Diarmuid Gavin: 'How to protect your tulips from the big freeze'

A favourite autumnal job is planting tulips. I did some bulb planting in September, bedding in a selection of white daffodils, crocuses and anemones under our trees.

However, it’s always recommended that you leave tulips until much later, as the onset of cold weather is thought to help prevent tulip fire blight. This is a fungal disease which causes brown mottling on the leaves and stunted flowers. If this does happen, you need to get rid of the bulbs and avoid planting tulips in the same area for a few years.

As with all plants, in whatever form they come, it’s also a good idea to inspect bulbs before planting. You want healthy-looking specimens, the fatter the better. If you see signs of mould, it’s best to discard now.

There’s a crazy amount of varieties available today and it may be that you just go by colour. With tulips you are spoilt for choice – from the most striking reds and purples through dreamy pastels and all sorts of combinations.

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However, there are a few other factors to bear in mind. Tulips can begin flowering in early spring and some, such as the single late tulips – for example, the wonderfully dark ‘Queen of Night’ – will bring you to early summer. So by mixing up the types, you can extend the tulip season.

There is also versatility when it comes to flower shapes. I love the Parrot cultivars with their curvy, wavy petals – the blue and black ones especially. Double-flowered tulips are also very pretty and are often compared to peonies because of the blousy, fulsome nature of the petals. ‘Angelique’ is one of the best-known, a delightful concoction of pale pink and cream, beautiful for cutting and indoor display. Or you may prefer the classic vase shape of the Triumph tulips, for example the glorious ‘Princess Irene’ in her cloak of orange and purple.

Another consideration is durability. Many of these highly bred tulips will only last a season. In hotter areas they may rebloom the following year but not always as big or as brightly. For this reason, many gardeners treat tulips as annuals and replant fresh varieties every year. However, species varieties such as Tulipa clusiana will naturalise and spread. Good old-fashioned Darwin hybrids, which are generally red, pink or yellow, are also quite reliable and are sometimes called perennial tulips as they will perform for a few years.

If you do leave tulips in the ground, I’d recommend feeding them next spring to give them a boost. Those planted in sunny, well-drained areas which get a good summer baking have the best chance of flowering for a couple of years. You can also improve chances of reflowering if you lift the tulips after flowering, when all the foliage has died back, and store them somewhere warm before replanting next autumn.

One final point – in pots or in the ground? I prefer pots as you can remove them out of sight as soon as they are finished flowering, whereas they can be quite messy as they die down in borders. Also with pots you have more control over the growing conditions – well-drained compost is ideal as they don’t like sitting in soggy, cold, wet soil.

If you’d like to see some stunning examples of bulbs and especially tulips used in pots, check out Danish gardener Claus Dalby’s Instagram feed, @clausdalby. You’ll find some extraordinary, inspirational imagery and videos. Happy planting!

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