How to plant and grow tulips for a stunning display
If you want to knock everyone’s socks off in spring, then you have to grow tulips. Tulips can do everything from exquisite good taste to a riot of carnival colours.
And they are very easy to grow. Almost the only thing you can do wrong is not to plant enough of them. Tulips definitely like to party.
So I went to Hever Castle, where their Festival of Tulips runs in the last week of April to talk to head gardener, Neil Miller, about how to grow tulips.
I also talked to Sue Oriel, who planted 2,500 tulips in three standard raised beds for her niece’s wedding. The wedding, sadly, has had to be postponed due to regulations, but the tulips are a lesson in getting a large number of tulips into a small space.
Sue runs Country Lane Flowers with her business partner Stephanie Bates. They grow flowers for bouquets and events in their gardens, growing in domestic-sized borders entirely with the seasons. ‘We grow entirely with natural light and warmth,’ says Sue. There are no polytunnels or extra heat or light, and all plants are grown from seeds, bulbs or cuttings in the garden. Sue gives her advice on growing cut flowers from your garden as a small business here.
How to choose tulips
Although, obviously, colour is the first thing you think about when choosing tulips, Neil suggests that you also think about the height. ‘Think about where you’ll be planting the tulips and how the heights compare.’
For example, it can be better to choose shorter tulips for pots if they’re in exposed positions, because they’ll be blown about the wind.
Otherwise, it really is just a question of what you like.
Where to plant tulips
It’s also a good idea to plant some tulips in sunny spots and others in shadier borders. The tulips in the sun will come out first (and probably will go over quite quickly). The tulips in the shade will come out later and last longer. ‘So you get a good progression,’ says Neil.
Neil likes to plant tulips in blocks of the same type and color together – he thinks they have more impact en masse.
Sue also prefers big blocks of high impact tulips. ‘I don’t plant in threes, fives and sevens,’ she says. ‘I plant in thirteens, fifteens and seventeens.’
Which plants go well with tulips
- Forget-me-nots (Mysotis)
- Evergreens with contrasting foliage
- Plants with pretty emerging foliage, such as roses or peonies.
At Hever Castle, there are a number of displays where tulips are combined with either violas or wallflowers. Heuchera are another good partner for tulips.
Grow tulips with perennials and shrubs
You can also grow tulips in herbaceous borders to add colour. As the emerging leaves of perennials begin to cover the soil, tulips add splashes of brightness.
Neil has also considered the evergreen shrubs when choosing tulip colour. I particularly like this combination of dark copper Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ with the bright carnival stripes of Abu Hassan tulips.
How to grow tulips in pots
Neil says that it’s better to grow tulips in terracotta pots than in plastic ones, because plastic ones get hotter in sunshine and colder in frost.
There are wonderful pots and troughs at Hever Castle, all planted up with tulips as you can see from these pictures.
‘Put some chicken wire over the pots to keep squirrels from digging the bulbs up and eating them,’ says Neil. ‘You can take the chicken wire away as soon as the tulips start to shoot as squirrels don’t eat the bulbs at that stage.
How to plant tulips
They plant their tulips at Hever Castle at about three times the depth of the bulb.
When I went to a flower growing workshop at Sarah Raven, she advised us to plant tulips very deeply if we wanted them to come back – even as deep as 12″. That was over ten years ago. I planted a group of Ballerina tulips at 12″ and they still come back year after year.
Plant tulips later than other spring bulbs. At Hever Castle, they plant them in November, but many people leave it until December or even January. Ulting Wick, a garden in Essex which opens for the National Garden Scheme, is famous for its tulips. Philippa Burroughs and the head gardener, Lou Nicholls, plant around 12,000 tulips in January. ‘As long as they’re all in by the end of January, that’s fine by us,’ says Phillipa.
How to stop squirrels from digging up your tulips
Squirrels love tulips. ‘They’re like caviar to squirrels,’ says Neil.
At Hever Castle, they did some tests on what would stop squirrels from digging up their bulbs. ‘We found a mix of chilli powder and garlic powder, lightly sprinkled on top of the soil just after planting really did stop squirrels from digging up our bulbs,’ he says.
If you are planting tulips in pots cover the pots with chicken wire. Remove the chicken wire once the tulips start to shoot, as the squirrels will no longer be interested.
How to grow tulips very close together
As Sue is trying to grow as many tulips as possible, she dug out the whole flower bed to about 6″ (the same as Neil’s 3x the size of the bulb). They then added feed and garden compost before laying the bulbs out. ‘I plant around 100-200 bulbs in a square metre,’ she says.
But only choose the best bulbs. ‘Don’t try to grow tulips that are slightly mouldy or not full size. Their flowers will be disappointing.’
‘And we don’t add any grit or gravel for drainage,’ she says. ‘That’s now considered to be very old-fashioned advice and it can create space under the tulip where water can puddle.’
‘We place them closer together than the manufacturers recommend,’ she says. ‘We leave about a tulip bulb’s distance between each tulip bulb. And it’s very important to avoid the tulips touching each other.’
Then she covers the bulbs with soil and garden compost, mixed with some more feed. ‘That was in November.’
Sue hasn’t had to care for her tulips over winter, but once the leaves began to emerge, she watered them in dry periods. ‘I could see that their leaves were looking a bit more shrunken than usual, which can mean lack of moisture, ‘ she said. As they’re planted so close together, they would be competing with each other for water.
They perked up once they’d been watered.
How to care for tulips once they’ve flowered
Neil says it’s important to dead head the tulips if you want flowers next year. However, he says that many tulips really only flower best in their first year. That’s why so many people dig them up and replace them year after year.
However, sometimes tulips do come back. As well as the Ballerina tulips, I also have some Queen of Night that have come back over many years, and some yellow ones planted by my predecessors over 20 years ago.
If you want tulips to come back, Neil also advises feeding them with an all-purpose fertiliser or tomato feed. And make sure you don’t cut back any foliage until it has died. It will then come away in your hand, leaving the bulb in the ground.
As a cut flower grower, Sue doesn’t cut the tulip off the bulb in the ground. She harvests tulips by digging up the whole bulb, with the flower attached. ‘You can then wrap it in newspaper and keep it in the fridge for a few days, and only cut it when you want to put it in a vase.’
A locally grown tulip, dug up like this, will last in a vase for up to two weeks, she says. But supermarket flowers that have been flown and chilled for a long period of time after being cut away from the bulb ‘are effectively dead already,’ she says. So they won’t last as long in the vase.
But before tulips, there are daffodils…
If you’re planning your spring garden, you’ll want to start with daffodils. I sometimes think we forget how much they lift our spirits after winter. See daffodil tips here.
And if you’re thinking about the most effective places to plant spring bulbs, then see this advice from Lucy Adams. She’s the head gardener at Doddington Place Gardens, which was short-listed for Historic House Garden of the Year in 2021.
More about Hever Castle and Country Lane Flowers
As well as the gardens, Hever Castle is an event and wedding venue. It has a golf course, bed & breakfast accommodation and a number of special attractions, such as the lake and jousting.
Country Lane Flowers offers tailor made bouquets and event flowers, featuring only locally grown seasonal flowers. There is also a roadside stall, open from April to October on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from mid-morning onwards. The address is Owens Court Road, Selling, Kent ME13 9QR, opposite Newhouse Farm Cottage.
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There’s a saying that sums up my approach to gardening – ‘Gardeners Learn By Trowel and Error.’ All the top gardening experts tell me that they have lots of plants die on them, so don’t be nervous of trying a plant out. Sometimes plants die and it’s not your fault. Sometimes it’s a learning experience. But sometimes it turns out better than you could ever have expected. So I’ve put this saying on a bag, mug and t-shirt, to remind us to to keep trying if something doesn’t work out. You can see them here.
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