Early autumn was a mild one, as if summer had arrived with muddy shoes and had settled in the kitchen to scrape them off; getting too comfortable at the table, telling stories of where it had been, over hot chocolate and cake. Then as quickly as the heat arrived it departed and the temperatures dipped into ice and snow, and newspapers set up their seasonal clarion call of the 'worst winter on record'. The newspapers have an amazing record of predicting nothing and telling us nothing but its too close to Christmas to climb on that soapbox. Mid-autumn bit at Pig Row but late autumn though cold on some days has been mild meaning that we could catch up planting tulips before we slip towards the winter solstice tomorrow, and into the heart of winter. We haven't planted tulips since our Drovers garden; it's not that we didn't want to but we decided because ornamental chives didn't like our hillside, there was no chance for tulips. We have even forgone crocus in the last few years not because of the exposed site but because no matter where you plant them the bloody slugs get them. Crocus are wonderful and they go from that early promise of bulging buds to a lace work of slug damage in the time it takes you to wheel a barrow past. So no crocus here and even lilies we have to treat to some extent as annuals but after planting over a thousand daffodils, we wanted to bring more colour into the cottage garden at the bottom of the hill to fill that colour gap between the vibrant yellows of our daffodils to the open of the first cirsium thistle. They may work, they may not but we can try and that's the fun of gardening. So, how easy is it to plant tulips?
First, and this is personal taste here, select a site where the tulip foliage will be masked as spring moves into summer. We do this with daffodils too, in the orchard we allow the grass to grow long around them with plans in 2017 to add ox-eye daisies and bergamot too to create a semi-wild border under the trees. In the cottage garden they're masked by perennials. There's nothing as unsightly as spring foliage dying back and you do need to mask this by succession planting. We're using lupins here. There's a reason for the lupins, lupins lock nitrogen into the soil and nitrogen benefits bulbs as does a good feed of potash from time to time. Don't be shy when it comes to colour in tulips. Yes, you can get them in white but frankly we're on an exposed site, it can be windy and yes we're in the North which means more rain and rain and white petals don't mix very well. Think about in terms of when you were a teenager and you went out in a lovely white shirt to meet your mates, and that car drove past really fast and hit that rainwater puddle on the road that hadn't drained away from that morning's rain. There was an upwards shower. A drenching. Then the inevitable drying as you trudged to the pub only to find that white shirt was now a myriad of spotted brown stains. There were no cries of a teenage boy yelling, 'Mum!' from an eighties television detergent advert. Well without that detergent miracle working eighties Mum, those large white petals of anything grown North of Manchester end up looking like a sad teenager on the cusp of jacking it all in and becoming a Goth. However, we don't want Bauhaus in our garden, not even Sisters of Mercy, we wanted something a little bit more Barbara Cartland, something a little bit more, well, Barbie, that little bit of pink.
We wanted to go across the spectrum of pink, from the plummy to the sugar plum fairy. Something that would contrast and could be planted in clumps between the lupins and could be seen from the kitchen, the bathroom and the office. Something to make us smile as we climbed the steps after the last of the daffodils had died. Bring on the Passionale and Pink Impression, bring on around one hundred bulbs of them. We don't want to go mad in this space. We have done that with daffodils, we just wanted something that would punch out among the growing greenery that accompanies spring. Planting tulips is similar to daffodils but think deeper, and get hold of a border spade.
A border spade is a narrower version of the everyday spade but can be easily used among other plants because it is...narrower. Unfortunately, we're not, so we have to watch where we are standing or sitting or even backing up on. There are times when using a border spade is more preferable to using a trowel or bulb planter or even spade. If the soil has been well cared for, as it has in our cottage garden, this was our original vegetable patch and we stacked turf here taken from the rest of the garden to create loam quite a few years back. You can see in the above photo the depth of soil we have down here compared to what we once had, which was a few inches before hitting bedrock.
Tulips go in deep and if you want to know how deep put them in at the depth of a border spade spit, that's the depth of cutting blade on the spade. See the photo above. Unlike daffodil planting this task is not about chucking them in the air and seeing where they land before planting. We are keeping the varieties separate so the eye is drawn from one shade of pink to another, creating a stream of pink between the path and the apple trees but more importantly planted with a dry stone wall in the background, so that the lichens, the grey and brown of the stone make the pink punch above their weight class. Sometimes a good background is as important as the foreground.
The bulbs are planted in odd numbers, the eye likes symmetry in hard structures but this doesn't translate to plants always. Same amount of bulbs, same amount of plants, can be a little samey. Nature isn't samey. The best parts of gardens as often those ares that were wonderful mistakes. Try to remember where you have planted bulbs though; there is nothing worse than digging a hole where you have already dug a hole only to slice through some bulbs you just paid through the nose for. We've done that, good chance you've done that and when planting a relatively small amount of bulbs it's best to dig all the holes first so you can avoid this.
You can see in the above photo we have done that. The bulbs are starting to grow and you want to plant them the right way round. Tulip bulbs, like most bulbs, are teardrop in shape and it is the fat end of the tear that needs to be at the bottom of the hole. This can be confusing on tulips because they sometimes send out several shoots from the side rather than the tip of tear. The same rules applies, plant the fat end down. You don't have to squash them into the hole and you're best leaving gaps between the bulbs to avoid rot, on really poorly drained soil add grit below the bulbs and make sure the soil beneath is broken up. You plant tulips deep because they will be there for many years if you are lucky and planting them deep avoids you slicing them up with a hoe or rake.
You shouldn't be able to tell after you have finished that you have been in the border. The fact these lupins are still flowering in December is concerning and we are caught between the desire to cut them back or leave them alone. Cutting back means the plant could put on new growth just in time to be blasted by frost. You may have a small space and you may be wondering whether you can have tulips, you can. Tulips do incredibly well in deep pots, you can plant them and then when the flowers go over, lift them and replace with bedding plants, herbs or flowers. Nothing more cheery than tulips by a front door at the edge of a path, in a mixed border, on the kitchen table...