Tulips in the rain

I do love a good roadtrip, though an elderly Mx5 can be ‘interesting’ to drive in the rain, with its ability to fog up inside within seconds.

Lou holding court at the plant sale

Ulting Wick is said to be one of those gems rightly occupying a place on any gardening bucket list. Philippa Burrough has built it from scratch, using black boarded Essex barns to set off the main planting. It’s open a handful of times each year to raise money for the National Garden Scheme. Lovely Lou Nicholls, who has acres of plant-knowledge crammed into a tiny caffeine-fuelled frame, moved to Ulting Wick last year to be its Head Gardener and I wanted to see if her new playground is as good as the glossy pics in magazines. The open day was a perfect opportunity.

I make no apology, this is going to be something of an open fan letter.

Even in the rain, which was plentiful last Friday, the gardens are outstanding. Philippa’s design and planting over many careful years has created something very special. Every spot has something to look at or towards. The impressive compost heap is in a massive wildflower meadow. At the back of the garden, over by the chickens, a climbing rose has been trained into a crumbling tree. When it flowers it must be stunning. Though I wouldn’t want to be the one pruning it, the thorns are equally impressive!

I was there really to see the tulips. Every November Philippa (and now assisted by Lou) plants 10,000 bulbs in beds and pots all through the garden. Lou says Philippa is incredibly nifty with the bulb planter and you have to be quick a) to keep up and b) keep your hands intact! Even with skilled niftiness it has to take weeks of effort. All to be dug up after flowering to make room for dahlias, cosmos, bananas and a shiny new riot of summer colour. I can’t tell you how much it would make my heart sink to realise, a few short months after planting the ruddy things, I had to dig out 10,000 bulbs from sticky soil.

While they are absolutely everywhere, the main tulip groupings are in the box-edged beds of the formal garden. Four differing en masse colour schemes with a circular fifth at the centre, and painstakingly sharp edges on the box hedging to offer a clear framework. The black barns provide a wonderful backdrop to the colours, but there is warm brick and pale wall to provide contrast too, and draw your eyes onwards to different parts of the garden – the lawns, the little cottage, the vegetable garden (which is too small in my book, but then I am predominently an allotmenteer so my views are predictable!), a white garden, a pink garden, the gorgeous bed at the front of the house and the woods and stream beyond.

Around the garden, in trays in the two greenhouses and poking up in the beds, there is promise of the next shift. Ferns are at the fiddlehead and crozier stage, which I love, but it was too actively soggy to risk my camera. Round the back of the house are sat, cuddled against its walls, pot after pot of dahlias, grouped by variety and colour as far as my prying eyes could make out. I particularly like the water transport system tucked away with them.

I also like the fact that not everything looks magazine-ready. Complete perfection makes me nervous. There are ‘work in progress’ roped off areas, big groups of pots with ‘not for sale’ warning signs on them. The wildflower meadow is beautifully unkempt. The workshop and tool barn are tidy, but clearly working spaces with scribbled wishlists, higgeldy pots and tubs stacked in barrows. The woodland has some planting in it but is broadly just getting on with being woodland and these areas serve as restful contrast and provide space for my head to process what I’ve been looking at.

Ulting Wick is open again on the August Bank Holiday Monday. More information here. It is well worth the trip. The cake on open days is also splendid. I recommend snaffling the chocolate Guinness cake if there is a piece to be had. It disappears in seconds.

There were whispers of a film crew coming this week…stand by your screens for better shots than I could take in the rain!


Categories: Diary 2018

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12 replies

  1. Amazing tulips and amazing photos – what do they do will all the bulbs after they dig them up? I hope they get reused by someone at least – seems a waste to only see that beauty once.


    • I was told some might be given away but most will be burned because the risk of tulip viruses is too high to keep them. It is sad, but if I were growing on that scale I wouldn’t risk it either. Plus it means new varieties can be chosen each year.


      • That’s sad – at least give them away then you don’t risk the virus in their garden. Small gardens can put them in pots next year. You are right – mine rot/squirrels attack sometimes so I get to choose new colours each year


  2. I so want to visit Ulting Wick. I was meant to go last autumn, but a family emergency cancelled my holiday. Now I want to go in Spring as well as Autumn! Wonderful blog. You do yourself a disservice, I think the pictures are great despite all the rain.

    BTW: do you know that the varieties of orange and purple tulips together are (in last block of 4)?


    • Thank you, lovely of you to say so. Damp photography is hard! I don’t know what the tulips are, but if you ask Philippa/Lou they are the ones in the veg beds. It was too wet to poke around looking at labels much.

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  3. I’ve been there once, in September a couple of years ago. It was a hot day, the lake looked glorious, the gardens breathtaking and the cake was superb. It’s well worth going back at that time. I’ve never seen the tulips though – hope Lou has good back muscles for taking out all those bulbs (and putting a new lot back in the autumn!)