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How to grow perennial tulips and when to plant

Val Bourne / 23 September 2014

Tulips can be planted right up until Christmas, always in unfrozen soil, and still perform.

Tulips growing outside a house
The second half of October is perfect for planting tulips

The second half of October is the perfect time for planting tulips, because these are always planted later than other bulbs, once the temperatures have dropped, in order to prevent a fungal disease called Tulip blight (Botrytis tulipae) from taking hold.

Although some tulips are ephemeral, others happily return year after year because they replenish their bulbs. These are the ones to plant, because they can be left in situ, thereby saving work and money.  

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A natural look

The chief advantage of perennial tulips is that they look very natural, because the bulbs are different sizes due to their age, so they produce flowers of different sizes in a range of heights.

This looks more artistic than ramrod-straight tulips, all with large flowers and all of the same size and height. Like guards on parade, these can look brash.

The secret is to top them up as and when, by looking in tulip time. Make a note of what to plant and leave some perennial stems on, so that you see where the plants are. Then place your bulbs in the gaps, to a depth of three inches. 

When to plant tulips

Plant tulips between October and January - low temperatures prevent Tulip blight.

How to plant tulips

Throw bulbs on the ground to get a natural look, then plant where they have fallen at twice the depth of the bulb. Try to stick to a colour theme - try orange and dark tulips together, or purples and pinks.White with almost-black or -rich reds, and pale yellows with purples, also look good.

How to plant tulips in pots

Be prepared to experiment with containers. The Dutch technique is to space the bulbs a couple of inches apart. Cover with two inches of compost and then place the next layer in the gaps above the lower layer by feeling for the gaps. A deep pot can contain dozens of bulbs in many layers. Water well in dry periods in early spring. Buy in quantity: 100 tulips should cost from about £17, depending on variety.

You could also plant in plastic pots (six to eight inches in diameter) using between five and nine of a single variety in each. Odd numbers always look better than even for some reason. 

Once the tulips bud up, conceal the pots inside wicker baskets, galvanized containers and wooden crates. Top-dress pots with moss and arrange with pots of other spring-flowering bulbs, grasses or pansies.

Or why not bed shorter varieties into window boxes?

When potting, use John Innes no 3. Water bulbs in containers and leave to root for six weeks before watering again.

Protect bulbs from pests with chicken wire and water bulbs when weather is dry and when in flower to extend their life.

When tulips bloom

The joy of late spring tulips is seeing them come up against a background of fresh green as the garden surges into leafy growth. Different varieties will bloom at different times (see below). Triumphs are the most colourful and their thick petals resist the weather. They flower in the second half of April and grow up to two feet (40-60cm).

Perennial tulip varieties

‘Blue Aimable’ (Single Late - May 60 cm)
Wide, thick-petalled blue-tinted lilac flowers, rather like cockades, produced very late in the season. Good with the variegated foliage of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Cosmopolitan’, or blended with darks and pinks.  

‘Negrita’ (Triumph - Late April 45 cm )
Classic purple tulip,  very perennial and robust, and looks superb with the young foliage of phloxes, because this has dark overtones. The purple petals glow in any light and are veined with deeper purple. Can be planted in large drifts on its own.

Shirley (Triumph Late April 50 cm)
A perfect partner for ‘Negrita’ because the purple veining on the pale petals picks up the colour of ‘Negrita’. ‘Shirley’ opens to buttermilk-yellow, but don’t panic, within two days purple veining and mottling develop but varying from year to year probably due to temperature.  

‘Ballerina’ (Lily-flowered Late April to Early May 55cm)
This scented orange to terracotta lily-flowered tulip is woven through spring zing euphorbias, including the low-growing E. polychroma and the more billowing E. characias subsp. wulfenii. Often described as mandarin orange, this tulip is also scented so often grown near doorways in pots. Excellent with the sterile low-growing Polemonium ‘Lambrook Mauve’ which has a orange-toned eye. It’s also blends with young copper-tinted rose foliage.

‘Daydream’ (Darwin Hybrid - Mid-April 30 cm)
A Darwin hybrid that changes colour in different lights, varying from apricot, through to warm orange and yellow with red highlights. Very good with all-green foliage, or with biennial wallflowers.

‘Apeldoorn’ (Darwin Hybrid late April 55cm)
This bright-red Darwin tulip, combined with young green foliage, creates an almost edible combination. It does open wide in sun, showing off its black and yellow base, but can be forgiven as it comes back year after year. Stunning with silvers, including Artemisia lactiflora.

‘Purissima’ (syn. White Emperor Fosteriana Early to Mid-April 45cm)
A languid tulip that gets taller as it matures, with ample white flowers that turn to clotted cream. Excellent in box parterres.

‘Spring Green’ (Viridiflora Early May 50cm)
A fresh vision of green and white that looks most effective in shadier situations. border. Use with the blue Omphalodes capadocica ‘Cherry Ingram’, lime-yellow Smyrnium perfoliatum and the vivid honesty Lunaria annua ‘Munstead Purple’.  

‘China Pink’ (Lily-flowered Early May 45 cm)
A pure-pink tulip that needs more regular topping up than others, but this shines next to silver foliage, blends with dark tulips such as ‘Negrita’ and the Single Late ‘Queen of Night’, or rises above dark hellebores, or flows beneath dark-pink crab apple blossom.

‘Akebono’ (Double Late - late April to Early May 40cm)
A semi-double, light-yellow with a fine hint of red picotee edging. The Japanese name means daybreak, but the petals resist the rain well despite its fragile look. Some green shading in cool weather.  

‘Angelique’ (Double Late - May  - 40cm)
A wide-open flower with a delicate feminine charm, this shorter tulip endures well. Often used with roses.

‘Couleur Cardinal’ ( Single Early -April 35cm)
A tulip the colour of red plums, but with a silvery sheen, and dark pruple shading at the base. Usefully early too.

‘Don Quichotte’ (Triumph Tulip - Mid-April - 55cm)
One of the brightest pink tulip, grown commercially for cut flower, with egg-shaped blooms shaded in deeper-pink.

‘Orange Emperor’  (Fosteriana - Early April - 45cm)
A carrot-orange tulip shaded with green and quite unique, with large pale-green leaves. Translucent petals in sun and very early.

‘Hermitage’ (Triumph - Late April - 55cm)
A glowing colour combination of Mandarin orange flamed in jasper red so this can be combined with purple tulips. It’s similar to ‘Princes Irene’, but more perennial.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.