If someone were to hand me $300 and say, “Here, spend it on something nice for the house,” I know exactly what I would do: rush out and get several hundred tulip bulbs.
Actually, I’m doing this anyway, because out of all the necessary extravagances that go with home ownership — getting the gutters cleaned or the chimney swept, for example — none brings more joy than an eruption of tulips in April.
The idea of forking out the money now, spending hours planting the things and waiting through the dark months for the payoff might seem a little strange. And unlike daffodils, which reliably perennialize, most tulips tend to peter out in our soil and climate. I just regard them as an annual treat and rip them out after flowering. This compounds the lunacy, you say. Wait until April, I say. Tree blossoms provide an aerial display at that time, but tulips paint the ground and capture the enchantment of the long-awaited spring.
Besides their magic, tulips are about color and form. My favorite way to use them is to pick three or four varieties that bloom at the same time and play with color harmonies and complements. The key is to be liberal with the number of tulips you plant but conservative with the number of varieties. I plant them in blocks or broad ribbons amid clumps of perennials, then just coming into life. The scale and framing of your garden will dictate the area covered, and thus the number of bulbs, but be generous. The pros put in 12 to 15 per square foot, so a planting of 15 feet by 2 feet could easily absorb more than 350 bulbs.
If you want a show you know will work, you could create a mix of pastel colors — soft and safe and elegant. Some catalogues sell mixtures. You can also make your own. One year I assembled an assortment using single-late varieties (blooming at the back end of April) of Maureen, an ivory bloom; Pink Diamond, a medium rose pink; and Menton, a bluer pink. If I were doing it again I might add Big Smile, a clear yellow, or Dordogne, rose with yellow edges.
More recently, I planted a mix of lily-flowering varieties: Ballerina, orange-tinged rose, and Triumphator, which is white. It needed a bluish tulip in the mix, something like Purple Dream, Blue Parrot or Violet Beauty.
I asked Angela Jupe, a garden designer based in Shinrone, Ireland, what tulip combinations she liked to plant.
“I have become very fond of shades of orange, and there are some absolutely fabulous ones,” she said. One of her combinations: Cairo, deep orange suffused with copper; Cafe Noir, a dark purple; and Ballerina.
In another scheme, she mixes purple, pink and ivory with Queen of Night, a classic purple-black tulip; Zurel, white with purple streaks; Rem’s Favorite, similar but with more pronounced purple flames; and Inzell, an ivory white.
In a mixture that sounds dramatically alluring, even to those of us who shy away from red, she likes this purple-red medley: Ronaldo, red-purple; National Velvet, deep wine red; Jan Reus, a crimson red; and Abu Hassan, deep red with golden edges. The mixture is set off with the emerging foliage of peonies, hardy geraniums and other perennials.
In a three-variety mix, 40 percent is of the darkest tulip, with the two other varieties making up 30 percent each. She plays with the ratios, especially if one is white. Your eye is drawn to the lighter flowers, so reducing their number will keep the display in check.
Jacqueline van der Kloet, a Dutch designer known for her bulb garden designs, said, “I never use the same combinations twice, because there are so many to choose from.” It’s sort of like playing the lottery, except you win every time.
In one scheme, she planted early-, mid- and late-season tulips to extend the show, an approach that not only requires lots of bulbs but a willingness to snip off the tulip stems as the blooms go over, to keep the whole display looking tidy.
In its early phase, the design paired Apricot Beauty, a soft salmon pink, with Christmas Dream, a stronger pink. They were followed by three varieties with subtly different shades of crimson red, Jan Reus, Ile de France and Unique de France. She added the daffodil variety Geranium, with small white and orange blooms in clusters. The show ended with Dordogne coupled with Mistress, a strong pink.
Not only does van der Kloet mix them up, she likes to give the tulips a ground cover of forget-me-nots, planting them in early spring once the tulips have announced their locations with their leaf tips. Hence, the bulbs rise from a cloud of light blue flowers.
In another design, she assembled shades of white and cream and threw in a splash of red, using Purissima, a low-growing perennial white tulip with a little yellow in its base; Casa Blanca, creamy white and double-flowered; the ivory Maureen; and Marilyn, a candy-striped lily-flowering tulip. For the splash of color, she used the blood red Hollandia.
If you consider planting hundreds of tulips for a one-time show too extravagant, you can turn to wild tulips and their varieties for a display that will return year after year, as long as you plant them in full sunlight in well-drained soil and go easy on the summer irrigation of the beds where they dwell.
Wild tulips are not used in assorted blocks, as you would the large hybrids, but are presented more as low, clustered bouquets, which can repeat all the way through a bed or up a hillside. They tend to open fully on warm days, revealing star-shaped blooms with striking contrasts at the base of the inner petals.
Lauren Springer Ogden, a horticulturist and landscape designer based in Fort Collins, Colo., likes to see favored varieties planted amid the spring foliage of dry-loving, silver-leafed perennials such as lamb’s ears, snow in summer or the silver sage, Salvia argentea.
One of her favorite natural tulips is Ancilla, pink on the outside but creamy white inside, with a yellow center. Fur Elise is another reliably perennial variety, a creamy yellow with a rose blush. She also rates highly the more delicate Honky-Tonk, similar in color to Fur Elise and with pointed petals held aloft on wiry stems. She likes to combine it with a dainty, spring-flowering perennial named pasque flower.
“Most of my clients have red fear, but with tulips they’re okay with red,” she said. She likes Tulipa linifolia , bright red with a black base, and with narrow leaves that recede into the background after the flower fades. She also uses the slightly taller Tulipa vvedenskyi . It’s “a screaming orange-red” that goes well with aubretia and creeping or moss phlox.
In her meadow gardens, she likes to use the Tulipa clusiana varieties, which are slender and pointed, tall enough to be seen and typically candy-striped. Varieties include chrysantha, Cynthia, Lady Jane and Peppermint Stick.
If you don’t have the time, energy or cash for a big display, take a large, handsome container that can handle freezes and fill it with one variety of tulip. One year I planted 50 Triumphator, the white-flowering lily tulip, in a 36-inch fiberglass bowl, and it was fabulous. This year, I might fill it with the classic orange-rose bicolor Prinses Irene; a white and green favorite of Springer’s named Spring Green; or the outrageously frilly White Parrot.
Jupe has a copper container in which she puts loads of double tulips such as Angelique, and this year she is eyeing a dark galvanized pot that will take a generous planting of Exotic Emperor, a ruffled, pure white tulip with unusual green streaks on the outer petals.
However you approach it, there’s only one cure for tulip fever and that’s tulips. Lots of tulips.
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