Tulips are a special passion of mine. They are inexpensive, easy to grow, endlessly colourful and, most importantly, good to look at. I am not the first to be enamoured of the tulip’s elegant, silken blooms and I certainly won’t be the last. Their appeal was first recognised by the Turks in about 1,000 AD and has endured, even become a craze at times, well into the 21st century.
I spend more on bulbs than it would be wise to admit. The expense is all part of my annual homage to that most famous of bulbs gardens, Keukenhof in The Netherlands. At Keukenhof the tulip is revered, celebrated and paraded in public with a degree of pageantry rarely afforded to any flower: the results are magnificent, technicolour and staggering in scale. I have not visited the lush landscaped park that lies half way between Amsterdam and The Hague, but there visitors can tiptoe through 7 million bulbs planted over 32 hectares. This is bulb growing as only the Dutch know how. Join me for a little giggle at the fabulous video promoting this year’s display and put a date in your diary for 2017.
The space I have for cultivating bulbs in my seaside garden can be measured in square metres rather than acres or hectares; six square metres to be precise. This is not a lot. And yet it’s possible to cram in between 800 and 1000 bulbs every year to create my own private Keukenhof. Serpentine swathes of colour are scaled down to form generous clumps. A different colour theme is explored each time I plan a scheme. To prolong the flowering season I don’t restrict myself to tulips. The year begins with early daffodils, minature irises and crocuses, before hyacinths join the party, swiftly followed by tulips. Not only do I garden in a very small space, but also with no real soil to plant in. My garden sits above vaulted cellars, so each spring I set out a collection of bulbs in pots to create a temporary ‘bulb theatre’.
I select bulb varieties that should complement one another in height, texture and colour, morphing from predominantly blue, white and yellow flowers at the start of spring to hot orange, red and plummy purple in May. This year everything is completely mixed up thanks to the chilly weather, so all my scheming has gone out of the window. Pale yellow and peach vie with bronzy-orange and bruised plum for attention. I don’t mind in the slightest: it’s spring, so anything goes. What I get up to in my own private Keukenhof is my own business. Next year I can begin again with new bulbs, new colours and new ideas. Perhaps the results will be better. If nothing else they will be wonderfully different.
One spring I hope to open the garden to share my bulb extravaganza, showing other small garden owners that it’s possible to get enormous flower power from a small group of pots and containers. The biggest challenge will be setting a date. This year flowering is late, so a March date would have been too early. In a warmer year everything might be over by April. The only solution will be to stagger my bulb planting, perhaps keeping a few pots in the greenhouse to encourage earlier flowering and protect the blooms from wild weather. For now, Him Indoors and I are just happy to be greeted by a cheerful jumble of colour and heady perfumes every time we step outside. Why go all the way to The Netherlands when we can have Keukenhof on our doorstep?
I’d love to hear what bulbs are giving you joy in your gardens right now, and if you’re in the southern hemisphere, what you’re planting in readiness for spring.