Tulip fever: What to pair up with the new peony?

Arriving home after a trip, Anna Pavord is thrilled to find her spring blooms have burst into colour.

It was the best homecoming ever. I was away for almost a week earlier this month, giving some talks in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. The flight back was the usual overnight nightmare, with a sleeping seat that wouldn't stay in sleep mode.

Suddenly, without warning, it would force my knees up to my chin, or, just to make sure I was really awake, catapult me into upright landing mode. I did what I usually do when I can't sleep. I walked round our garden in my head. I visited the hellebores (fantastic this year), reminded myself to split the 'Atkinsii' snowdrops, bent to smell the primroses.

But none of that mental night wandering prepared me for the reality of turning into our yard. In my absence, the garden had suddenly switched gear and the change was breathtaking. I'd left the bank playing variations on the theme of green. Now it was blazing with colour, most of it coming from tulips which, in the still warmth which has been such a feature of this April's weather, all seemed to have come out at once.

'Madame Lefeber', an outrageously large, red tulip, was lolling against a fountain of bronze fennel. 'Prinses Irene', one of the most beautiful tulips ever raised, was displaying its flowers (orange, richly flushed with bronze, green and dull purple) against the finely cut foliage of a tree peony which has leaves of a slightly different bronze. And wherever I looked, I realised that it wasn't the tulips by themselves that made the scene so rich. It was the combination of the extraordinary flowers with extraordinary foliage borrowed from other plants.

Now, I have scarcely ever been heard to say a bad word about tulips, but it's a fact that few of them have leaves worth looking at. Conversely, many peonies have fantastic foliage and the ones I have planted on the bank over the past couple of years are now big enough to play an important part in the general picture.

The double purple tulip 'Blue Diamond' is a great flower, greenish-bronze in bud, then opening into a stubby, thickly-petalled bloom like an overblown ranunculus. It's formless, of course, but showy and a lovely old-fashioned shade, like 'Bleu Aimable', another of my favourites. This year, the weird, off-beat colour of the tulip is wonderfully enhanced by being set against the reddish-purple, deeply-cut foliage of a fine peony called 'Early Windflower'. The peony is a kind of P. emodii and I planted it for its flowers, not realising what incredible foliage it has. But, as all gardeners know to their cost, peony flowers don't last long. I now judge peonies on their leaves, taking the flowers as an evanescent extra.

Further up the bank, the sweet, old-fashioned tulip 'Shirley', with wide-petalled creamy flowers, finely edged in mauve, was scattered between Paeonia wittmanniana, which has more rounded leaves than 'Early Windflower' but of an equally good shiny bronze. Behind is a fountain of feathery giant fennel, another plant that would be worth growing, even if it never flowered at all.

I was so impressed with the impact the peonies were having on the tulips that I shot over to Kelways Nursery in Somerset (a consolation prize for that terrible return flight) and bought another one. Is it possible to spend as much on a peony as I spent on 'Bartzella'? Stupid question. I did and I've no regrets. The pot containing this wondrous plant had only just been brought down to the nursery display area. It had a handwritten tag with its name on, but no price. I swooped down on it faster than a sparrowhawk and by the time I was at the till, it was too late to draw back. I was blind with love, deaf to reason.

The leaves are elegant and deeply cut, a soft, warm greenish-bronze. And that's it? Yes. But they were so lovely that the plant needed no other point in its favour. This paragon (I learnt later) is one of a new race of peonies which has been raised by crossing tree peonies with herbaceous ones. The stems are not woody, as they are with tree peonies, but I'll expect it to be slow. The best things in a garden usually are. I'm prepared, too, for the glorious colour of the new foliage to drift into a more ordinary green. That happens with 'Early Windflower'. The reddish pigment that you see on so many new leaves in spring is a protective device. It warns off grazing animals.

But that doesn't matter. It's now, while the tulips are out, that I need these extraordinary backdrops. So what will I put with 'Bartzella'? The bronze foliage has no enemies. I could use 'Meissner Porzellan', which has finely-edged pink blooms, but as the flowers age, they darken and the carmine colour leaches through the petals. It's an elegant tulip, variable in its markings, therefore interesting.

Or I might use 'Pretty Woman', flowering now in a pot on the terrace. It's a lily-flowered tulip, of the best kind of deep, rich, cherry-red. But the real charm lies in the form. Lily-flowered tulips are winners in this respect, with their waisted flowers, flipping out at the top. But 'Pretty Woman' has petals that curl as well as flip. It could be a disaster, but it is triumphantly not. If you look inside, you find a white base, almost circular, ringed round with sootily black stamens.

All our tulips have their first season in big pots, three pairs of them alongside the path up the bank, two by the front door, another two by the porch, more on the terrace, more on the steps down to the hut where I work. More by the greenhouse. More on the terrace by the fig tree. It's tulip city here. The pots are emptied out at the end of May and filled up again with summer plants. The best of the tulips are then replanted on the bank not in clumps, but drifting about in snaky lines between the other plants.

Tulip foliage needs time to die down naturally if there is to be any chance of the bulb flowering again. Some do. Some don't. But after four years, there are now enough of these resettled flowers to make an impact on the bank. And I'm planting the finished flowers at a time when I can see very clearly where there is room for them and what their companions are going to be.

Which reminds me that on the terrace there is a pot filled with a superb tulip called 'Cairo'. It's a brownish, sandy kind of orange, the petals flushed over the back with a soft, purplish red. The same colour drifts down the stem. The flowers are strong and stubby, but with an extraordinary veined texture, like ribbed satin. They will be perfect companions for my new peony. 'Cairo' and 'Bartzella' together at last. It sounds like a headline from Hello!.