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Gardener’s Dilemma: To Tulip or Not to Tulip

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Gardener’s Dilemma: To Tulip or Not to Tulip

April 11, 2024

In place of the annual tulip-mania that strikes at this time each spring, there have been discontented rumblings amongst growers and gardeners this year. All is not well in the world of tulips. Cries of “less is more” from formerly ardent maximalists, whose pots used to be bulging with a kaleidoscopic mix of vibrant tulips, have dotted social media. Why the fuss about this much-loved bulb? Read on to find out.

Photography by Clare Coulson, unless otherwise noted.

Above: The Lime Walk at Sissinghurst Castle, where tulips are the main event in April; here, they are displayed in large pots with a carpet of spring bulbs underneath.

A perfect storm of conditions have lately come to plague the tulip—quite literally in the case of tulip fire, a fungal disease (Botrytis tulipae) that attacks bulbs. The blight causes distorted or spotted leaves and ugly spots on the flowers. And it can go on to contaminate the soil. If your plants have it, it’s important to be rigorous about hygiene: Pull the affected bulbs and do not dispose of them on the compost heap where the fungus can flourish. Gardeners should also avoid replanting tulips in the area for the following three years. Similarly, if potted bulbs have been affected, remove and dispose of the bulbs (and later the compost, too) and make sure that you the clean pots very well at the end of the season.

Above: Tulips and narcissi in pots in the author’s garden.

Climate change is exacerbating the problem—in areas where there are no longer prolonged periods of cold during winter, it’s more likely that disease can flourish. (For tulips proper winter cold is an essential part of the lifecycle.) Very wet springs also contribute to the spread of disease.

Above: No other spring bulbs provide quite the pop of color as the tulip, available in endless colors and shapes. Here ‘Dream Touch’, ‘Copper Image’, ‘Vovos’, and ‘Palmyra’ work well with perennial wallflowers.

It’s not just the fungus. Tulips are a big investment and they’ve gotten more expensive. In my garden my annual spend on bulbs is far, far greater than the total of all other seeds, plants, and any other garden kit throughout the whole year. And in many cases those expensive tulip bulbs will not re-flower after the first season, especially if they’ve been grown in pots. At a time when we are all thinking far more about the choices we make and their impact on the planet, it all feels quite wasteful.

Above: Historic tulips also tend to be more perennial than many of the annual flowering tulips. ‘Malaika’ is a stunning historic tulip that is almost impossible to find for sale.

And then there is the constant threat from wildlife. Friends this spring have had their entire tulip crop dug up by mice, swiped by squirrels, or munched by passing deer, who seem particularly adept at eating just the flower bud and leaving the ugly (and useless) bare stem.

Above: The stunning Tulipa turkestanica photographed by Britt Willoughby Dyer for Polly Nicholson’s The Tulip Garden.

So what’s the solution? As Polly Nicholson points out in her excellent book, The Tulip Garden, recently reviewed here by Kendra Wilson, species tulips offer an alternative. These more subtle and often more diminutive forms are the original wild tulips. They are naturally resistant to disease and they also naturalize, flowering year after year and multiplying in the garden, making them a much more sensible investment.

Above: ‘Ballerina’ is another more perennial variety, seen here at Great Dixter underplanted with a sea of forget-me-nots.

Sarah Raven suggests a few other ways to combat the issues around tulips in her latest course, Cut and Come Again Masterclass, for Create Academy. At her Sussex farm, Perch Hill, she tries to choose more perennial varieties including the viridiflora tulips ‘Artist’, ‘Spring Green’, and ‘Greenland’. (In my garden the Darwin hybrids are good repeat flowerers, as well as the gorgeous, tall ‘Ballerina’). Raven also recommends careful planting: digging deeper holes so that the bulbs are kept in cooler soil year-round. At Perch Hill they add a layer of grit to the planting hole, too, to prevent bulb rot. They are currently trialling new products to prevent blight but these are not yet on the market.

Above: The Darwin hybrids including ‘Salmon van Eijk’ tend to re-flower well year to year.

For some gardeners the triple threat of blight, climate change, and vermin has proved too much as they switch to less problematic spring bulbs including narcissi which reliably return each spring and do not suffer from fungal issues and are more predator-proof, too.

Above: The beautiful peony-shaped ‘Pink Star’.

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