Too many tulips is never enough

Some 5,000 are in bloom in the Bay Garden in Camolin, Co Wexford


I’ve just discovered that I’m ‘a tulip fancier’. Or at least, I’ve discovered that this is the odd but official term for people who love tulips in nearly every shape and form. (Not every shape and form, mind you. There are, after all, some modern, overbred varieties that are unabashedly ugly.)

And so it was a real treat to pay a visit last week to the Bay Garden in Camolin, Co Wexford, the creation of well-known professional horticulturists Iain and Frances MacDonald.

Situated on two-acres of fertile, free-draining farmland, this large country garden is well known to garden visitors and plant connoisseurs for its series of thoughtfully-designed and expertly-planted garden rooms, which wrap themselves around the couple’s home, a handsome 19th-century farmhouse the MacDonalds have lived in since 1989.

Back then, the house had no garden to speak of, although it did enjoy fine views over the rolling Wexford countryside, as well the melodic murmurings of a nearby stream (a tributary of the river Bann) that runs along its western boundary. But over the 27 years the MacDonalds have lived here, they’ve shaped a fine and atmospheric garden, filled with a skilful combination of choice plants that offer many seasons of interest.

This year, they’ve decided to go one step further by pairing up with Mr Middleton, the long-established Dublin garden shop, to offer Irish gardeners the chance to see a host of different tulips in flower over the following weeks. Some they have paired with colourful bedding plants, such as the sea of sweetly-scented scarlet and golden ‘Apeldoorn’ tulips (old cottage garden varieties, known for their reliably perennial display), now flowering in the Bay Garden’s potager-style vegetable plot, which Iain has woven through a carpet of deeply scented, crimson and yellow wallflowers. On the day I visited, their sweet, peppery smell drifted on the warm spring air, a nostalgic reminder of the importance of scent in any garden.

Seasonal colour

Meanwhile, by the entrance to the farmhouse, a huddle of pots has been used for a bravura display of seasonal colour. A great fiery splash of salmon-orange comes from a window-box filled with low-growing ‘Shakespeare’, a Kaufmanniana-type tulip that’s one of the earliest to flower, while another pot is filled with ‘Monte Orange’, whose fragrant double flowers are the colour of glowing embers. In the quaintly beautiful cottage garden to the front of the house, more tulips are flowering in berry shades of crimson, plum, scarlet, cream and pink. Varieties growing here include ‘Angelique Double’, ‘Jan Reus’, Margarita’, ‘Kingsblood’ and ‘White Elegance’.

Yet more tulips are sprinkled through the Bay Garden’s mixed borders, including the area the MacDonalds call the Serpentine garden, where the flowers and foliage of herbaceous plants – ‘Arum ‘Pictum’, the golden spikenard Valeriana phu ‘Aurea’, and the prettily-spotted leaves and dainty blue/pink flowers of Pulmonaria – provide a useful foil to their showy blooms.

All in all, the MacDonalds planted some 5,000 bulbs in their garden last autumn, a time-consuming, finger-blistering task made all the tougher by the terrible weather that hit the country in the final months of 2015.

“Five thousand sounds like an awful lot, and at the time it felt like an awful lot. More and more boxes kept arriving from Mr Middleton, to the point that we wondered where we’d fit them all. But now I wish that we’d planted even more,” laughs Frances. “You can never have enough tulips; they always look best when planted closely together in big, generous drifts. Even in a small pot, I think it’s important to squeeze them in tightly – we leave a space only the width of a finger between each bulb – to give a really good display.”

Her favourite varieties include the jolly yellow-and-red ‘Stresa’ “for its earliness” as well as the sultry, sooty-petalled ‘Queen of the Night’, a single-late variety valued for its perennial qualities. Not all varieties are as reliably perennial, although you can greatly improve their chances if you bury the bulbs deeply (20-25cm) into well drained, fertile soil when planting, give the plants a feed before and after flowering, and make sure to deadhead them.

Where the space is needed for a mass display of summer-flowering annuals, or for vegetables, it makes more sense to lift the bulbs – something the MacDonalds will be doing in their vegetable garden in early summer. “We’ll wait for the flowers to fade and the foliage to begin to yellow, then we’ll lift them and store them in shallow cardboard boxes somewhere cool, dry and dark, before replanting them in the autumn. It doesn’t always work, but it’s always worth a try.”

The only part of the Bay Garden where you won’t find tulips is its large and lovely woodland, a leafy, tranquil spot where a wooden gazebo sits, surrounded by spring flowers including drifts of snake’s head fritillaries, wood anemones, bluebells and magnolias. That would be to over-egg the pudding. But it’s yet another reason to visit this excellent Irish country garden over the following weeks.

See for details of ‘Mr Middleton’s Tulip Extravaganza’, which continues until Sunday, May 15th

This week in the garden

Sow seed of tender vegetables such as courgettes, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins and French beans under cover, to transplant outdoors after the last frosts.

Protect young or emerging plants from slugs by setting out beer traps, or going on night patrol with a torch and a sharp secateurs (slugs are nocturnal feeders). Other environmentally-acceptable and effective treatments include nematodes (try Nemaslug from or iron-based slug pellets such as Ferramol but use sparingly, as long-term use isn‘t good for soil health.

Wishing you could find someone to fit a new handle onto a much-loved garden tool? For a very reasonable fee, my local Men‘s Shed recently did a wonderful job of doing exactly that with a range of broken garden tools- spades, forks, hoes- that had been gathering dust for years. All you‘ll need to do is supply the handles. See

Dates for your diary

Sunday, May 8th (10am-5pm), Russborough House, Co Wicklow, the Rare & Special Plant Fair, celebrating the RHSI Bicentenary year, with over 40 plant stalls by specialist growers. While you‘re there, pay a visit to Russborough‘s 18th-century walled garden, which is being restored by the RHSI.

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