Tulip Top is one of those places I've vaguely thought about visiting for a few years, but never quite mustered the enthusiasm to make it happen. It always seemed like a bit of a tourist trap off the highway into Canberra, with its giant billboard and kitschy name.
But this year a girlfriend suggested a school holiday visit with the kids, and another garden-loving friend posted some gorgeous photos on instagram - through her lens it looked less cliche-tourist-exhibit, more gorgeous cold-climate garden in full spring blossom. I figured that it was worth a visit for inspiration, even if artistically-planned tulip displays really aren't my thing (and are free to see just down the road at Floriade right now).
I'm pleased to say that my fear of underwhelm was tossed aside as soon as we got past the carpark. This garden is extraordinary! Seen from above, it is a canopy of deciduous trees, pines and conifers set into an otherwise totally unremarkable landscape. ("Unremarkable" in so far as that it is pretty typical for the NSW southern tablelands, in spring, after a long dry spell.)
But just down that purple-hued slope covered with rosemary (and bees!) is a dreamy cold-climate rural garden, in full spring glory.
The tulips are certainly a feature, along with other bulbs and short-lived flowering annuals, but rather than being the only thing to see (as at Floriade), they are merely a fun seasonal display. They actually play second-fiddle to the extraordinary array of flowering ornamental trees in the garden.
Not a single kitschy "flowers as art" display to be found - all the tulips were neatly tucked under deciduous trees, or formed into raised beds to divide the garden into smaller spaces for families to picnic and kids to run amok.
Our kids picked a picnic spot up the slope, hidden in a grove of crab apples, and it honestly felt like we were the only people there despite it being a super busy day in the garden. What a well-designed garden, that so many people can all enjoy it without feeling on top of each other.
And the blossom! Oh the blossom! Cue the gratuitous crab apple blossom porn in 3..2...1...
Another thing that really appealed to me about Tulip Top was that whilst exotic ornamentals were obviously the stars of the garden, they were so neatly mixed in with the occasional gum tree. Rather than completely erasing native trees (or trying to hide them), a few beautiful old eucalypts were incorporated into the main part of the garden, and they looked so wonderful included in this way. I adore eucalypts, and while they can be hazardous if allowed to grow too close to structures, I still want to be able to celebrate them at Widgetopia rather than build a garden that entirely ignores where we are located. Exotic trees and shrubs are shade-giving, bee-friendly, protectively fire-resistant and just plain glorious, but we live in Australia and have so many beautiful native trees and shrubs that can be worked into a mixed garden without losing those features. Tulip Top does a lovely job of that, I think.
Anyhoo, suffice to say that Tulip Top well and truly exceeded my (granted, very low) expectations. If you live in the Canberra region it is totally worth the $16 entry fee (free for all kids). And if you are heading down for Floriade, definitely pop off the highway to see it - I would gamble that you will like it more than our city's famous tulip festival.