Gardening: Growing tulips in pots

Tulips growing in separate pots
Tulips growing in separate pots

Of all the bulbs, tulips are probably the most varied in size and colour, ranging from dainty dwarf specimens to frilly, feathery forms and stand-up-straight majestic types.

They don’t need planting as early as narcissi or snowdrops. In fact, tulips shouldn’t be planted before the end of October, as early planting will result in soft growth which is susceptible to the fungal disease, tulip fire.

If you’re growing them in pots, generally they are best grown alone because they don’t survive a typical summer without being lifted and dried off after flowering.

If you want a stand-alone colour and type of bulb, consider sowing grass seed on the surface soil once you’ve planted the bulbs, which will create a swathe of green as the bulbs emerge, avoiding visible empty pockets of soil.

However, you can achieve some gorgeous combinations which could also help hide the unsightly appearance of the bulbs once they have finished flowering and are starting to look straggly.

Variegated dwarf ribbon grass, for example, is an excellent pairing with the deep burgundy Tulipa ‘Queen of Night’. The grass makes a terrific foil for the almost-black tulip flowers and will last long after the blooms have gone.

If you are planting a single layer of bulbs, fill the pot to within four or five times the depth of the bulb from the top of the pot. You can plant the bulbs closer together in a pot than you would in the ground, leaving them around 1cm apart if they are small tulips, but a bit more space for varieties with larger blooms. Then fill the rest of the pot with compost, up to around 3cm from the top of the rim. Also, be aware that tall bulbs in shallow containers don’t generally succeed.

When planting, the most important thing is that the soil is well drained. Add a handful of grit to multi-purpose compost at planting time and place crocs, small stones or broken pieces of polystyrene plant trays in the base and ensure you have drainage holes in the container.

Stand the pot on feet to stop autumn and winter moisture seeping in upwards from the ground and rotting the bulbs.

In severe winter weather, move the pots closer to the house so they escape the worst of the excess wet and chilling wind. But once the days become slightly warmer in early spring, move them out into the open and don’t let the pots dry out or you’ll be left with stunted foliage and poor flowers.

Once the bulbs are in full leaf growth, the pots should be watered periodically, when the compost feels dry.

So, which tulips do best in pots? Well, in deep pots you might go for tall varieties such as triumph whose stems grow up to 40cm, flowering in late spring. These include T. ‘Prinses Irene’, which has glowing orange blooms flamed with purple, and ‘Bing Crosby’, a scarlet variety.

Shorter single early tulips such as ‘Apricot Beauty’ also work well in pots, as do taller single late and Darwin tulips including ‘World’s Favourite’, a hot orange-red type, or the lily-flowered T. ‘Ballerina’, with its vibrant orange flowers which open fully on sunny days.

In fact, most tulips are perfect for pots - just avoid those with weak stems and very heavy flowers which are prone to flopping.