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Planting tulips

planting tulips in heavy soil

Bulb catalogues are my downfall. The descriptions, the photographs, the way that they set my mind off on Spring at a time when it is beginning to become more monochrome outside.

There was a time when what is now the orchard was simply rows of tulips to sell at farmers markets. One year deer, hungry in the cold, came up from the woods in the valley and ate 4000 bulbs in a single night. I cried.

For the past couple of years I have been very restrained in my tulip purchases - a few rows for the house, a couple of dozen to brighten up the borders - and concentrated instead on planting narcissi and crocus under the plum trees in the orchard.

This year however we are back to having a proper cutting garden, in an area that hasn't grown tulips before, so I went on a little bit of a splurge.

I garden on pretty heavy soil and the weather in the west of Scotland is very wet in the winter so we are not the ideal climate for tulips - 15 years of growing tulips has however shown which varieties come back year after year and which are single year show stoppers.

I have two areas I am going to plant up this year.

The first is down the side of the central path between the existing and the new productive gardens. It is long and narrow bed under a row of espalier apple trees (currently looking more like twigs if I am honest). I do not want to have to completely replant this every year - I need there to be a good existing framework of reliable tulips which I can simply top up.

This is where the most perennial tulip varieties are going.

White Emperor (purissima). As the name suggests this is a big, pure creamy white tulip, buttery yellow at the base. It flowers early, it doesn't spoil in the weather (unlike some white tulips) and I have had a clump growing here for 10 years.

planting tulips in heavy soil

Spring Green. I think that this must be the most reliable tulip I grow - it even comes back in some large pots, year after year. The base is a yellowy white with broad green stripes up the petals. This is also the tulip which had a stem so sturdy that it withstood a spaniel puppy careering through the flower beds.

planting tulips in heavy soil

Tulip sylvestris. I have never grown this before - but saw it growing in the grass down at Perch Hill in the Spring. I originally ordered the bulbs for the orchard but then thought that they might attract the deer and changed my mind. So it will be adding a spark of yellow to the border instead. It is a wild tulip and scented - Sarah Raven says that it is perennial with her so I am giving it a try. I shall let you know.

planting tulips in heavy soil

Other tulips I find pretty perennial here are the clear orange Ballerina (which smells of freesias so I forgive its weak stems), the raspberry ripple Marilyn and apricot Menton which has amazing staying power as a flower - 3 weeks in bloom. I also found that the glorious Orange Favourite was perennial for about 5 years, but this has now been discontinued by most sellers due to virus build up so I am not replenishing my stock.

I am going to add in some extras to this border to build on the theme of green and cream and have chosen Evergreen, Green star and Green Spirit - none of which I have ever grown before.

There is also going to be some narcissi Bellsong and the white allium multibulbosum nigrum along with lush cream and apricot wallflowers. I may sneak in some white flowered sweet rocket too.

The other places I am going to grow tulips are in rows in the cutting patch and in pots - with both I am treating the tulips as annuals and just thinking of the expense as a gift to myself.

I shall replant the bulbs in the perennial meadow and see what happens . . .

I have chosen a colour palette of copper and corals with the expensive but sumptuous La Belle Epoque, Menton, big and blowsy Copper Image, and, as a bit of a contrast, Black Parrot.

I buy my bulbs from Peter Nyssen and Sarah Raven's Cutting Garden - depending on the numbers I need and the variety.

Planting tulip bulbs so they have the best chance to be perennial.

Tulip bulbs don't actually want to be perennial. Being perennial does not increase their gene pool. They want to divide into little bulbils which will eventually make new bulbs. The bulb fields in Holland encourage this tendency by planting the bulbs very shallowly and closely so that the bulbs heat up and divide fast. To slow the process down therefore you need to keep the bulbs as cool as possible and plant deeply.

This is how I plant tulips in the ground.

  • I wait until the weather is properly cold - at least mid October, sometimes November - this means that diseases and fungus in the soil are frosted and you are less likely to have problems with rot or tulip fire.
  • I dig a trench or wide hole about 20 cm deep and put a good 5 cm horticultural grit in the bottom - this keeps the bulbs well drained in our heavy soil and shouldn't be necessary if you garden on really light soil.
  • I then space the bulbs out with 5-10 cm between them - I used to really cram bulbs in - which looked amazing when they all bloomed together - but I soon had problems with the fungal disease tulip fire which disfigures the flowers, so now I prefer to plant other things with the tulips to give the showy effect. Wallflowers and forget-me-nots are perfect. I plant maybe 7 - 10 bulbs per square foot.
  • I scatter more grit on top of the bulbs to keep them in place and then cover up with soil.
  • Sometimes I plant early flowering bulbs like iris and crocus on top of the tulips but this year I am leaving space for wall flowers. Tulips will happily grow round other plants to reach the surface.
  • Once the tulips have flowered, dead head them so they don't try to produce seeds, but leave the leaves until they have withered and turned brown. All the goodness in those leaves is going back into the bulb to nourish it so there is enough energy to flower next year.
  • If you cut any flowers for the house try and leave some leaves on the part of the stem that remains in the garden.

Commercial cut flower growers treat all tulips as annuals - cramming them in so they touch and then pulling the bulb out of the ground along with the stem and flower when harvesting. There is a mini course on how to do this on the Floret Flower website.

With my cutting rows I do similarly - but as I am cutting for myself rather than for market, I do not pull the bulbs but cut the stems so there are some leaves left to nourish the bulb. I do then replant the bulbs in the perennial meadow and some re-bloom the following year.

I will write another post about planting in grass and pots.

Pests - There are lots of things love the taste of tulips - deer were my nemesis but rabbits, badgers and squirrels can also be a problem. Really there is very little you can do except for creating physical boundaries. I find that, by the time the tulips are actually above ground, the deer here have other things to eat and don't come in the garden so - in areas nearest to the woods - I tack horticultural fleece temporarily over the area I've planted. But obviously this isn't going to work if you have munching animals about all year. . . If anyone had a solution I would love to hear it.

If you enjoyed reading this post you might like to read about the creation of our cutting patch earlier this year.

Comments: 1 (Add)

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Carol Wilkie on November 9 2018 at 07:29

Loved all the information on tulips. I usually just plant in tubs. One year the squirrels at all 50 in the back garden. I have since planted with a layer of daffodils on top. That’s worked fir me so far 🤞🏻

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