One of Many Moments

It’s a big moment for me:  the moment of the flowering of Tulipa batalinii.

I guess it could be any species tulip really – they all thrill me – though this one does have something of a story for me as I saw it for the first time on my first ever visit to Sissinghurst when Harold’s Lime Walk (which he described as his life’s work) was at it’s absolute best, on the 28th of April 1991.

It was the year after Vita’s own head gardeners had left (having hung around for nearly 30 years after Vita’s death), and the intense bulb planting in the Lime Walk was then a work of undeniable genius.  We had arrived at opening time (Christopher Lloyd, with whom I was staying, always insisted that we go on a Sunday morning, arrive dead on 10am as the gates opened, so we could leave by 12, and be back on the terrace at Dixter with a preprandial drink by 12:30).  On this particular morning, it happened that there were a few minutes, here and there, when CL, a designer friend of his and I were the only ones present in the Lime Walk.  That’s a rare privilege.


And now Tulipa batalinii is flowering in my garden.  Its stunning, wavy blue leaves (edged with a pencil-line of burgundy) are very lovely in their own right, and give rise to yellow green buds of distinctly arrow-head outline.  I’d not grown this particular variety (lamely called ‘Honky Tonk’) before, and didn’t know what to expect from the flowers, though previous experience had me looking for a soft apricot.


What emerged as the buds first opened was an astringent, sulphury citrus which was more striking than lovable.

Once fully open the flowers appeared to cool off to a lively lemon, with blushes of peach on the side.

When the sun is at its most aggressive, the flowers are absolutely triangular. I honestly can’t visit them enough.

The smaller bulbs can provide big moments, but also inevitably lead to big dilemmas about placement in the garden.  There’s virtually no such thing as an appropriate garden context in which they can make a genuine aesthetic contribution to any sort of planting ‘scheme’.


Thank goodness for my five-foot backless bed, as it at least brings them up closer to your eye, requires no height from its contents, and validates small clumps of any particular plant, but it only really manages to mask their lack on context, rather than provide one. The recent move into ‘steppe’ planting shows some promise for the garden placement of smaller bulbs, but you need heaps of them, and the vestiges of my collectors heart (and my relatively empty pocket) usually precludes the purchase of a large number of any one species.

Just as well they provide such singular joy, and by doing so justify (to a reasonable extent) their episodic and essentially spot-planted contribution.


  1. Thank you for that small vignette into your heart and garden Michael. In such a troubled world shared beauty is the true bounty.

  2. Yes! I call my own play patch ‘The Riot’ even though it has a rather formal layout under its totally unstructured planting. It’s the place to plonk the impulsive onesies, to see how how any new acquisitions behave in this difficult place and maybe become my stock plants. It’s a place to hide such guilty pleasures as a deliciously scented by gawky or gaudy hybrid tea that I would not otherwise countenance. It’s a way to say yes to any little frippery – like your tiny bulbs – that takes my fancy. I wish I had made it when I first set spade in this garden rather than waiting 15 years.

    1. Every garden should have one. Must make one myself – behind closed doors, so to speak.
      I have a client who has designated a place for all the plants that have had to go in favour of the big design ideas, but for various (mostly sentimental reasons) can’t be turfed. The entire family calls it ‘Spew Corner’.

  3. Always enjoy a good garden inspired read. I too have ‘spew’ corner but find it is all helped along with lots of green and blue in between to pull it all together. Always interesting to see and hear what you are working on at present Michael.

  4. I always enjoy reading your postings Michael but I really related to your comment “I honestly can’t visit them enough”..At this time of the year with new growth and flowers everywhere I spend far too much of my time looking at everything..the first sweet peas, the lovely, lovely new leaves of the epimediums and their so dainty flowers ..I don’t seem to be able to get enough of looking,looking looking and of course wanting to share with family and friends( who perhaps are not as excited by it all as me!!) ..even to the extent of going out with a torch to show my brother the new plantings I had just done..(he pretended to be fascinated..such a nice brother!)

    1. Surely there’s no such thing as spending far too much time looking at a sweet pea, or an epimedium leaf. And while I’m sure that your brother is nice, as you say, I reckon the favour really came from you. Any brother that is excitedly taken out by his sister with a torch to show him her latest project is one privileged man.

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