Gardeners are always thinking ahead, not least when the days shorten and toiling in the garden holds as much appeal as chewing a brick.

With spring being the next season when you can expect a burst of vivid floral colour, it's tulips which should be grabbing our attention now.

There's a wonderful choice of tulips, from the more traditional cup-shaped ones to the lesser-seen species types such as Tulipa humilis, whose flowers – white, pale pink, crimson or purple – open to a star shape in the sun. More unusually, some have a steel blue blotch at the base. Another good choice is the low-growing Tulipa tarda with fragrant star-shaped flowers, yellow with white tips.

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Against this strong competition, lily- flowered tulips always win top prize for me. This medium-sized group has the most subtly shaped flowers, their long, often slender petals culminating in a fine, dagger-shaped point. The outsides of the petals may be one colour, as in one of my favourites, Cistula. The overall impression is pale lemon, with a slightly darker edge. I always go for yellow flowers, but I confess to being captivated by Burgundy's deep claret. The soft purple petals of the much taller (70cm) Claudia are set off by white edges, while Marilyn is white, prettily flamed with pink.

Lily-flowered tulips are similar to Turkish tulips, once all the rage in the Ottoman Empire. In the 16th century, Suleyman the Magnificent even had his cream gowns embroidered with the tulip. Designers, artists and illuminators frequently used this imperial flower in his studios. The craze for tulips continued throughout the 1500s and beyond. The English traveller, George Sandys, wrote: "You cannot step abroad without you shall be presented by the Dervishes and Janizaries with tulips and trifles."

Sultan Selim the Blond (1524-74) was just as mad on tulips. He ordered the Sheriff of Aziz to supply 50,000 for his gardens and later required a further 300,000 from Kefe. In 1582, the tulip figured prominently in a 52-day feast to celebrate the circumcision of Sultan Murad III's heir. Miniatures show gardeners carrying model gardens, made with wax or marzipan. Needless to say, the borders were crammed with tulips.

This craze peaked during the reign of Sultan Ahmed III, whose son-in law laid on tulip festivals for the monarch and his five wives. In an open-air theatre, tulips were arranged in pyramids and towers with bird cages and lanterns suspended between them. At the sound of a cannon, the sultan's harem was paraded out by a party of eunuchs to join the fun. The guests, dressed in clothes to match the tulips, ran the risk of being set ablaze as thousands of tortoises ambled around with candles on their shells.

This kind of extravagance led to the sultan losing his throne in a revolt in 1730, and the Turkish tulip sadly fell with its monarch. No specimens now exist and we have to rely on illustrations in a Book Of The Tulip, probably compiled during Ahmed's reign.

The sultans cultivated fields of tulips, but container growing is our best, albeit less grand, alternative. This lets you put your choice specimens in a sheltered spot during severe weather and take them away after flowering.

If you buy bulbs at a garden centre, select ones that are good and firm, ideally soon after they appear on the shelves, but you get much greater choice by mail order and you'll find they're reliably fresh. Order soon for the varieties you want.

Like all bulbs, tulips need good drainage. Put a layer of pottery shards or pebbles at the bottom of the pot and use coarse-textured general-purpose compost, mixing in grit. As an extra precaution, place pot feet or bricks beneath the pot to let water drain away. Choose somewhere sunny to show it off.

It's fun designing a colour scheme for the bulbs. Choose one variety per pot or mix different colours and shapes to complement or contrast. If you have several pots, it's best to select one variety per pot and then arrange all the pots for best effect.

Plant tulip bulbs deeply, preferably three times the height of the bulb (8cm at least) which will encourage bulbs to put energy into producing flowering stems rather than bulbils. Put the bulbs close together, but not touching each other or the pot edge. The more you squeeze in, the better the display.

Take this further by layering. You'll need a 40cm-deep pot. Select two varieties of tulips – long and medium-short stemmed ones. The short-stemmed variety should flower first. Cover the shards or pebbles at the base of the pot with compost and plant the long-stemmed bulbs. The bulbs should be 30cm below the final surface of the compost. Cover the bulbs with 5-6cm of compost, plant the short-stemmed bulbs then fill with compost.

This layering gives you a longer flowering period. When the first flush is over, cut back the stems and enjoy the next display. n

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