The story of a tulip bed


My tulip bed is just starting to go over, and I will really miss it. Actually, tulip ‘bed’ is a bit of a misnomer; it was really a sort of tulip dump, or so it was intended. There were tulips scattered around the garden following their usual springtime role in pots, some doing better than others, and I decided to put them in one place. I thought they might work together or they might not; but I didn’t really care. I just wanted some colour.

In the middle garden, the working garden where the picnic bench sits and the washing gets hung out, there’s a sundial. Around the sundial was a small bed, insignificant and far too tiny, but with a lot of Anemone blanda in it for early spring. So we enlarged it, and started sticking tulips in it last year. By the end of March they were starting to come up:

tulips 1

Now tulips aren’t supposed to come back year after year, but I’ve had reasonable success replanting, so I kept my fingers crossed. What I hadn’t anticipated was that there would be a balanced succession, or that we had spaced them out properly – they were planted as dry, anonymous bulbs and it got a bit chaotic cramming them in. We did start out quite organised, but that wasn’t quite how it ended. Ahem.

Much to my surprise, I got a wild burst of colour from all the orange tulips I had in pots last year, well before everything else, and they were even fairly equally spaced (some did appear at the back eventually, honest). Almost deliberate!

tulip gloom

It’s a rather gloomy photo because the weather in mid April was rather gloomy, but once the sun came out they opened up and glowed. Get the light behind them, and they were incandescent.

Then, as is the way with such things, they faded and the next lot opened, and at least I got a chance to capture the effect of the sun:

tulips 3

I have absolutely no idea at all what these are, due to my terrible end-of-season bulb-rescue habit in places like Wilkinson and B&Q; I then lose the packaging, which is usually pretty grotty by that stage anyway. But they are lovely. These were also in pots by the front door, but in 2010. They’ve gone on and on, and been replanted twice. I’m quite happy with where they are now…

Then some of the more miscellaneous ones started to open too, happily in colours (bright scarlet to deep red, with some unintentional striping, ahem) which worked with the others, though I am glad that the orange ones were earlier, I must admit.:

tulips 4

Some have been verging on the mad:


and I was quite astonished to see these. They had been in pots years ago, then popped in a corner of the garden where they did precisely nothing. Replanting them here was a wild shot – I wanted shot of them and wildly decided to see if they did anything. I’ll say. Very glad I didn’t throw them out, and there are a couple more to move over.

By mid May the bed was still going strong,


with the almost-crimson white-edged tulips coming on a treat as well. There are no yellows – except for the unintentional stripes – or pure whites, but I’m not sure I ever had many of either, and some have failed to come up, though these blind ones are few. Overall, I am very, very pleased with this experiment, and it even sits well in context:


Admittedly it’s been a weird spring, with all sorts of timings thrown out – my lilac, for instance, is just blooming; usually it’s brown by now. So next year this will probably look different, perhaps without so many primroses and certainly without the giant rosemary at top left which is shuffling off this mortal coil and is held together with baler twine (eat your heart out, Chelsea gardeners – you should always use baler twine for the authentic country cottage effect). I’m planning a small rhododendron or azalea for that spot, but it will have to work with the tulips. I’m thinking about an azalea arborescens – ‘Latest White‘ – at the moment, but that will probably change.

There’s one thing that won’t, though. The bed’s not big enough:

bed 2

See? Tom Tit on a round of beef, as I believe the saying is. And I’ve got more tulips to go in it – some we missed – plus some Queen of the Night are just opening, and I clearly need to buy more. And the rest, though this year’s pots were a real disappointment so they’re going out. I’m so glad I’ve discovered Peter Nyssen. They’re not doing autumn orders until 1 June, but you can build up a wish list. So far, mine has about 60 items on it. Sigh.

I also have another reason to be chuffed with my tulips. The previous owner’s husband, a great gardener and ex-WW2 pilot, died in about 1995/6. The Wing Commander had been a wild tulip fan, ordering something exotic every year which he would put in planters and then pop in the garden, as I now do. A few still come up – there are a clutch of pink and green parrot tulips that materialise up by the log pile which I must shift before they vanish again, for instance. So I’m channelling the past, evidently, and why not, when it works so well?

And incidentally, I did go back to the lovely NGS garden I visited at the start of the month. It was even more wonderful, and completely changed with leaves on the trees providing much more shade, lots of bluebells, lots of azaleas and rhododendrons. Can’t think where I got the idea of adding an azalea from, really. I still want a tree heather, though…


16 Comments Add yours

  1. Pauline says:

    So glad your tulips have been so successful this year, it seems to have been a good year for them. Our soil is such heavy clay, I have learned the hard way that tulips just don’t like it at all, and they all have to be in pots, covered with planting to keep the mice,voles and squirrels from eating them. Did you take any photos of your garden visit?

    1. kate says:

      It does seem to have been a good year, doesn’t it? In all fairness, they are usually good here, it’s just that they look so much more impressive en masse. And happily my dragon doesn’t sem to like the taste, though he/she has been at the achillea again…

      I did take some photos, but only about 56,000… got to sort through them first!

  2. Christina says:

    Isn’t it great when a plan comes together! I have a plan for the back path, but more of that anon. Do make your circle bigger, I don’t think you’ll regret it. Christina

    1. kate says:

      I’m really chuffed, in a very childish way (most of my plans have a downside which I could easily have anticipated), and I’m definitely going to enlarge it . Looking forward to hearing about your own plans!

  3. Wow, that really worked out well – and yes of course it needs to be bigger hence the bulb wishlist 😉 What will you plant around it to conceal the dying leaves? That’s always my dilemma with tulips in a border.

    1. kate says:

      I’m afraid that’s a problem I’m just encountering, and I hadn’t planned for it – I never expected the tulips to be this good. I do have some calendula seedlings to go in, but with this spring being as bad as it has been… maybe soon they’ll be ready.

      Must do something about that wish list!

  4. Dobby says:

    I do like tulips, but as you know my ground is just too wet for them, and I already have enough pots. The bed looks even better in the flesh (so to speak). I look forward to seeing it enlarged.

    1. kate says:

      I’m quite surprised the middle garden is OK for them – I thought it might be a bit wet as it is flat, but nope, seems OK. More to come!

  5. wellywoman says:

    I love it when these random, hap-hazard garden ventures turn out so brilliantly. I’ve just lifted a lot of tulips so I’ll be finding a home for them soon. Hope I have half your success next spring. P.s Peter Nyssen are brill.

    1. kate says:

      It’s lovely when that happens, isn’t it? I do wish I could claim it was deliberate though! I’ve got more to lift myself, so they’ll get shoved in as well – let’s hope they work. I think they should…

  6. Cathy says:

    An unexpectedly happy marriage, and such a good idea to replant all the pot orphan tulips in one place like this. I particularly like the fact that ‘your’ Wing Commander was a tulip enthusiast and you are still finding some of his tulips. Incidentally, I wonder how he got on with the dragons….

    1. kate says:

      I’m amazed it worked – but I think that’s probably because I like tulips in a certain colour spectrum and unconsciously choose those that fit. The Wing Co had more adventurous tastes – I’ve just found three acid yellow ones I don’t recall having seen before, which I certainly didn’t plant…

  7. hillwards says:

    Ring-a-ring-a-tulips! Lovely. They look like a very well organised plan, we’d never know different.

    Sometimes I think tulips just know what you really want, and do it themselves. 🙂 If the orange ones that flowered for the past couple of years in our front garden had come back this year alongside the dark reds and red-and-yellow stripes and apricot ones, it might have been a bit much for me. They seem to have shuffled off this mortal coil this year though – in with the new!

    1. kate says:

      I think you’re quite right.. I had some pale crimson and yellow ones which wouldn’t have worked at all – and they failed to appear. New tulips – how exciting… woooo….

  8. Lyn says:

    What a great idea and so successful ! I had to laugh, though, when you said the tulip bed isn’t big enough – we gardeners always want more, don’t we?

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