Country & Garden: Purple people pleasers

The Dreaming Maid was a bore, but the Prince and the Parrot saved the day... Yes, we're talking tulips

If only there were two tulip seasons in a year. We packed 2,500 tulips into the garden this spring but it still wasn't enough. There are so many hundreds of tulips I've never even seen. Somehow, I've got to increase the hit rate. The ratio of blooms to bulbs has increased dramatically since I took to growing most of our tulips in pots, then dropping the pots into bare bits in the bank or the front borders. By May, foliage is growing fast, so peony leaves, campanulas or fennel, soon disguise the pots themselves, if they need disguising.

The best combination of the year was the tulip Blue Parrot with the restrained and handsome hosta Krossa Regal. This has greyish foliage, but the stem grows unusually long before the elegant but not-too-broad leaf begins to develop. The plant stands high and urn like. It is my favourite hosta. This was an opportunistic bit of instant gardening. The hosta was developing well and I had several pots of the tulip coming into bloom in the cold frame. Within minutes, the two were brought together.

I started growing tulips in pots because our ground is hideously unsuitable for them. Life would be simpler if I had become obsessed with a flower that actually liked me. But our ground is composed of a clay which is heavy and very sticky. Twenty bags of grit were poured on to a small patch of the bank last autumn, in an attempt to improve texture and drainage, but it has all disappeared - sucked into some clay maw, some vortex of stickiness that lurks there underground.

In a pot, you can arrange drainage more easily and that's critical for so many bulbs. An inch of sharp grit at the bottom, then a layer of compost to form a bed into which you can settle the bulbs comfortably. Cover with more compost. It's much easier than trying to burrow hundreds of holes in our kind of ground. A bulb planter, which works well when you are planting in grass, is not so useful in open ground because the plug of earth which you draw out tends to crumble to bits.

For plunging into gaps, I use black plastic pots which are rarely less than 12 to 14 inches in diameter. It's not worth using anything smaller because that would prevent you from stuffing in enough bulbs to make a big enough splash in a border. I use our own compost, unsieved for the bottom half so that the bits of stick and stalk can aid drainage. But I use sieved compost on top of the bulbs, finishing the pots off with a top dressing of gravel to discourage birds and slugs.

Purple predominated this spring. Negrita was a star, a mid-season tulip with a habit of throwing more than the usual six petals. The resulting flowers are astonishingly full and blowzy. It grows to about 18 inches and flowers in late April. Purple Prince was another winner. It is slightly earlier and shorter than Negrita but with the same rich, lustrous colour.

There were two disappointments. Dreaming Maid was a bit wishy washy with a small, greyish-mauve flower that weathered badly. The base of a tulip can often redeem an otherwise undistinguished flower, but even this was boring and indeterminate with pale creamy stamens. The other let down was Arabian Mystery. It was described as "a wonderful, rich violet purple, silvery white at the edge of petals" but it turned out to be a dog's breakfast. The silvery edging made the flower look sickly, or badly bleached by the light. It didn't work.

Of all the purples, Blue Parrot was the best. It's not blue at all, that's one of the few colours that a tulip cannot produce. It doesn't even put you in mind of a parrot compared to, say, the crazy Weber's Parrot. Its petals curl in on themselves, making a somewhat congested flower. The colour is a good, old-fashioned Victorian purple which also runs down the top part of the flower stem. The leaves are narrow, pointed and well proportioned in relation to the flower. This is not always the case with tulips, some have foliage that is much too meaty. The base, hidden under the petals, is a surprising peacock blue. It is a handsome, elegant, classy tulip and came into flower at the beginning of May.

It has zoomed straight into the category "Tulips I cannot possibly live without", joining red Cantate, creamy Magier and the orange Prinses Irene. The difficulty is that while this list of must-haves increases every year, I am still desperate to try out varieties that I don't know. This year, I have been strict. Of the 27 different tulips I ordered, only eight are known quantities. It's been hard....

Among the six species which are on the list is T eichleri. This is a clear bright crimson-scarlet tulip, with a brilliant sheen on the inner surface of the petals. The outer surfaces are buff, especially those of the three outer petals, so the brilliant colour does not show in bud. The flowers are enormous, showy, and they open out to a wide-mouthed bell. All the petals are slightly recurved, so the flowers have a definite waist. The tips of the petals have tufts of short white hairs. The basal blotch is black with a yellow margin.

The leaves are broad, pointed and markedly glaucous, the biggest are at ground level and the upper ones are shorter and narrower. This is a Central Asiatic tulip, found in south-east Transcaucasia and north-west Iran, where it grows on dry slopes and cornfields and flowers in April and May. It grows easily in sunny spots outside, kept dry in summer, and increases rapidly from offsets. It is named after the man who first discovered it near Baku.

Although it was grown at Kew in the late 1870s and 1880s, this tulip did not generally come into commerce until the turn of the century when the bulb company Van Tubergen employed an explorer called A Kronenburg to find flowers with market potential. Kronenburg, who had spent much of his working life in Asia Minor collecting insects for museums, travelled for Van Tubergen from 1899 to 1909 along the frontier between Russia and Turkey, source of so many superb introductions.

As always, I've drawn more from the class called Single Late or Cottage tulips than from any other section. There's a lot of old blood coursing round in this group of tulips and the flowers sometimes do surprising things, such as taking on colours and forms which are throw backs and seldom seen.

I'll also be growing Alabaster, a pure white flower that has been around since at least 1942. Nobody knows who raised it, which is always a good sign. It grows to about two feet and flowers in the middle of May. I'm also trying Vlammenspel, a sport of the superb old English tulip (no longer available) called Inglescombe Yellow. It is a yellow tulip, feathered and flamed with orange and red, which grows to about 20 inches. It was raised in 1941 by the breeders, De Groot in Noordwijk in The Netherlands and flowers later than Alabaster. Roll on spring.

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