Plant next spring’s tulips

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Now that autumn has set in, we’re approaching the climax of a bulb-planting frenzy here at Gravetye Manor. Every year, we plant tens of thousands of bulbs throughout the garden, but the tulips are especially important as a reliable source of spring colour, always so welcome after the dark days of winter. They also start off the growing season with a bang.

You can start planting tulips at any time from early October, but I always wait until November, mainly because it’s a pity to start pulling the borders apart when they still look so good in early autumn. It’s a bit of a gamble, as bad weather can further delay planting, but as long as the bulbs are in by Christmas, they’ll still perform next spring.

We try to avoid regimented blocks of tulips, and instead run them with erratic spacings through the border among perennial, annual and biennial plants. The result is a looser, more natural feel, which allows the foliage and flowers of the tulips’ neighbours to complement their strong spring colours. This year, we’ll use about 7,000 tulips in the flower garden, planted in a rough density of 15 per square metre.

First of all, I lay the bulbs out on the bed to get an idea of how the mass of bulbs will look when in flower. Then, with the help of a couple of dedicated colleagues, I usually manage to get most of them planted over one weekend. It’s best to plant tulips quite deeply (about 10in down), which gives the bulb a better chance of repeat-flowering in future years. The other advantage of this method is that it prevents grey squirrels digging up the bulbs.

If you haven’t ordered your bulbs yet, it’s not too late, although some connoisseur varieties in short supply might have already sold out. Using a specialist bulb supplier tends to ensure the best price and quality, and there are many to choose from, although Peter Nyssen (www.peternyssen.
com) has served me well for many years, and I also buy from J. Parker’s (

The vast choice of tulips now available can be overwhelming, so before selecting, it’s best to decide first on flowering time-early, mid-season or late-and then your colour scheme. We always plant a few single early tulips, which flower right at the start of April or even in March, just to give a suggestion of things to come.

Christmas Marvel is a good one, as it has a long flowering season and its cherry pink combines so well with the blue Chionodoxa that runs through our borders. Then, the display rolls on in full force from mid April with the Triumph Tulips, of which Abu Hassan is particularly effective. Its dark-mahogany flower with a yellow fringe is a magnificent sight when grown in large drifts, inter-mingling with the deep velvety red of National Velvet and the purple glow of Negrita. This combination is finished off with dots of aubergine-black Queen of Night, which links the planting, joined by pockets of the lily-flowered Ballerina.

The latest flowering tulips at Gravetye are two of my favourites-Red Shine, another lily-flowered type, with goblet-shaped, glowing red flowers that are late enough to make a breathtaking combination with Allium hollandicum Purple Sensation; also Menton, a single late tulip with big, apricot-pink flowers that look wonderful among the silver foliage of plants such as Artemisia. Both of these cultivars are reliably perennial with us, and can flower into early June.

Our Flower Garden, which is a showpiece right next to the hotel, is very intensively managed, so a number of its tulips will inevitably be lifted during the summer when we’re replacing pockets of annuals. When this happens, the bulbs are dried off and stored in the potting shed until the next autumn. In the Wild Garden, we plant wild species tulips-quite a different kettle of fish-and these I will discuss in my next article.

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