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.