Not so long ago, gardeners favored tulips planted in substantial drifts with dozens or even hundreds of bulbs soldiered together. It’s a dazzling show, but the role of tulips in gardens is being reinvented. For a fresh start and a new look, plant tulips like wildflowers.
The stylish school of natural garden design thinks of tulips as though they were flowers in a
meadow, and tucks them into flower beds between perennials and around the twiggy skirts of
deciduous shrubs, where they will come up like flashing jewels just as the spring garden comes
to life. Plant two or three or five bulbs together, and then just one bulb in several places.
It’s a light touch, and it is highly effective.
Even at Keukenhof, the famous bulb garden in Holland, the displays are being redesigned to show
tulips growing among perennial flowers. When they are planted in small groups or singly, like
poppies that spring up on the edge of a cornfield, you can see the beauty of each flower,
rather than just a mass of bright color.
To keep naturalistic plantings balanced, limit the palette of tulips to just a few colors — red
and yellow, or yellow and white, or perhaps pink and purple, or try combining variegated,
parrot-flowered tulips with a single, solid-colored variety. Tall tulips stand out above the
emerging leaves of hostas and daylilies, and among columbines, Solomon’s seal, hardy geraniums, hellebores, and drifts of blue
forget-me-nots. They look particularly striking against evergreen shrubs, but they’re also very
effective with peonies, or coming up among Virginia bluebells.
Little species tulips can be planted like wildflowers, too, at the edges of flower beds, in a
lawn, or among groundcovers like vinca or
ivy. These tulips, sometimes called botanical tulips, are much smaller than the big hybrid
varieties, and their wispy flowers and foliage lend themselves to naturalistic plantings.
Plant tulips and other spring-blooming bulbs in fall. They need sun, but they can be planted in
gardens shaded by deciduous trees, because they bloom in spring before the trees have fully
leafed out. You really can’t miss with tulips. Just don’t plant them in rows: toss a few
handfuls of bulbs into a flower bed and plant them where they fall. The result in the spring
will be all the more surprising.