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Great Gardening: 'Tiptoe through the tulips' in the Netherlands

I have been just two days in the Netherlands, but how suitable that the first excursion from the river boat took us to a tulip farm. This trip on Ama Waterways will take my band of 15 travelers to visit historic villages and the city of Gouda, to learn about building a country half below sea level, and to see windmills and a spring flower show called Floralia.

The trip’s theme is Tulip Time in Holland so a family run 100-acre farm gave us the right perspective. As usually happens when people experience any form of agriculture, we will never look at the crop – tulip bulbs – the same way again.

A year on the tulip farm

With 20 employees in winter and 35 in summer, this is how the farm manages to produce 8 million tulips in one season:

April: This month we would normally see one-color fields of blooming tulips, but this year is different. Their winter was extremely cold, to the extent that there was ice skating on the canal in Amsterdam, Hans Brinker style. (Our tour guide Angelique reported that ice skating was common in her childhood, but her grown son had never experienced it.)

As a result, tulips are late to open. When they do so, step one is to scout the field for viruses. A virus shows up as a streak of the wrong color, such as a red streak in a white bulb. If not caught, an entire crop can be jeopardized. Spot treatments of herbicide are used on any infected bulb plant.

Later in April: Once the crop shows color, enormous cutting machines pass through the fields, removing all the flower heads. Any shorter flower heads not caught by machine are cut by hand.

June: Water them all as needed.

July: The harvest begins. Since much of their soil is clay that would stick to the bulbs, they are planted between nets. Harvesting is done with a massive tractor that lifts and rolls the nets containing the large bulbs – about 20 million last summer. The net system allows three employees to harvest 5 acres in one day.

August onward: Bulbs are kept in cold storage until they go to auction. Many will be the superior bulbs you will buy for fall planting and a spring bloom next year.

Every month has its tasks for the farm workers. Some 80,000 black bulb boxes must be washed. Eight million bulbs are planted by hand for cold storage. Between Christmas and April, 7 to 8 million plants grow in the greenhouses for cut flower sales – 10 tulips per bunch. The rest of the farm is also planted with sugar beets and other cover crops, because a field can only be used for the intensive bulb production one out of six years.

Focus on green

Sustainability is valued and essential everywhere, but especially in a country that works so hard just to maintain its land above water. On this farm, everything is recycled and managed for environmental quality. Millions of discarded bulbs and their foliage go to produce bio gases. Used sand goes to road construction. Discarded compost is steam-cleaned and sold for consumer use, and 1,500 solar panels heat some of the greenhouses. Used nets go to a company that produces polar fleece clothing.

The Netherlands is serious about environmental protection. We passed a huge Microsoft center that produces enormous amounts of heat and CO2 that is sent to heat greenhouses. Wind turbines are everywhere. Earthquakes have occurred that are attributed to natural gas production, so that the government has mandated an end to all natural gas dependency by 2040.

It’s time to prepare for the next tours, but I will share more of my time in bulb country with you next week. I can’t wait for Keukenhof gardens – and more gouda.

*Pick up some pruning tips from Sally Cunningham's column from last week.

Great Gardening: You can prune. Just learn how and when.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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