After his wife died, E.B. White wrote that he could still see her in the garden, wearing an old, raggedy raincoat and laying out the next year's tulips, "calmly plotting the resurrection."
Half a century ago, Katharine Sargeant White directed her tulip-planting operation in Maine with a military determination. Perched on a folding canvas chair, she consulted a clipboard and consigned thousands of papery brown bulbs to the ground in a strict formation. Times change. Today's modern gardeners may blanch at the idea of all those orderly, bobble-headed soldiers marching in neat rows behind the hyacinths.
But some things stay the same. We are all better off for loving tulips, I think, if not for their precision, then for their swan necks and velvety, cupped grace. In a modern garden, the trick is to edit: be discriminating both in choosing tulips and in deciding where to plant them, come fall. The season to plan it all is now, of course; with spring flowers in bloom, it's easier to visualize how a clump of tulips might look, tucked in here or there, or anchoring a bare spot by the front stoop.
With that in mind, the other day I asked Elysian Landscapes founder Judy Kameon, who has designed both East and West coast gardens (for such clients as Sofia Coppola and Marc Jacobs), for tips. The main thing, she said, is to think of tulips as an opportunity to infuse a garden with "an important moment of color and life."
Could she please provide examples?
"I go for less ruffly types and stick to more graphic forms," she said. Then she emailed a list of her favorites. Looking it over, I'm confident we'll be prepared for the resurrection.
Above: The Gothic drama of the black tulip 'Queen of the Night' is undeniable ($9.95 for 12 bulbs at White Flower Farm; ships in autumn). "It's a sort of a Morticia Addams-like flower, although she would still probably still cut it off," said Kameon. Image by Stephen Harley-Sloman, via Flickr.
Above: British interiors designer Ben Pentreath, a self-described architectural classicist, mixes 'Queen of the Night' with black parrot tulips, pansies, foxglove, and daffodils in his Dorset garden. Image via Ben Pentreath.
Above: To understand why Tulipmania drove the Dutch into a 17th century frenzy that placed a higher value on a flower than on, say, gold, look closely at what Kameon called "the sunshine brightness" of the Japanese variety Tulip 'Akebono'; ($11.95 for 12 bulbs at White Flower Farm; ships in autumn). Image by Ryan Somma, via Flickr.
Above: 'Akebono' made it to the top of Kameon's list of favorites because, she said, "the looseness of the flower makes it feel more relaxed and romantic." Image by Ryan Somma, via Flickr.
Above: "Tulip 'Angelique' is quite a show stopper, with a double flower that resembles peonies," said Kameon of another of her favorites. Angelique Tulip is $14.99 for 10 bulbs at Breck's; orders ship in autumn. Image by Mimmi Elg, via Flickr.
Above: Mess it up. Avoid staid rows by inter-planting 'Angelique' with other bulbs of different heights and color, such as purple Allium (as seen at Center above). "Who can deny the charm of Allium?" asked Kameon. "Not me, I planted them in my first client's garden. I love the boldness." White Flower Farm ships Kameon's preferred variety, Allium 'Globemaster', in the fall; $39 for six bulbs. Image by Rebecca Bullene, via Flickr.
Above: "Imitating nature provides some modern inspiration, so planting in drifts and casting bulbs to determine placement, rather than methodically planting them in rows, is one approach that keeps things looking fresh," said Kameon. Image by Elizabeth Ellsworth, via Flickr.