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Planting tulip bulbs now is a bright idea

By Anna Pavord

Tulips are best put in the ground later than other spring bulbs, such as daffodils and crocus. You can plant up until Christmas, if the soil allows, and still expect a decent display. Early November is the perfect time, but Christopher Lloyd, who planted tulips by the hundred in his Great Dixter garden, sometimes confessed to planting forgotten bags of tulips as late as February, and still enjoying their flowers in April.

But that treatment will exhaust their resources, so if possible get the job done early this month. Most of the tulips I buy I use in pots. After flowering (if they have been as good as I was hoping) I plant them out in the borders, where they either come up again or they don't. The point is, I'm not depending on them to perform. In pots, they have to, because that's why we use pots - to bring extra spotlights of action into the garden.

The only bulbs I plant direct into the ground are the purple varieties that go into the two long strips of border in front of the house. They face south and tulips do quite well there, but each year I top up with a fresh batch, hoping to spread the flowering over as long a period as possible. Over the years, I've used 'Ronaldo' and 'Negrita', 'Black Hero' and 'Burgundy', all of them excellent.

With us, last season, 'Ronaldo' came into flower on April 10, making a fine flower, about 50cm tall, of deep crimson purple, not as dark as 'Black Hero', but a good colour. It makes a squareish bloom, with huge rounded petals, each of which has a complex, greyish bloom on the outside. Inside, at the base of the flower, there's an indeterminate blotch of a deep purplish-blue.

'Black Hero' is a double tulip, bred from the famous dark variety 'Queen of Night'. It comes usefully later than 'Ronaldo', and at 60cm, taller too. For a double tulip, that height could be a problem, but 'Black Hero' has exceptionally strong stems. So many petals are packed into the heads, they make stubby round balls, but the green overlay on the outside petals gives a wonderful effect.

With these dark, saturated purples, I plant paler tones, such as fabulous 'Bleu Aimable', a Single Late tulip of a beautiful, dull mauve-purple, the kind of soft, gentle colour that never comes out properly in photographs. Pictures of the flower are always too pink or too blue. It's an old tulip, and got an award of merit from the Dutch bulb growers as far back as 1916. But it is as tall (sometimes taller) than 'Black Hero' and later, flowering generally with us in early May.

A new favourite is a strange, sandy-coloured tulip called 'Cairo' which I first saw some years ago on a trial field. It reintroduced into the palette the toffee-coloured tones of an old English Florist's tulip called 'Absalon' which I thought I would never see again. It grows to about 45cm and I used it in the two pots by the front door mixed with the elegant lily-flowered tulip 'Purple Dream'. Orange mixed with purple sounds harsh, but tulips can bring off this combination triumphantly.

If you are planting in pots, there are a few general points to bear in mind. First, size. The bigger the container, the happier your tulips will be. One big container massed with two or three kinds of tulip will make an unforgettable splash. Three smaller pots scattered in different places can be overlooked. A big container provides a more stable planting environment than a small one. The potting compost does not heat up or cool down so fast. Watering and feeding are easier (provided there are plenty of crocks at the bottom to allow excess water to drain away).

In exposed situations, use a loam-based compost rather than a multipurpose or coir-based one. Loam-based composts (John Innes No 3) are heavy. If you have to lug bags upstairs to a balcony or terrace, this is a disadvantage, but a loam compost (mix it two parts loam to one part 6mm grit) adds weight to pots and makes them more stable. A heavy container will be lighter to move about if you use polystyrene chips at the bottom for drainage, instead of crocks. In a light, plastic container you need weight at the bottom or it will become top-heavy when your tulips are in full flower.

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