Tulips are our first crop of the season and in typical Bindweed fashion we plant big, between 20,000 to 30,000 bulbs each year. The first blooms are ready in early spring, before Easter, long before the frozen snow covered ground outside has thawed and we continually have tulips available through Mother's Day. We extend the typical tulip season of three or four weeks to ten or twelve, providing a steady supply for an equally steady demand. We do this through succession planting
Even if you don’t succession crop you can lengthen your harvest season by choosing early, mid-season and late varieties, moving from Impression Series (early season bloomers) to Maureen, Avignon and other late blooming tulips so that bloom times come over a period of three to four weeks. If you have a cooler, you can keep late bloomers yet another week or even two so your market window swells.
To make an even longer season that lasts over ten weeks you need a roll-up hoophouse and a greenhouse to move the market period back. Since tulips need a 14 week period of cool temperatures you’ll want to make sure the ground temperatures in your house stay below 45 degrees for that long, so take soil temperature readings during the winter before you decide to plant. If you live in zone 5 this shouldn’t be a problem, but warmer areas might want to check, as the heat generated by a sealed greenhouse might keep soil too warm to stimulate blooming.
Tulips planted on our farm in late September to late October will invariably begin emerging under plastic about February first. We turn on the heat at that time to make sure leaves don’t freeze, but we don’t heat above freezing as we like to keep energy use low. Six weeks from the moment we start heating the first tulip blooms. If you aren’t afraid to use fuel for heating, you can raise your minimum temperatures to 45 or even 50 and get tulips to bloom 4 weeks after emergence.
An unheated hoophouse with rollup sides provides an area to bridge the gap between early greenhouse tulips and those planted outside. Hoophouse tulips won’t begin emerging quite as soon as those planted at the same time in a greenhouse and will grow more slowly. They’ll bloom as the greenhouse tulips finish if you’ve chosen early and late varieties carefully so that late greenhouse tulip blooms move into early hoophouse flowers. The hoophouse tulips, since they aren’t protected with heat on cold nights, may suffer some damage to the leaves and as a consequence may be more susceptible to fungal problems on dying foliage, but we’ve seen them take thirteen degrees with no damage to the bloom. If you expect a nasty night, harvest any tulips showing color as these are more susceptible to damage. The hoophouse tulips should finish blooming just as your outside tulips enter the harvest period.
You can get tulips even earlier by buying pre-cooled tulips, but we’ve never wanted to begin our season that early so we haven’t tried it. The winter tulip market may be just as good as the spring market, particularly if you choose to target Valentine’s Day, so if you’re up to winter sales give it a try.
If you have any questions check out Part II in our book, Season Expansion has loads of information on extending your season. If you have specific questions feel free to ask us, you'll find all our contact information on the contact tab.
Few cut flower crops match the tulip’s boasts: universal market appeal, quick return on investment, low input requirements, and virtually no pest pressures. A French tulip bulb costing a quarter and planted in October fetches a dollar to a dollar and a half in March when harvested, making it a much better financial investment than buying Enron stock or pursuing a philosophy degree.
While tulips, to a casual flower buyer and even to many designers, seem omnipresent in supermarkets and flower shops, the wholesaler industry has yet to inundate the market with French type tulips, varieties that dwarf commonly offered varieties in bloom size and stem length. Most consumers, confronted by a French tulip for the first time, express an instant wonder that translates immediately into purchase. Who could resist a spring flower as big as your hand?
A French tulip bulb is only a few cents more than a tulip bulb, so why don’t big suppliers forego the smaller for the more desirable French type? It may be that the flower’s size makes it more fragile during transport and bulkier (thus costlier) to ship, making it a perfect match for local growers able to handle product more gently for shorter distances and times.
When we tell people we plant twenty-five thousand tulips every fall, they inevitably think of their own planting experience: dig a hole, plant a bulb, cover it, repeat. No wonder they’re amazed at the number, we’d be amazed too if we actually had to plant that way. Luckily we use a more efficient method, instead of digging twenty five thousand little holes we make four big ones—each three feet wide by 85 feet long, six inches deep, holding close to six thousand bulbs.
Tulips rarely encounter insect damage since they grow in cold weather and bloom before pests flourish, but like all bulb crops they’re susceptible to soil-borne fungal disease, bacteria and viruses. To provide a semi-sterile environment for the bulbs in order to limit root problems we put a shallow layer of potting soil in the trenches before planting, then cover the bulbs again with the same sterile medium to ward off disease. Occasionally we even dip bulbs before planting in Root Shield or fungicide, depending on how vivid our memories are of the last disease outbreak.
After planting and covering the tulips shallowly we scatter some basic fertilizer on the soil since there’s a lot of bulbs with a lot of growth to undertake, then thoroughly soak the medium by hand with a water wand (sometimes peat based media wets poorly and slowly so check as you go by sticking a finger through the medium—you may be astonished that what appears almost muddy is desert dry beneath the surface), then lay drip tape, three or four lines to a bed, turn on the water, after which we cover up completely with the same soil we dug to make the trench. Filling the drip lines limits how much they can shift during the back-fill process.
We irrigate heavily after planting (four hours) since the media drains well and the bulbs require a lot of water, then check in two weeks and often irrigate again. Every two to four weeks through the winter we give another short irrigation, depending on conditions—outdoor tulips likely require no irrigation through the winter in cold climates like ours, while those in houses utilize moisture due to the warmer soils so need replenishment. Fourteen weeks from planting, more or less, greenery emerges in the greenhouse and the heater gets switched on, the thermostat set just high enough to prevent new leaves from freezing. In six weeks the first tulip will flower.
The Deadhead 2017 Informal Book Tour (Meandering Northwestern Swing) kicks off October 14 with a stop in Missoula, Montana and continues northwest to Mt. Vernon, Washington, slips down to Oregon and all parts therein through the following weeks. If you’d like us to stop at your farm (or farm-in-progress, or even farm-in-imagination) we’d like to see you, too, so drop us a note.
If you’re on the way (within reason) we’re definitely up for a visit. If you're not in this area but would like us to consult with you about flower farming, we’re happy to skype, email and are open to a fee-based site visit to help defray our traveling costs, just give us a call or drop a line on the contact page. Hope to see you soon!