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Gardening 101: Growing Tulips the New Dutch Way

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Gardening 101: Growing Tulips the New Dutch Way

October 11, 2021

Ordering quantities of tulips every year can be an extravagance, as well as a conundrum: how to use these showy bulbs in the context of today’s wilder planting? Although the Netherlands are strongly associated with tulips and, increasingly, naturalistic planting— thanks to Dutch plantsman-turned-designer Piet Oudolf—it is still more common in Holland to see tulips planted neatly or as specimens, as they would have been 400 years ago.

A couple of years ago, Dutch photographer Maayke de Ridder teamed up with British garden writer Noel Kingsbury who was traveling around the Netherlands, investigating the Dutch garden scene. One of their visits was to a communal garden co-run by bulb specialist and designer Jacqueline van der Kloet. Having shaken up the castle gardens of Keukenhof in the tulip-growing region of Lisse (24 miles from Amsterdam), she now works on public as well as private bulb schemes and knows whereof she speaks. At the famous castle garden, Van der Kloet took inspiration from nature rather than history: particularly alpine meadows “with their abundance of flowers, among which are many bulbs.”

Photography by Maayke de Ridder for Gardens Under Big Skies: Reimagining Outdoor Space, the Dutch Way.

Above: From left: pink forget-me-not (Myosotis), leaf and flower of Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Spessart’, tulips ‘Flaming Spring Green’ and ‘Jacqueline’, Allium roseum, A. triquetrum, leaf of Helleborus orientalis, flower and leaf of Geranium pratense ‘Album’, Stipa tenuissima, Geranium phaeum, blue forget-me-not.

Van der Kloet looks to harmonious colors in contrasting flower shapes when planning tulips. Foliage however is the most important factor, since earlier bulbs appear just as perennials are beginning to get going. Hardy geraniums, with or without flowers, are excellent ground cover when you choose the slowly spreading varieties, such as G. macrorrhizum ‘Spessart’ with its red calyces and stems. Forget-me-not (in shades of pink, white, as well as blue) looks its best at tulip time.

Above: Tulips ‘Jacqueline’ and ‘Mariette’ have extra zing when they contrast with the fresh green growth of new boxwood growth as well as grasses, and an understory of pinkish-white Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Spessart’. (The flowering tree is Viburnum plicatum ‘Watenabe’).

A nation of gardeners, growers, and makers of super-sharp gardens, Holland has been the horticultural center for bulb cultivation for at least four centuries. It is perhaps because of the cultural history of market gardens in the Netherlands that more energy has gone into formal displays than innovative design, until recently that is.

Above: Purple on mauve, Tulip ‘Recreado’ with Geranium tuberosum. With the geranium’s flower and filigree leaf, it is a nod to its wilder relations, meadow cranesbill and bloody cranesbill.

Adding to the mix of foliage in this mini-meadow is early-flowering aquilegia, to the left, and hellebore foliage in the foreground. Budding alliums will join the throng, their shriveling leaves hidden in the mass of green. For brighter shades of green as well as texture, Jacqueline favors euphorbia (such as shade-tolerant and relatively low-growing Euphorbia amygdaloides and Alchemilla mollis.

Above: Tulip ‘Spring Green’ with Milium effusum ‘Aureum’ grass and hardy geraniums, including purple Geranium sylvaticum ‘Amy Doncaster’.

Perennial gardening implies low-maintenance, while many tulips are “one-year wonders.” Jacqueline seeks out perennial varieties (depending on where you live). In a temperate climate, Tulipa ‘Spring Green’ has a good record for returning, as does the orange tulip, ‘Ballerina’. For an intense shot of elegant scarlet, the species tulip ‘Sprengeri’ slowly spreads, when left undisturbed.

Jacqueline prefers to throw tulip bulbs into the air and plant them where they land, rather than lining them up neatly. On the other hand, in a formal situation, tulips can really sing when they are more consciously arranged; she snakes them through grass with anemones, against a backdrop of topiary. Earlier in the season, she mixes varieties of crocus and chionodoxa for color harmony and shape contrast.

Above: Orange tulip ‘Ballerina’, yellow Smirnium perfoliatum. The clipped tree is Ligustrum delavayanum.

While the earliest tulips emerge with very little company from other flowers, it is a different story by the end of the season. As the writer Noel Kingsbury says, “a smooth ‘hand-over is important, with perennials taking over from bulbs but without crowding them out.” Carpeting grasses such as hakonechloa and yellow-green Smirnium perfoliatum are good company. In a less crowded situation, emerging foliage from hostas and peonies brings a new layer of freshness.

Above: in the middle ground, Smyrnium perfoliatum. and a privet hedge. In the background, steps to the dyke are visited by neighboring sheep.

As bulbs and perennials mix and mingle, a sense of informal formality is established with clipped hedges, topiary and weeded gravel.

Above: Gardens Under Big Skies: Reimagining Outdoor Space, the Dutch Way by Noel Kingsbury and Maayke de Ridder is out next month, published by Filbert Press.

For more on bulbs, see:

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