are so many colours and shapes to choose from and they thrive in any well drained and sunny garden and even if your garden gets wet, they flourish in containers and pots. The bulbs are best planted quite deep, especially in colder soils. For traditional types this means around 6-8in / 15-20cm but more like 4-5in / 10-12cm for the shorter alpine tulips. In the garden plant the bulbs at least 5” / 12cm apart. In containers bulbs can be planted very close but not touching.

Planting dry bulbs is usually delayed until October to November, which is later than for Daffs.  Don’t worry if you forgot to plant bulbs in autumn as pot grown plants can be planted at any time in the spring or early summer and there is usually a very good choice of varieties and species at Plant Hunters’ Fairs in spring.

Conventional wisdom is that all types other than the alpine types, rarely make as good flowers in their second year if left in the ground and they should be lifted after the foliage has yellowed, dried and stored in a cool place until autumn brings the time for planting again. Some gardeners go as far as treating them as annuals and lift and discard the bulbs, starting afresh each autumn.

I have tried leaving modern tulip varieties in the ground from year to year and this wisdom is true, as far as the varieties I have tried, as the plants fail to clump and become shorter and smaller flowered despite tenaciously hanging on over a number of years.

The opposite is true of alpine species and varieties tulips like T.tarda or T.Little Princess, which for me continue to thrive and multiply from year to year.

By far the biggest pest are grey squirrels who love to eat the bulbs and relentlessly hunt them out and dig them up. Deep planting in grass might help but the only real deterrent is rabbit wire placed over the planting area and pegged down and covered with a mulch or made into “bulb cages” for each planting hole or pot. Chilli flakes or sharp gravel is also said to help.

Tulip bulbs kept from year to year can also build up infections that can spread from bulb to bulb. Tulip Fire is a fungus that attacks bulbs and causes distorted, dying stems and leaves and brown spots that merge together. Another “disease” is Tulip Breaking Virus, this causes the flowers to develop wildly coloured streaks. This sparked the Tulip manias in historical times where bulbs sold for incredible sums. Unfortunately, the virus usually weakens and kills the plants although a few rare varieties exist that seem to tolerate the virus. Gardeners can still seek out streaked flowers by buying the so-called Parrot Tulips that have multicoloured flowers with feather-edged petals.

Whether you are looking for a patio pot, gravel garden bulbs or massed and jewel planting there is choice enough of colours or heights for any gardener’s needs in April, May and June when your garden can become a triumph of tulips.

Martin Blow

Janet & I organise Plant Hunters’ Fairs, specialist plant fairs at wonderful locations. Middleton Hall, Nr Tamworth, B78 2AE on Sunday 3rd April and Sunday 26th June, entry to Gardens & Plant Fair only £3 (special reduced entry price), ticket required, please see website. 1620’s House and Garden, Nr Coalville, LE67 2FW on Sunday 15th May, entry to Garden & Plant Fair £1, ticket required, please see website. For a full list of all 30 of our 2022 plant fairs please visit Please check website for ticketing information and all the latest updates before travelling.