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How to Grow Tulips That Come Back Year After Year, With Polly Nicholson

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How to Grow Tulips That Come Back Year After Year, With Polly Nicholson

March 21, 2024

In Polly Nicholson’s new book, The Tulip Garden, out today in the UK (and on April 10 in the US), the expert grower shares her secrets on raising the most rarefied tulips—from historic Tulipa (known as English Florist) to Dutch Breeder and Broken (with feather-like flames). It’s as sumptuous a volume as the subject requires, tulips being associated with wealth and decadence through the ages. Even now, planting vast numbers of these intensely pleasurable but impermanent bulbs has a certain “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” quality.

For the frugal non-expert, Polly is generous, listing cultivars that come back year on year, delightfully planted in spring grass—or species tulips that are smaller, simpler, and more versatile than people realize. This idea of perennial bulbs, she says, “is very much in line with my approach, which is to grow tulips in a more enduring, organic fashion.”

Let’s investigate.

Photography by Andrew Montgomery for The Tulip Garden.

Above: On the banks of grass flanking the driveway at Blacklands (HQ of Polly Nicholson’s company Bayntun Flowers), annual tulips are tested for durability.

Growing tulips as annuals is undoubtedly wasteful, expensive, and ecologically dubious, just like the traditional bedding practice of which tulips play so strong a part. Organic bulbs are hard to find; most bring with them chemicals and inorganic things that leech into the soil. The flowery meadow that greets visitors to Bayntun Flowers in spring is an unplanned mix of used annual bulbs, some of which have proved themselves to be agreeably perennial. Dependable cultivars are collected in Polly’s Master Perennial List:  Viridifloras are a reliable group, including well-named ‘Spring Green’ and ‘Flaming Springgreen’ with licks of red. Other showy cultivars that make the list are fringed ‘Black Parrot’ and lily-flowered, violet-purple ‘Maytime’.

Above: Tulipa clusiana ‘Pepperminstick’ sits more delicately in a tulipière than louder and larger annual tulips.

It is the straight species, though, that hold the most promise. “In my opinion, species tulips are the future, and an exciting one,” says Polly. They can be naturalized in grass or gravel, taken indoors in small pots, or placed in a tulipière (this one above is made by Katrin Moye). Species tulips are the past as well: “also known as wild or botanical tulips [they] are the forerunners of all tulips grown in gardens today.”

The tulips that we mainly think of as classic are a bit like standard King Alfred daffodils or Pink Lady apples; the mainstream selection is narrow in comparison to the huge variety of species and historic cultivars. This book will persuade you that these are worth seeking out, and there is not much detective work to be done, if you consult Polly’s lists toward the back.

Above: Naturalized under globe-pruned pear trees, Tulipa clusiana ‘Peppermintstick’, is offered widely and easy to grow.

Successful, multiplying colonies of species tulips in a garden are the result of trial and error, while attempting to replicate their original conditions. Sometimes they need to be moved around before they find the right home. Tulipa clusiana is recommended for beginners; ‘Peppermintstick’ grows at the front of a border in Polly’s walled garden. Its looks are a mix of diffidence and artifice that annual tulips cannot match: “It has obviously been introduced, but it looks completely natural and at home.”

Above: Naturally spreading, yellow Tulipa sylvestris is one of the original, un-hybridized wild tulips.

In gardens, Tulipa sylvestris is best placed among spring herbage and flowers that are not also bright yellow, so that its shape and subtle coloring, with brown-green stems and sepals, can be seen at their best. It’s shown here with Narcissus ‘Thalia’ and dark hellebores in woodland beds. Rough ground is more accommodating than a flower bed, though, as they spread through underground stolons. With a similar profile and intensity of color, Tulipa sprengeri is a throbbing, warm red species flower that may find itself radiating alone, or mainly against green. Polly grows them with irises.

With T. sylvestris one of the earliest tulips to bloom, and T. sprengeri one of the latest (in March and June in the UK respectively), it is a long tulip season, with waves of other species in-between. Polly deadheads most of the species, including sylvestris so that its energies can be concentrated on spreading through offsets underground. Sprengeri is left alone, since it spreads well through seed dispersal.

Above: Tulips, tulips everywhere. Species tulips, with their stream-lined foliage, can thrive in gravel, across the path from larger tulips that are known to perform well perennially.

Species tulips, hailing from the rocky ledges and thin-soiled valleys of the Caucasus Mountains and remote mountain ranges in Central Asia, are well-suited to the un-cosseted conditions of a well-drained gravel or scree garden. Prolonged periods of cold followed by the moisture of snow melt and a baking summer is what they dream of.

Above: Among the first tulips to bloom, the species hybrid Tulipa humilis ‘Norah’  flourishes in a pot for an indoor display, supported by twigs. “In my experience, species hybrids are best suited to being planted in pots, while the pure species look more at home in the open garden.”
Above: The Tulip Garden, by Polly Nicholson, is published by Phaidon.

For more on Polly, see:

And for more on tulips, see:

And check out our Lookbook to see all of our photos of tulips.

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