Alan Titchmarsh: The best time of year to plant tulips

Alan Titchmarsh gives his tips on planting tulips - and the ways to avoid the grind of removing bulbs, drying and storing them every year.

The law of diminishing returns is a consequence frequently encountered in the garden, especially when it comes to bulbs. Some will multiply year-on-year.

Snowdrops are a case in point—when they’re happy, they will expand to make a veritable rug in light woodland that does nothing but improve as the years go by. The same is true of naturalised daffodils, but only when they’re planted where the bulbs will not go short of light and water.

The most critical period is during and after the time of flowering. Often, a prolonged dry spell around Easter will result in a poor show of flowers the following year. There is no alternative but to enrich your plantation when this happens, investing in large, fat bulbs that are equipped with the wherewithal to do well in their first year and which will, God willing, continue to thrive, provided they’re not planted too shallowly and the soil and situation suit them—good drainage and a fair amount of light.

I prefer to plant them in clumps of a couple of dozen bulbs, the groups spaced a yard or more apart. I find the effect more pleasing than if the bulbs are thrown into loose arcs and planted where they fall.


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When it comes to permanence, tulips are a different kettle of fish.

Tradition has it that the bulbs are dug up and dried off after flowering and the cluster that replaces the single planted bulb is broken up and only the larger bulbs retained for planting the following autumn. It’s a tedious operation.

That said, there are some tulips—Spring Green is one of them—that can be left in the ground to re-emerge year on year with no apparent diminution in vigour.

An elderly lady of my acquaintance always planted her tulip bulbs a good 9in deep, insisting that, if she did so, there was never any reason to dig them up after flowering for they never failed to appear in succeeding years. To prove her point, she showed me some clumps in her borders that had been flowering regularly for 20 years.

Tulips bulbs

In my garden, I’ve discovered that the propensity to re-flower depends upon the ability of the particular variety in question to settle in and thrive. The only way to work out those that will and those that won’t is to plant them at the greater depth and then to observe their willingness to emerge with flowerbuds in future years, rather than a solitary leaf that appears to be waving goodbye.

Inspiration from the Highgrove meadow

I do love tulips naturalised in grass. A few years ago, inspired by The Prince of Wales’s meadow at Highgrove, I planted a mixture of pink and purple tulips that offer up their elegant goblets when the daffodils have faded. (It’s always seemed odd to me that people plant yellow tulips, for, by April and May, I’m ready to move on from the sunshine colour of early spring to something richer.)

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I knew what would happen: competing for nutrients with the surrounding grass, the tulips never matched the glory of their first season and, over the four or five years that followed, they petered out almost to nothing.

Now, I shall add to their numbers each autumn, ensuring a breathtaking display in April and May when the tulips open underneath an avenue of flowering cherry trees on either side of a mown ride. Tulipa Negrita is beetroot purple, Mistress is deep pink and Gabriella a softer pink.

Writing about them makes me impatient to get planting. We take out cores of earth with a bulb-planting tool, mixing up the varieties and spacing the individual bulbs about 18in apart so that the effect is airy rather than dense.

Although much of the delight in gardening comes from travelling hopefully and anticipating the joys to come, this is one display that’s unlikely to let me down, but then that’s the great thing about bulbs in their first year after planting—someone else has done all the work for you. All you have to do is sit back and wait for the show.

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My Secret Garden by Alan Titchmarsh is published by BBC Books