tulips: a primer

As I mentioned in the last post, our killing frost was a couple of weekends ago, so the tasks around the farm shifted to winter and spring prep. There are still a handful of cold hardy flowers growing out there, but they haven’t produced any blooms for a while, so they’re staying for soil health more than anything. Today’s tasks included relocating hardy perennials for their overwintering, digging dahlia tubers, replacing all of the landscape fabric that blew off in the Nor’easter the other night, and digging in my 1000 tulip bulbs.

Wow, you’re thinking. 1000 tulip bulbs, you’re thinking. That’s a ton, you’re thinking. Correct, and also not quite. 1000 tulip bulbs is definitely a lot of bulbs. But it’s not a ton. It’s not even close what similar growers have in this year. But my timeline is mine and I’m okay with that in this instance! More than 3 people have said to me today, as I shared photos of my bulbs being tucked in, “That is going to be so beautiful when they are in bloom!” Absolutely right. They would be.

But they will never all be in bloom in that spot.

I always hesitate to write about how this all works because (1) I’m pretty new to it with only 3 years experience and (2) there are so many more experienced people writing about it that I figure the information is already out there. But if that many people said the same thing, maybe it’s worth repeating. Because maybe those people don’t pore over flower farming blogs and books the same way this weirdo does.

So here’s how tulips work, in my very rudimentary way of explaining. Unlike garden tulips (same exact kind of tulip, just planted for a different purpose), which are spread out in a landscape, or clustered artistically in bunches, tulips for cut flower production are planted close together. The colloquial reference is as if they are in an egg carton. They grow quite happily this way because they will only be there for one season. When a tulip is harvested for design or wholesale, it is taken out with the bulb still attached, and only just as the color is starting to show on the tips of the petals. The flower will be still tightly closed and very green. When you take the bulb out with the tulip, you keep it on its food source as long as possible, and the entire stalk, bloom and bulb, can be stored in a cooler or refrigerator for up to a month until it’s ready to use, at which time the bulb will be cut off the stem and composted. The stem will go into water and continue to develop and color up until it’s ready to go into a bouquet. Because harvest of a tulip includes its leaves, there is nothing left on the bulb to regenerate it for the next year, so there is no point to leaving it in the ground to rot. Better to throw it in the compost pile and let all that good stuff go into your winter mulch.

While we’re at it, the tulips that you are buying at the florist or grocery in the off season are harvested this exact same way (but with more pesticides and neurotoxins sprayed on them during growing and harvest). They are loaded on to planes from south and central america mostly, and flown to distribution centers where they are then shipped again around the country by plane or by truck until they get to the retail location. At that point they are processed off the bulb and bunched up for the buyer. So. Much. Fossil fuel use. To get tulips in the off season. So next time you’re at your florist or grocery, please ask them what is in season and what of their stock is locally sourced. If they don’t have any, maybe give them a gentle suggestion or a bit of enthusiasm for locally grown product. It’s all around them. There will be 1000 tulips and 500 fancy pink daffodils right here in our little corner of Maine and I am happy to work with retail buyers!

I saw another grower post something about having 80,000 bulbs show up the other day and I nearly passed out. Not only from the idea of planting them, but the expense of buying them. Farming is no joke. I guess that’s why crop loans have always been a thing. I’ll stick to my 1000 for now. It’s up from last year’s 600, and that’s not nothing!

I’m happy to write about any of this stuff if it’s interesting, so please feel free to comment or send an email if you have questions.

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