When can a pocketful of change lift your spirits?
When it buys a dozen tulip bulbs ready for planting, promising a glowing patch of colour in spring.
Tulips are my perfect antidote to troubling times. They lift my spirits more than other flower so each year I enthusiastically anticipate their arrival, planting and flowering. In autumn I pull out the bulb catalogue, inspect the tulip colours and order 100 bulbs, my special treat. This forward planning ensures a thrilling display of flowers in August that our neighbours not only enjoy, but have now come to expect in front of our little cottage/office!
Tulips are the easiest of bulbs to grow; guaranteed to flower. Buy now and you can set your clock for an explosion of pretty petals in spring. Linda has been known to plant her tulips in the first week of June and for them to flower six weeks later in mid-August! Photo - photolibrary.com
One year, in a stroke of silliness, I chose a mix of red and white tulips (to barrack for my footy team!). Equally thrilling, but for different reasons was the year I chose a mix of clear orange and lipstick pink tulips and planted a profusion of pale blue violas underneath them. Another year I chose black ‘Queen of the Night’ with white ‘Maureen’ tulips. Last year I decided on masses of double, pink ‘Angelique’ tulips whose peony-like, pale-pink petals wash out to ivory at their edges. Frothy pink and white violas and pansies carpeted their feet. Chic and pretty perfection!
We have planted tulips out at the front of the cottage/office for five years now, cramming them in a long narrow garden just off the veranda. The task of pushing 100 onion-like bulbs into bare earth in four rows about 15 cm apart takes two hours. I usually plan this for late May.
Over the top we plant out a few punnets of pansies, violas or Virginian stock in colours to complement or contrast with the tulips. Late in winter the tulips emerge from the ground and the elegant flower buds start to open. Every year I love how my little nod to Monet can create a smile from a stranger.
Tulip bulbs look like small onion bulbs and are available from garden centres and bulb mail order companies now. Choose fresh, firm, plump bulbs and avoid any that are soft, mushy or discoloured. Choose the largest bulbs; these will produce strong and healthy flowers. Ensure the bulbs have retained their papery outer covering as this protects them from damage.
When it comes to colour you can choose from white, lemons, peach, reds, pinks, lilacs and bicoloured. Tulip flowers may be shaped like flutes or cups, or be fringed and feathered. You can create a bed of your single favourite colour, a mixed painting with complementary colours or a dramatic display with contrasting colours of, say, lime and lilac.
Tulips are the national flower of Holland, and when I imagine fields of tulips I can’t stop myself adding windmills in the background! More tulips are planted in Holland than anywhere else, however tulips are not Dutch, but Turkish, taken to Holland in the 1593 by an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Photo - photolibrary
I believe the Australian-bred tulips are the best, and in fact Australia is exporting new and improved varieties to Holland! In warmer regions my favourite tulips are the Monet range, developed in Australia, which tolerate our warmer growing conditions. Monet tulips are large, bold-flowering varieties that come in a good selection of colours, and are worth paying a little extra for. I also recommend ‘Single Late Tulips’ which are tall, strong-growing tulips with nicely formed flowers, good for warmer regions.
I buy from mail order companies to get the widest range, latest varieties and early delivery of the best quality. Broersen’s Bulbs, Van Dieman’s Quality Bulbs, Tesselaar Bulbs, Hancock’s Daffodils and Garden Express all produce excellent catalogues in full colour to help make your selection easier.
How to plant tulips
When your bulbs arrive, they need to go into an open paper bag and into the crisper of your refrigerator for six to eight weeks. This gives them a cold winter, which they need to flower reliably and uniformly. A few years ago I experimented to see whether this step really is necessary. I put some of my tulip bulbs in the crisper and left the others out. I found that the ones that lived through my enforced cold snap had longer flower stems and flowered all at one time, which you want if your artwork is really going to have impact. Ever since, my bulbs always spend at least six weeks in the fridge.
In cooler regions, the weather is cold enough for an early May planting. Victoria gardeners can look forward to these bulbs flowering in September and October. However I find in warm temperate regions, tulip-planting is best delayed until the end of May, when the soil temperatures have dropped. You can expect flowers in August and September. Tulips need a really sunny spot, and enjoy growing in pots if you don’t have a suitable patch in the garden.
Photo - photolibrary.com
Plant bulbs twice as deep as they are wide, about 15cm apart. Feed with a liquid bulb food at planting time, again as the flower buds form and a third time as the flower finishes to encourage next year’s flower. Don’t be tempted to remove untidy dying foliage, wait till the leaves die right down. As the foliage dies off nutrients are moved back to the bulb to feed next year’s flower.
Tulips may flower again in warm climates if left in the garden and liquid fed throughout spring, summer and autumn. Tulips in cooler climates will have more chance of success as this is more like their native climate. Flower buds develop within the bulb during January and February for the next spring’s flowering.
If you only have limited space, you can grow tulips in shallow pots. Crowd them close together for a sensational display. Select a large pot (we like wine barrels), the best potting mix you can afford and treat them the same as you would in the ground. We plant 50 tulip bulbs into each wine barrel with a complementary annual on top to ‘prop’ them up and water just once a week so that there is no risk of the bulbs rotting.
Where to see tulips
Travel the world and through Australia to see beautiful displays of millions of tulips.
Istanbul, April - May
Go back to the home of tulips to Turkey and see the crowd-pleasing display of thousands of bulbs outside the minaretted mosques.
Holland, March to May
Be surrounded by six million blooming bulbs in the magnificent park of Keukenhof.
Victoria, mid-September to mid-October
Tesselaar Tulip Festival, 357 Monbulk Rd, Silvan, Victoria
Canberra, 11 September – 10 October
Floriade is a month-long free festival of flowers, food and festivities on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.
Southern Highlands, NSW, 24 September – 9 October
Tulip Time Bowral is one of Australia's oldest and most beautiful flora festivals with more than 100,000 tulips and 25,000 annuals on spectacular display in Corbett Gardens.