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Tenacious tulips

31 October 2014

iStock

IN HIS Guardian column, the late, great plantsman Christopher Lloyd said that if he could have only one spring flower, it would be the tulip. Now is the time to plant them.

Out of the many tulip groups he chose the Lily-flowered as his favourite for their hourglass blooms. Forced to choose just one variety, it was "Queen of Sheba", which has brown-red pointy petals edged in orange. But he did concede that in his garden, although lasting more than one year, the bulbs gradually decreased in size and number over time, and needed replenishing.

This tendency to fizzle out, left in the ground, is tulips' downside. Of course, the bulbs can be lifted when the foliage has faded, stored in a cool, dry place over summer, and replanted in the autumn. But many tulips have enough vigour to become border perennials.

All tulip bulbs wither as the plant above ground expands, but, over the growing season, new bulbs form, and the largest can often support a new flower the following year.

For a start, there are other tulips within the master's favoured Lily-flowered group. "White Triumphator" is pure white; "Sapporo" starts buttery yellow, fading to cream; and "West Point" is bright yellow and particularly curvaceous. Given good drainage and full sun, these should all last three years or more.

My preferred tulips for leaving in the ground are those within the Fosteriana group. These are derived from the species Tulipa fosteriana, a flame-red beauty, itself suitable for naturalising. "Madame Lefeber" has inherited the brilliant red flowers, which have a black "eye" and are set off beautifully by grey-green foliage. "Orange Emperor" has soft orange blooms with a yellow base, and "Purissima" is a creamy white.

Some of the smaller tulip species are great for creating natural drifts of spring colour. These span the tulip flowering season. Tulipa turkestanica displays small white cups with bright yellow centres at the end of March, and Tulipa sprengeri shows brick-red blooms in early June. Tulipa greigii is worth growing as the straight species, but has also led to the breeding of the Greigii group of tulips, with purple or brown patterning on the leaves.

T. greigii "Red Riding Hood" retains the dwarf stature of the species, and has chocolate stripes along the leaves. "Ali Baba" is deep pink with spotted foliage; "Compostella" and "Toronto" are both red-flowered. The multi-headed scarlet T. praestans "Fusilier" is another excellent subject for naturalising.

If you have a free-draining soil, you have the best chance of your tulip clumps' persisting and even thickening, and some of the secondary bulbs' reaching flowering size. On clay soils, add grit to the planting hole to prevent waterlogging.

The rule of thumb with most bulbs is to plant at three times the depth of the bulb, but for perennial tulips I would go deeper: 15cm to 25cm for chunky hybrid bulbs. Fertiliser is not needed the first year, but bone meal or tomato feed applied after the flowers have faded promotes flowering the next year. You have till New Year to plant.

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