Of all the bulbs, tulips are probably the most varied in size and colour, ranging from dainty dwarf specimens to frilly, feathery forms and stand-up-straight majestic types.
They don’t need planting as early as narcissi or snowdrops. In fact, tulips shouldn’t be planted before the end of October, as early planting will result in soft growth which is susceptible to the fungal disease, tulip fire.
If you’re growing them in pots, generally they are best grown alone because they don’t survive a typical summer without being lifted and dried off after flowering.
If you want a stand-alone colour and type of bulb, consider sowing grass seed on the surface soil once you’ve planted the bulbs, which will create a swathe of green as the bulbs emerge, avoiding visible empty pockets of soil.
However, you can achieve some gorgeous combinations which could also help hide the unsightly appearance of the bulbs once they have finished flowering and are starting to look straggly.
Variegated dwarf ribbon grass, for example, is an excellent pairing with the deep burgundy Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’. The grass makes a terrific foil for the almost-black tulip flowers and will last long after the blooms have gone.
If you are planting a single layer of bulbs, fill the pot to within four or five times the depth of the bulb from the top of the pot. You can plant the bulbs closer together in a pot than you would in the ground, leaving them around 1cm apart if they are small tulips, but a bit more space for varieties with larger blooms. Then fill the rest of the pot with compost, up to around 3cm from the top of the rim. Also, be aware that tall bulbs in shallow containers don’t generally succeed.
When planting, the most important thing is that the soil is well drained. Add a handful of grit to multi-purpose compost at planting time and place crocs, small stones or broken pieces of polystyrene plant trays in the base and ensure you have drainage holes in the container.
Stand the pot on feet to stop autumn and winter moisture seeping in upwards from the ground and rotting the bulbs.
In severe winter weather, move the pots closer to the house so they escape the worst of the excess wet and chilling wind. But once the days become slightly warmer in early spring, move them out into the open and don’t let the pots dry out or you’ll be left with stunted foliage and poor flowers.
Once the bulbs are in full leaf growth, the pots should be watered periodically, when the compost feels dry.
So, which tulips do best in pots? Well, in deep pots you might go for tall varieties such as triumph whose stems grow up to 40cm, flowering in late spring. These include T. ‘Prinses Irene’, which has glowing orange blooms flamed with purple, and ‘Bing Crosby’, a scarlet variety.
Shorter single early tulips such as ‘Apricot Beauty’ also work well in pots, as do taller single late and Darwin tulips including ‘World’s Favourite’, a hot orange-red type, or the lily-flowered T. ‘Ballerina’, with its vibrant orange flowers which open fully on sunny days.
In fact, most tulips are perfect for pots – just avoid those with weak stems and very heavy flowers which are prone to flopping.
Many bulbs grown in pots can be left in the compost if they are kept completely dry during the dormant period in summer. A frost-free greenhouse or cold frame is ideal and many gardeners lay the pots on their sides.
Tulips must have a dry rest after flowering, so if you plant summer bedding on top of them which you are intending to regularly water all summer, don’t leave the bulbs in the container or they will just rot. You’ll need to lift and dry them after they die down and store them safely until late autumn.
Best of the bunch – Cotoneaster
These spreading shrubs, both deciduous and evergreen, make terrific hedges, with simple, small narrow leaves and clusters of small white or pink flowers in spring and summer, followed by showy red, purple or black berries. C. horizontalis is ideal for low hedging, or covering walls or banks, bearing vivid red berries in the autumn and attracting wildlife. C. conspicuous ‘Decorus’ and C. lacteus are both evergreen varieties producing bright red berries which last into winter. They should be planted in full sun or partial shade in moderately fertile, well-drained soil.
Good enough to eat – Parsnips
They are among my favourite root vegetables, whether in soups and casseroles, or dipped in finely grated Parmesan or even maple syrup and roasted, as a Sunday lunch accompaniment. Pick a spot in sun or light shade and prepare the soil in autumn, removing stones. A deep, light soil is best for root formation. Rake in a general purpose fertiliser when preparing the seed bed. Seeds should be sown thinly in spring. Be patient, because they are slow to germinate – it can take up to five weeks. To help you remember where they are when you are weeding, sow a quick-growing crop such as radishes among them. Parsnips don’t need much looking after. Keep weeding and water if there is a prolonged dry spell. The roots should be ready for lifting when the leaves begin to die down in autumn. They can be left in the ground whatever the weather, so just lift them as you need them. Good varieties include ‘Tender and True’ and ‘Gladiator’, said to be resistant to canker, with smooth, tapered roots and ideal for small gardens.
What to do this week
Place dustbins full of water under greenhouse staging. They warm up during the day, releasing their heat at night and act as storage heaters.
Plant out hardy primulas raised from seed or divisions.
Harvest cobnuts, hazelnuts and filberts when husks begin to yellow, but before they start dropping.
Continue to pick fast maturing vegetables, such as French beans, runner beans, courgettes, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes, to prevent them becoming stringy, tough or bitter.
Where grass growth is thin and sparse, over-seed now with a suitable grass seed mixture.
Lift onions and shallots once the foliage has started to die back.
Take cuttings of rosemary, lavender, bay and hyssop.
Take hardwood cuttings from gooseberry bushes to increase stock.
Sow sweet peas in a cold frame or the greenhouse for early summer blooms next year.
Plant new perennials while the soil is still warm, but moisture levels are increasing.
Wait for the first frosts to hit dahlias and cannas before lifting the tubers or rhizomes.
Buy spring-flowering bedding plants, such as bellis, primula, wallflowers and violas.
Prune out any dead, dying or diseased shoots on fruit trees that are affected by diseases such as bacterial canker, cherry leaf scorch, powdery mildew or other problems that can overwinter.