Gardener's notebook: expert Polly Nicholson's guide to everything tulip fever — from planting to pest control

Homes & Property | Gardening

Gardener's notebook: expert Polly Nicholson's guide to everything tulip fever — from planting to pest control

If tulips are your favourite flower too, here’s everything you need to know about growing them

I’m often asked what my favourite flower is. It’s an impossible question, but if I were pushed to give an answer, I’d probably choose the tulip.

But with so many different flowers to choose from, why would I choose one so ubiquitous?

When you dig a little deeper, there is a lot more to tulips than blowsy blooms and bright colours. It’s a flower that has captured the imagination of humans for more than 1,000 years.

The flower has been repeatedly bred to find new forms and colours, and today, there are more than 3,000 different tulips in cultivation, a claim that can be made for very few other plants. So answering “tulip” is really avoiding the question.

Polly Nicholson has written the book on tulips

Fellow tulip lover Polly Nicholson has been growing them for more than 25 years and recently became the national plant collection holder for historic tulips.

This spring she has published The Tulip Garden, a book exploring the story of the tulip, which is accompanied by beautiful photography of her own garden.

I asked what advice she would give to Londoners who want to foster their own love of the flower.

 1. Think big

“Large containers are more impactful in a small garden,” suggests Nicholson

“Think big and plant a minimum of 50 bulbs, spaced like eggs in an eggbox, almost touching but not quite. Larger containers are easier to water and don’t attract leaf litter and debris around them, in the way that smaller ones clumped together seem to.”

Large containers filled with bulbs can make a big impact in small gardens

2. Go white in the dark

“There is nothing more stylish than a container planted out with a pure white lily flowered tulip such as White Triumphator or its smaller, newer cousin, Tulipa ‘Tres Chic’. In shady, darker gardens, white and pale-coloured tulips glow.”

3. Double up

“Double tulips massed together create wonderful texture. I love a combination of different doubles, also known as peony flowered tulips, planted close together in a large container.”

Historic breeds offer interesting colourways

4. Think different

For something a little different, Nicholson suggests growing Tulipa ‘Bleu Aimable’.

“It is a century-old cultivar, bruised lilac in colour, with a blue base. It blooms for up to three weeks in a container and 10 days in a vase.”

5. Pest control

Slugs, squirrels, foxes and cats are the main threats to tulips in London.

To defend against slugs, Nicholson advises “raising containers off the ground if they are light enough to lift, and using an organic slug repellent such as Sluggo regularly through spring”.

When it comes to four-legged friends, “cover containers in chicken wire ‘hats’, which can be removed when the tulip shoots are approximately three inches tall”. 

The Tulip Garden: Growing and Collecting Species, Rare and Annual Varieties, by Polly Nicholson (£29.95; Phaidon)