Sunday, 24 November 2013

Five tulips to plant now

Late November, and the colour is slipping from the trees; down, down to the gardens and lawns, down to streets and pavements, grass and slabs strewn with discarded finery in shades of scarlet and copper and gold. The wind has been fierce, whipping the leaves into a frenzied dance, a kaleidoscope of burnished flecks whirling around me as I walk, swooping and bobbing in front of my face. I watched a leaf trapped in a doorway, caught in the eddying wind, unable to break free and find the way out like a fly by an open window, exhausting itself with frantic effort while being unable to comprehend that the simple way out of its present situation lies less than a few inches away.

Sensations and events can act as milestones in our year, not merely marking how far we’ve come and have yet to go, but providing an invitation to pause and to take stock of where we are. This gradual bleeding of pigment from the landscape, this ballet of the leaves in the wind and a cold that rasps my hands and face – the combination of these familiar experiences reminds me that now is not the time to retreat indoors and go to ground till spring, but instead the long awaited time to plant tulips.

There are so many, and no matter how much care you lavish upon planning your spring display, you are always bound to end up coveting the form or the colour of a tulip you see growing in the garden of a friend or neighbour. But by the time you’ve seen it, it’s too late to grow it that year, and so you bide your time and wait until the ground is sufficiently cold to plant safely the bulbs without fear of rot and disease that the tulips of less patient gardeners might fall prey to. Mid to late November is the season to begin planting tulips, and I’m starting now.

Five tulips for planting now

These are not necessarily the best or even the most fashionable of tulips. They are simply the five that form the backbone of the spring display in our garden, which is based on an understated monochromatic scheme with a bit of fun, pink froth to lift it. They are reliable, either elegant or cheering, easy to grow and, importantly, not difficult to acquire.

Plant the bulbs deep. The accepted wisdom is twice the depth of the bulb, but if you can plant them at a depth of about 10 inches with a little grit at the bottom of the planting hole they will perform more reliably year after year on our heavy local soil. It goes without saying, do try to plant them the right (pointy) way up. Contrary to popular belief, they won’t grow downwards – plants are intelligent enough to know which way is up (something called geotropism) –  but they will waste energy in righting themselves which could otherwise be channelled into the flowers.

Name: 'White Triumphator'
Type: Lily
Colour: White
Height: 70cm
Flowering time: Mid May
Notes: Elegant, large and pure white, lily-shaped flowers.

Name: 'Queen of the Night'
Type: Single
Colour: Black/Purple
Height: 60cm
Flowering time: Mid May
Notes: Deep purple, almost matt black petals with a velvety sheen. Stunning – if I had to have only one, it would be this.

Name: 'Black Parrot'
Type: Parrot
Colour: Black/Purple
Height: 55cm
Flowering time: Mid May
Notes: As fascinating in bud as in flower, looking like some exotic vegetable. Not quite as dark as 'Queen of the Night', but not far off. The parrot tulips have fringed petals, and air of the decadent baroque.

Name: 'Purissima'
Type: Fosteriana (Botanical)
Colour: Creamy white
Height: 45 cm
Flowering time: April
Notes: The first of our tulips to flower, this is a robust, tulip-shaped tulip, in a soft creamy white. A yellow centre is visible inside when the flowers begin to open up. Also known as 'White Emperor', which might explain why I received a job lot of them one year instead of 'White Triumphator'. A happy accident, though.

Name: 'Foxtrot'
Type: Double Early
Colour: Opening white, then shades of pink
Height: 30cm
Flowering time: April
Notes: These are a treat, opening white and then blushing to shades of a gentle pink with darker pink highlights. The double rows of petals creates a fringed effect, almost paeony like. Very pretty indeed.