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A Room of One's Own: tulip specialist Polly Nicholson shares the beauty and industry of her glasshouse

Perhaps more than any other flower, tulips have – for centuries – possessed a peculiar power to beguile. Grower Polly Nicholson is no stranger to the ineffable lure of these lustrous, dancing stems. As custodian of the National Collection of Historic Tulips, she is a fierce protector of these flowers, having created a living museum from her country garden in Wiltshire. Here, she shares her love of this labour-intensive obsession

Nell Card
Elliot Sheppard
A Room of One's Own: tulip specialist Polly Nicholson shares the beauty and industry of her glasshouse

In her book, The Tulip, the British horticultural writer, Anna Pavord, describes a phantasmagorical scene that took place over 300 years ago in the Ciragan gardens in Istanbul. It was during the reign of Sultan Ahmed III, when the Turks’ obsession with tulips had reached its zenith:

“Music filled the grounds where the Sultan’s five wives took the air,” Pavord writes. “One of the courtyards … was turned into an open-air theatre; thousands of tulip flowers were mounted on pyramids and towers, with lanterns and cages of singing birds hung between them. Tulips filled the flowerbeds, each variety marked with a label of filigree silver. At the signal from a cannon, the doors of the harem were opened and the Sultan’s mistresses were led out into the garden by eunuchs carrying torches. Guests had to dress in clothes that matched the tulips (and avoid setting themselves on fire by brushing against candles carried on the backs of hundreds of tortoises that ambled the grounds)”.  

It’s a scene that the specialist organic grower, Polly Nicholson – keeper of the National Collection of Historic Tulips with Plant Heritage – calls to mind. “I keep thinking I should have some sort of tulip festival,” she says, standing in her glasshouse in the grounds of her country garden in Wiltshire. “I could bring Apple the tortoise out of hibernation and mock-up the Sultan’s display …”  

Polly has been picking posies since she was a child, but her passion for growing took root in 2008 when she moved to Blacklands – a Grade-II listed Georgian manor house named after the six acres of dark, alluvial soil on which it stands. She had recently switched careers, swapping her role as an antiquarian book specialist at Sotheby’s for a horticultural diploma at the Chelsea Physic Garden. The move to Wilshire would provide fertile testing ground for her newfound skills.  

Overwhelmed by the hungry, herbaceous boarders, Polly began burying bulbs in a deep bed nearest the house. Come spring, a “jelly tot mix” of tulips confirmed her passion for planting. Gradually, she established Bayntun Flowers, an organic cut-flower business. But it was a small, burnished bloom named ‘Dom Pedro’ that set her on a separate course. “The first historic tulip I ever bought, ‘Dom Pedro’ has a lot to answer for,” writes Polly in her recently published book, The Tulip Garden. This rare, 1911 cultivar “kick-started the habit of a lifetime.” 

Polly had been inspired by the historic tulips grown by the renowned garden designer, Arne Maynard, who had helped her reinstate the walled garden at Blacklands. She has described ‘Dom Pedro’ as “unlike any other tulip I had grown, with a patina comparable to an item of antique furniture that had been lovingly polished by successive generations of owners.” The depth and lustre of these diminutive, dancing stems propelled her on a pilgrimage to Hortus Bulborom, a living museum of endangered tulips near Amsterdam. On her return, she set about creating her own living museum – “a protection league for endangered varieties that might otherwise become extinct.”  

“Museums are sort of in my blood,” Polly explains. Her great-grandfather established George Bayntun of Bath, a renowned bookshop and bindery that is now overseen by her brother, Edward. (He is currently crafting a leather box for her loose-leaf herbarium, the pages of which Polly painstakingly presses and preserves at her dining room table.) “In some ways,” she says, opening the door to her glasshouse, “the gardens at Blacklands are like a museum – except tulips take an awful lot more looking after than books …”  

The west-facing glasshouse runs along a warm edge of the walled garden and was designed 12 years ago by Foster and Pearson who manufacture glasshouses to original Victorian designs and specifications. (They built the glasshouses at both the Chelsea Physic Garden and West Dean College in Chichester.) “It looks like it has been here forever,” Polly notes.  

The structure is divided into two sections: the first area is where Polly grows fruit, vegetables and flowers that enliven her own home; the second, warmer environment is where the more labour-intensive growing takes place. “All our seeds are sown in our workshop before being brought in here in trays,” Polly explains. “When they’ve germinated, they get pricked out into individual cells. From there, they are put into cold frames before being planted out in the field or beds elsewhere. Everything I do is very small scale and very labour intensive because we are completely organic – but all very loved.”   

It’s March and the two raised beds that flank the ornate, grated iron walkway are filled with winter’s last edible leaves: peppery mizuna and cavolo nero. “I let these go to seed at this time of year,” Polly explains. “We cut the stems and use them in our floristry so that nothing is wasted.” An old wooden wine box bristling with spinach is placed on the edge of the bed. “There’s less than a packet of seeds in here,” Polly explains, running her hand across the sparkling crop. “For £2, I can harvest masses of salad leaves that will continue to grow all year round.” A few bobbly brown heads of Ranunculus ‘Elegance Cioccolato’ are interspersed with the edibles. When they finish flowering, tomatoes and aubergines will take their place.   

Against the wall grow two flat peach trees that have just shed their blossom. Each year, Polly wages war with the squirrels who, without fail, arrive under cover of darkness and bite into each of the flat fruits. Above, a mature grapevine produces huge, mottled, burgundy and green leaves that Polly plucks and uses as compostable placemats when dining outside, sat on black sheepskins from her own flock of Hebrideans.  

Antique planters are another of Polly’s passions. Piglet troughs and vintage foundry vessels have been filled with a combination of succulents from Tresco and tight clusters of delicate, pointed species tulips. “These are the tulips that haven’t been bred into the big, beefy tulips you might buy at a flower market today,” she explains. “They are what you’d find growing in the wild if you were walking the steppes of Kyrgyzstan” – a destination very much at the top of her bucket list.   

Polly has been growing species tulips for a decade and has, over the past few years, noticed an increased interest in them. “I think that chimes with where we are environmentally,” she suggests. “Growers want something more sustainable than simply buying these beautiful, big fat bulbs from Holland every year, planting them in the ground, digging them up, throwing them away and starting again the next year. Species tulips have staying power,” she continues. “You can leave the bulbs in the soil all year, wait for them to finish flowering, then snap the heads off and let them die back completely. The bulb then reabsorbs all that energy to make a new bulb the following year.”  

Species tulips have been planted throughout the gardens at Blacklands – in pots, in beds and “naturalised” throughout the meadow grass and woodland areas where they are simply left to fend for themselves year after year. “Personally, I find them more appealing and less ostentatious than the big tulips we’re used to seeing in municipal planters,” says Polly, who admits to having “a very strong, very instinctive sense of what I like and what I don’t like. Anything magenta is banned. And I’m not good with papal purple. I suppose I seek out the unusual,” she reflects. “That’s the joy of living here. I can completely indulge that.”  

Further Reading

Polly Nicholson’s book, The Tulip Garden: Growing and Collecting Species, Rare and Annual Varieties is published by Phaidon.

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