Learn from my mistakes and tips for a successful tulip season in 2023.
With the end of every tulip season I like to take stock of how my little cutting patch has performed. Which were the winners, which I could have done without and plan for the following season. Growing tulips in gardens has always been a firm favourite world wide but, with the rise of the home florist (particularly since the pandemic), growing specifically for cutting is becoming increasingly popular. The variety you can get from home grown blooms is truly staggering and you don't need to be a flower farmer or large scale business to produce a good number of blooms from a small plot. I've been growing tulips for cutting for a number of years now and I've picked up a few tips and tricks along the way but I'm still learning something new every year. Here I will share some of this wisdom I have found either from my own garden or from listening to other much more experienced tulip growers I have had the benefit of meeting and chatting with. You can look back at previous tulip blog posts to see my tulip growing journey, watch my favourites change and learn from the mistakes I made. Here today, I will share 2022's lessons learnt, my new favourites and where and what I'm buying for 2023.
A Brief History of my Tulip Growing Journey...
Many years ago I visited the famous Keukenhoff in Holland and was blown away by the variety, colour and displays. I have to admit though, I'm not a big fan of a formal garden, much preferring a more natural approach (read that as I don't have time for weeding). The Keukenhoff in all its splendour wasn't really my bag although I could appreciate its beauty and magnificence. Having said that the tulip fields surrounding the more formal gardens are staggeringly beautiful in their simple colour blocks as far as the eye can see. Since that visit, a long time ago, I have had a real thirst to go back, hire a bike and ride around those fields and just leisurely take it all in at my own pace. As with most people over the last years, a trip was planned but sadly had to be cancelled due to covid. I will get there again one day. The reason for telling you this is that I initially decided to grow, what I liked to call my mini Keukenhoff in my cutting beds to start my tulip journey off while I planned a trip to see the fields IRL at some point in the future.
WHERE TO PLANT
I had a number of 13 ft by 4.5ft raised beds put in and the tulips were planted in the first year in one of these beds.
Mistake number 1 - The beds were too wide! It's difficult to reach the middle of the bed without putting a foot into the middle to balance. If you create a cutting bed make sure it's slimmer than mine. I used the full length of a standard scaffold plank which was 13ft and then cut one in half for the side pieces trying not to waste any of it. I should have just forgone a foot of the side pieces to save my back.
Tip: Your beds can be as long as you desire but make sure the width is narrow enough that you can easily lean in to pick and weed the middle of the bed. Alternatively grow them in crates that can be dotted around your garden during the flowering season but tucked away out of season. This has many benefits including space saving, easy care and picking.
That first year I planted about 850 bulbs in straight rows to mimic the tulip fields with lines of colours and varieties. It had some plus points. It looked fabulous and it was a really easy way to keep track of varieties and see what I used more of.
Mistake number 2 - in year 2 the tulips planted using this method developed tulip fire which I hadn't heard of until then. It's a fungal disease caused by Botrytis tulipae and causes unsightly brown spots, twisted and shrivelled leaves. Unfortunately the only way to get rid of this is to dig up the whole tulip, bulb and surrounding soil included and not re plant any tulips in that spot for about 3 years. I have to admit, I only dug up one section and so far it's been ok since but it's a pain to do.
Tip: When planting your tulips make sure the bulb is firm and discard any bulbs with ANY signs of mould. Just one infected bulb could spread throughout your crop and ruin the lot. Leave gaps in-between tulips to stop it spreading (try planting other plants in between the tulip varieties to help stop the spread of disease)
Rodents and dogs were the next issue. Protecting your tulips immediately after planting is key to not losing them to animals that would like to make them their lunch.
Mistake number 3 - I left it literally one day after planting without protection and the squirrels had a field day. Add to that my dog Betsy discovered a love for tulip bulbs too and made a horrid mess digging them up and chewing a good few of them.
Tip: Whether you choose to grow in a cutting bed, pots or crates always make sure that immediately after planting you remove any signs of tulip planting. So any scraps of tulip bulb that fall off make sure you compost them away from where you've planted. Cover the whole bed in chicken wire or mesh and pin down with tent pegs. Cover any crates in the same way. This is a bit extreme but it's much more humane than putting down cayenne pepper as a deterrent to squirrels as this can get in their eyes and cause them a lot of pain. Please don't use that method as it's really cruel.
As the tulip seasons have come and gone there are obviously certain factors that determine which tulips I've planted and sold and how I've planted them. Colour trends seem to play a very big part. This year for example oranges and browns are really coming into their own. With all the peaches, apricot and obviously pinks still ever so popular. The inclusion of the really dark tulips like Black Hero, Queen of the Night and Black Parrot creates a wonderful contrast and back drop for the lighter colours to really shine.
Have a look at garden designers and the mix of colours they use in borders. Or have a look at favourite florists and the colour combinations they use in their bouquets. Try and buy bulbs that compliment each other rather than just a random selection of ones you like. Think about how you will sell them. After all, the whole point of the cutting beds is to sell the tulips on. It's a costly enterprise so sales are key. Unless of course, you are growing just for your own enjoyment. In which case, colour blending from a design point of view in the flower beds may be more important.
Mistake 4 - The first year I got a bit carried away and bought a huge variety without a huge amount of thought going into it. Just buying what I liked. I ended up with lots of unsold varieties that I either didn't like or they had nothing to go with in bouquets or for events.
Tip: Consider your end game when buying. Select in colour palettes that work together for selling or arranging once picked or for planting schemes. I'd advise buying less varieties but more of each. Trial a few new ones each year in crates to see how they perform and how you use them in your work. If they work well then add them to your main planting the following year and buy more. Only buy 5-10 bulbs of a trial bulb to see how it performs. Don't waste your money on something you aren't sure about.
PULLING UP THE WHOLE BULB
I've heard a number of different opinions on this but a recent visit to Flitterbrook Flower Farm and a chat with grower Georgina Bollen has helped me come to a method I'm now going to follow.
Mistake 5 - Having initially read that tulips can act as perennials if you plant them deeply (which is true if you aren't planning on cutting them) and also protects them from being dug up by pests (also true but they can also still get to them without protection) I learned the hard way that this doesn't work when growing specifically for cutting. I planted all of mine very deep. When you try to pull them up to make sure you have the maximum stem length the stem will snap if planted too deep. You're then left with no greenery on the plant to die back as nutrients for the bulb to re flower the following year. What you end up with is a tulip leaf and no flower for the next year which won't earn you anything and looks a bit rubbish in the garden. They should however re flower 2 years later if you get a green leaf in the second year after being cut. The other problem to planting deep I discovered when tulip fire hit was that it made digging up the bulbs really hard work and costly time wise as I had to remove so much soil too.
Tip:Plant your tulip bulbs closer to the surface (about 10-20cm) so that when picking for cutting you can pull up the whole plant, bulb included. Do not discard your bulbs. They are expensive and will hopefully re flower in two years time. If you are selling the flowers on you can deliver with the bulb attached as this keeps the flower in good condition. I do this for postal orders. Or remove the bulb once picked and instead find an alternative planting spot. You can either dry out your bulbs and store carefully for replanting in their new spot in the Autumn or just replant straight away. I have a few old wheelbarrows that I've planted random bulbs in. It creates a beautiful natural planting scheme that I've loved. Another idea is to plant them in an area of the garden or a field where you can let them grow almost as if in the wild. I saw this at Georgina's farm where she has planted them randomly into a wild meadow field and I've also seen a number of places on Instagram that really inspired me with similar planting. Unfortunately the lawn is my husbands domaine and he looked at me in horror when I suggested this to him. If you're lucky enough to have some wild areas of land then moving your old bulbs there and randomly planting them can, over the years create something truly magical.
STEM LENGTH & FLOWER QUALITY
There are quite a few factors that I've found that affect the stem length and quality of the flower.
Buying bulbs from a quality supplier - see below (where to buy)
Quality of the soil - I bought a really duff lot of soil because it was cheap when I started out. So money obviously comes into play as tulip growing isn't cheap but don't scrimp on soil quality. It's the most import part of your garden!
When you plant them - Always plant once the soil is colder. I usually plant Nov/December time but this year I planted really late in January. I had a fabulous display still but a few varieties were shorter than I'd hoped and a couple of varieties had no stem at all! So for optimal flower quality try aiming to get them in the ground by the end of November if you can.
Watering - I think this might be the biggest factor. I had some Belle Epoque in pots last year. They were near the house so I saw them all the time. I used to pop out and pour a jug of water over them every now and then in late winter/early Spring as it was really dry weather and just as the leaves started to emerge. They were absolutely enormous. Now this could have been down to a good batch of bulbs but I've found that if we have a particularly dry winter and early Spring the tulips, if not watered at the point that the leaves first emerge will have really short stems.
I think that rounds up the lessons learned for now. If you've learnt anything else I'd love to hear about it. Just leave a comment below this post. Now for...
WHERE, WHEN & WHAT TO BUY
Where: A quality flower starts with the bulb so it's always worth making sure you buy from a reputable supplier. If you're buying in the thousands then you'll need to buy from a trade/wholesaler as the cost would be astronomical. I don't buy in quantities big enough to justify this but most suppliers will offer cheaper prices for the more bulbs you buy. Yet another reason to be more selective and buy more of one variety. I buy most of my bulbs from Peter Nyssen, some from Farmer Gracy and a few from Sarah Raven (please note: the order of this is mainly down to price). You will find that some varieties sell out quickly (all the firm favourites need buying early to avoid disappointment) and some will have a minimum purchase quantity. You guessed it, I'm talking about the famous florists favourite La Belle Epoque. There are also some varieties that each supplier sells that others don't so shop around for your favourites. For example I have only been able to find the beautiful Vovos at Sarah Raven but it is ridiculously expensive. For this reason I don't grow it for cutting, just for my own enjoyment. I don't think many customers would understand the price difference of this very special variety. Coming back to the difficult to find Belle Epoque. As many places only let you buy 10 of these at a timeI have shopped around and bought from various different places. It's just a case of googling and seeing where it's available at the time of buying. Make a note of which suppliers bulbs get planted where though incase you get some poor quality stock then you can remember where it came from.
When: I have already bought all of my bulbs for 2023. It is admittedly early but I like to make sure I have full choice. Having said that some varieties were already sold out at Peter Nyssen. You can set an email alert though incase they come back in stock. You can usually find the sold out ones somewhere else if you're prepared to pay a bit more money. In the first couple of years of growing I bought my bulbs around July time and got really frustrated when the ones I wanted were gone. Now I buy in May. The benefit of this is that my successes and failures are very much in the forefront of my mind at the end of the season and I can plan my colour scheme, make note of ones I've seen other growers celebrating then I can work them into my plans to trial.
What: So I have a few firm favourites that don't waiver every year and then every year that list gets longer as I work out what works for me. This year I have planned my beds slightly differently.
Natural planting not for cutting: I have one bed that isn't for cutting that I grew La Belle Epoque, Black Parrot and Black Hero this year. It looked really beautiful with the Belle's really standing out against the dark tulips. Next year I am adding Anthracite and Slawa to this mix which are two I trialed this year and loved. I will also add Slawa to the cutting beds but not the Anthracite as I don't use much red in my arranging. These would make great pot combinations too. I've also planted some tulips amongst my rose beds. I've kept these mainly in deep red colours like Ronaldo as I have lots of Forget-me-nots that flower there and the deep reds look really beautiful with them. You could also go for another combo if planting amongst Forget-me-Nots (See earlier image) like Mango Charm and Flamming Margarita or China Town.
Pots: Next I have my pots on my terrace. Here I planted all the dark tulips Black Hero, Queen of the Night, Ronaldo, Black Parrot and also more Belle Epoque along with some other favourites, Mount Tacoma (a beautiful double white tulip) and Turkestanica, a must for early flowering pots. I've planted Heucheras, Violas and Pansies (in orange and pale blue) , Hellebores and heathers for winter flowering and they are still there when all these tulips flower and it created a really beautiful colour display. I'll also have one very special pot of Vovos just for me!
Cutting: I now have 2 cutting beds where I plant tulips (these switch between Dahlias and tulips depending on the season). I have planned one for all my peachy and dark tones and one for oranges, purple, white and pink.
Bed 1: Rejoice, Mount Tacoma, Copper Image, Amazing Grace, Angelique, Blue Diamond (the only purple I buy as I find I don't sell many) Blushing Girl, Columbus, Cairo, Brown Sugar, Slawa Global Desire, Charming Lady and Finola.
Bed 2: Apricot Copex, Black Jack, Black Hero, Queen of the Night, Black parrot, Apricot Beauty, Apricot Emperor, Apricot, Apricot Pride, Apricot Impression, Menton, Salmon Jimmy, Salmon van Eijk, Silk Road, Stunning Apricot, Mango Charm, Wyndham, Flamming Margarita.
I love all the double tulips, probably because they look so like really open roses and fill the gap when designing that roses leave when out of season. My favourites are Flaming Margarita, Wyndham, La Belle Epoque, Mount Tacoma, Global Desire and Copper Image. But I also really like the single varieties for their statuesque elegance. Menton is a firm favourite. Some of the smaller varieties are great for reflexing like Mango Charm (the bigger tulips don't look great reflexed unless you're making a really big display as they can completely take over with their size. Turkestanica is a great small tulip for pots, flowers early and if you leave them to go to seed the heads are really interesting and great to use in Autumn/Winter wreaths.
Well, that's my round up from this years tulip season. I'm hoping next year to get out to the Dutch flower fields to see the tulips but I did spot somewhere that there is a tulip farm in Norfolk so maybe I'll try there too! Can you recommend anywhere that's great to see tulips either in the UK or abroad? I hope you've found this helpful, particularly if you are just starting out on your tulip growing journey. Please let me know if you have any other tips to add or advice or what, if anything, you've found helpful about this blog post or any questions. Many thanks for being here and sticking with this until the end. Hopefully you've had a nice cuppa while you've been reading. Happy tulip ordering everyone until next time!