There's only one rule for spring displays: do tulips en masse
Sunday 24 April 2011
Whoa! It all went right for once! It's not often I get to say that. My horticultural experiments quite often remain dubious, though passers-by do try to be nice about them. But my front garden this year is great: a proper spring picture.
I do have a secret weapon: about 470 new bulbs planted over three viciously cold mornings last December. Reigning supreme at the moment is the white tulip Triumphator, which I've always advocated for its overwhelming elegance. "I love the pointiness," says my neighbour's daughter Ellen, decisively, leaning her whole body over the front wall: the white tulip has flowers that open when the sun shines, like a bowl of petals.
Among the white streaks of Triumphator are dotted other tulips of a Barbie-ish pink. "Jacqueline" is the name of this lovely lily-flowered tulip, a happy, slightly French and sophisticated madame. (I thought when I was planting them that these would be Ellen's favourite, but evidently, aged eight, she's growing out of her pink phase now.)
The success of the bulb planting is almost completely due to three people. My mum baby-sat on all three mornings I did the planting, so she has to get a nod. The second is Jasmine Hart, who taught an inspiring bulb workshop I attended at West Dean a few years ago. "Just plant more than you would ever think necessary," was essentially her spendthrift but delicious advice. And finally there's Jacqueline van der Kloet, a pretty, warm-hearted, driven, talented garden designer from the Netherlands with an absolute thing for spring bulbs.
Two years ago I went to view some of the intensely beautiful gardens Der Kloet has worked in, based around the province of Limburg in the southern Netherlands. Lit by sunlight, tulips have never looked better. And while they are scattered in beautiful drifts due to the random style of planting she espouses, the sheer quantity is breathtaking too. "Planting more than you would ever think necessary" could have been Der Kloet's guiding principle, and all of her plantings reveal the absolute excellence of that advice. If you start to count individual blooms in a single flowerbed, you quickly go over 100.
Just do the cost analysis in your head: 15 bulbs can cost around a fiver, but buying wholesale (which I harp on about ad nauseum), you can get 100 for less than 20 quid. (And look at it this way: a few years ago Der Kloet did a scheme for Martha Stewart where they planted 120,000 bulbs, all blue. Compared with that, anything we get up to is super-economical.)
It's the mix of colours and shapes, though, that Der Kloet is so good at. When she drew up her planting recipes for a huge project at New York's Battery Park, she specified one white hyacinth for every four "Pheasant's Eye" narcissi, plus six blue Chionodoxa and 12 in white. Then, it's just a matter of scattering the bulbs and seeing where they fall.
Of course you can buy a few tulips in flower at the moment. But your best bet is to plan now for 2012
1. Take photos of your flowerbeds now to identify where the spring gaps are
2. Don't just plant tulips Plant wallflowers and Sweet Williams for extra colour; white and blue muscari in clumps for bursts of contrast; and narcissi for their heady perfume
3. Check out a tulip festival I love Pashley Manor in Sussex, where you are given a scorecard to note your favourite tulips. Drop this in the box on leaving and the bulbs will arrive, as if by magic, in October Wednesday to 9 May, pashleymanorgardens.com
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