Ben Pentreath’s Tulip Border Tips


I have a pile of bulb catalogs sitting next to me at my desk with pages turned and tulips circled. I planted a few tulips this Spring but they were nothing compared to Ben Pentreath’s borders in England—the color, the combinations, the mass of flowers! All summer long anyone that would talk to me about garden would hear, Have you seen this guy’s garden??? I’ve been living in tulip envy and hoping that maybe I can create something similar to Ben’s borders next Spring. How amazing would be to see a garden full of spring flowers on my corner lot? Ben was sweet enough to share his tulip secrets with all of us! Be sure to check out his blog, shop, and website for more inspiration.

Ben Pentreath: “Planting tulips can be a daunting affair. There is so much to chose from: shape, colour, species, and time of flowering. It feels a little bit impossible to get it right. Last year was my first year in the garden. I had just cleared the borders of a mass of weeds and I was itching to get something up in the spring. Like most things, I find that trial and error and a bit of confidence go a long way – not to mention quite a bit of cash – tulip bulbs (at least on this side of the atlantic) can get seriously expensive.

My first tip, therefore, was to find myself a good wholesale company – the sort of people who sell to garden centres and suppliers. Their prices for 1000 bulbs are the same as for 50 bulbs from a pricier, more exclusive catalogue. The danger is that you get tempted into making some seriously large orders – be prepared for backbreaking work in the autumn – but the advantage is that you can afford to bring on the massed bands – which I think was one of the reasons my tulip planting succeeded last year.

Second, planting distance. If I’m really honest, I think I bunched them a bit too close together last year. This year I’ll be spreading them out a bit more. Plant your bulbs in drifts – say 4” between bulbs – rather than clumps – 1” or 2” between bulbs – and I think the effect will be a bit better. Planting depth – they always say the deeper the bulb the longer it will last (a bit more on longevity later).

Third, colour. I think this is the most important thing of all. I wasn’t quite sure when anything would come up – I’m still not! But I wanted to make sure that there were colour themes running through, which worked. In my hot border, it was a question of going all out – hot purples, oranges, reds. In my cool border – pale creams, whites, greens. I LOVE bicoloured/dutch tulips so these weave their way throughout. This year I will be planting 1000s more Queen of the Night – dark black tulips – which co-ordinate brilliantly with pale or hot colours, but help stitch the whole garden together.

I will also be more intrigued by spot hot colours. I’ve purposefully ordered some strong burnt orange tulips that I am going to dot through the cool border. Just to see what happens.

Fourth – shape. Personally, I don’t like stubby little tulips – especially the early ones. I love the stature and structure of Darwin hybrids, and I LOVE parrot tulips more than you can imagine. My only rule is – if it belongs in a french underwear shop, it doesn’t belong in the garden. So nothing too pink, and nothing too frilly.

Fifth. Longevity. The real pain of tulips is you go to all that expense, and then all that effort – and then the rumour is they don’t last for more than a year or two. My plan at the Old Parsonage is to have started with a bang, but then keep adding more fireworks. I made another massive order this autumn, which we’re about to start planting now. Either next years’ display will be even more manic, or some bulbs won’t have made it, in which case the new will hopefully supplement the old. But as I said at the beginning, the key is to find a wholesale company where you’re not paying through the nose to start with. One can be a lot more relaxed when each bulb has cost a few cents rather than a few dollars. Tulips in that way become a lot more intriguing than cut flowers – a lot cheaper, a lot more beautiful, and much longer lasting!

Last year, as I say, I went a little mad. Some combinations worked brilliantly. Others not quite so well. The beauty was the latter. Those were the tulips that you could go out into the garden and pick, in massive bunches, which looked great indoors – while all the time improving the effect in the border. I think that is known as a double win.

The company I use to purchase my bulbs: dutchbulbs.co.uk.

Thank you Ben! View more images from his gardens, here.

Katy: Stateside bulb catalogs to check out: vanengelen.com (best prices for large orders) and johnscheepers.com.




All images courtesy of Ben Pentreath

Related Posts:
Ben Pentreath’s Tulip Gardens
Ben Penreath’s Boxy Sofa with Pillows
Ben Pentreath Ltd.


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12 Comments

  1. Such a timely story. Was just at a nursery a week ago intending to buy tulips and didn’t because of the cost and their reputation for not coming up after one year.

    I wonder how the tulip breeders get them to reproduce?

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  2. Oh, how I love his gardens. But looking at those pictures gives me a backache, thinking of all the hard work it took to get those *&^% bulbs planted. Lazy me will enjoy from afar. :-)

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  3. I am a fanatic tulip lover. I remember seeing your earlier post about Ben’s tulip border which inspired me to go crazy and order tulips back in July for a new bed to plant this fall. It’s going to be in front of our daughter’s bedroom windows (lucky kid!), but I’ll also be able to see it from my home office window. I really love the purple & white tulips which is what I’ll be planting.

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  4. The Carlsons do an amazing tulip display on their wall – it’s the house on the neck with the giant whale shaped hedge. They have tulips in the spring, and sunflowers in the summer.

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  5. Very informative and inspiring post. Does anyone have suggestions for a bulb company here in the US?

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  6. Oh, thank you for this. I adore tulips and have always dreamt of lots and lots of tulips growing in my garden. Haven’t got quite there yet. But I did read ‘Tulipomania’,have you?,
    reading about the history of other people’s crazy love of tulips (great read really!), makes my pathetic garden easier to bare. And dreaming of the next planting of course…(and looking at these pictures..):)

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  7. I love Ben’s garden and his shop. We regularly buy from his shop. I look online to see what he has got, and then my husband pops in when he is in London. He says the shop is a treasure trove.

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  8. I had some really gorgeous tulips each spring when we lived up north. And I started fresh every year! Yes, I pulled out each and every tulip in June and then planted again in November. Crazy, maybe? But that way I knew exactly what I was going to get, and could change the colors every year. Just a thought!
    And yes, that black tulip was an all time favorite of mine.
    They don’t grow so well here in N.C., but I will try!

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