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Top Four Cut Flowers Series: Tulips

Tulips have been incredibly important to our business, Schell Farm Gardens, since the very beginning. I can still remember the fall of 2018, when I planted a mix of a couple hundred tulip bulbs, and I was worried that I had planted too many.

A few months later, I realized I hadn’t planted nearly enough! Each year, I’ve gradually increased the number of bulbs that I plant, and this fall, I’m up to 4,000.

(Here I am in the spring of 2019 with my first tulip crop-- a little bit younger and thinner, but lots to learn!)

Over the last few seasons, I've seen a common trend: some people are puzzled about why tulips get planted in the fall instead of the spring. The answer? They require a chilling period in order to produce a flower, and Wisconsin winters provide just that.

Plant tulip bulbs about 6 inches deep anytime in the fall before the ground freezes. My goal is always to have them in before Halloween. Then just cover them up (and pray the voles don’t eat them over the winter!), and wait.

One of my favorite things about tulips is that they fit so nicely into the planting schedule right around everything else. I love how right when the annuals are getting frosted and finishing up, the tulips are there reminding me that the season isn’t over– in fact, for them, it’s just beginning! Since we treat tulips as annuals, they can get planted in the fall into a flower bed that just finished blooming– like where marigolds or zinnias just were– and in the spring, those same tulips will be up and pulled out in time to plant something else there again– like sunflowers or cosmos. In that way, I don’t need any extra space to plant them– they just share the space in the off-season.

Maybe think of it as letting your friends stay for free at your summer cabin during the wintertime. :)

But, wait! Did you just say that you pull the tulips out in the spring? Like bulb and all?

And there it is: the most commonly-asked burning question about how we grow tulips for cut flower production! For many, it seems unnecessary, inefficient, and expensive to pull them– bulb and all– in the spring, just to replant new bulbs in the fall. Most people wonder why.

The short answer: If you’re growing tulips for cuts, there are SEVERAL good reasons to pull them and keep the bulb attached. And here they are:

  1. Variety: Many of the fancy doubles and parrot type tulips (the ones that always sell out first at the market!) don’t perennialize very well anyway. They have been bred for cut flower production, focusing on traits such as stem length, bud size, and vase life, not the ability to regenerate and come back year after year. That means that if left in the ground, they are likely to die out quickly, or they may come back with foliage only. They may flower again, but with smaller buds and shorter/fewer stems.

  2. Bud size: New bulbs shipped to you in the fall will typically produce one, nice-sized flower. After that first year, the bulb will naturally reproduce and “baby bulbs” will appear attached to the parent bulb. What that usually means is that next year, instead of getting one, big flower, you may get two or three mediocre to small flowers. In your landscape, that usually doesn't matter, and most don’t notice. In a vase on your dining room table, bud size makes a big difference!

  3. Stem length: When you’re selling flowers for bouquets, a long stem is key. When you pull a tulip, you find that several inches of stem is underground. For many types of tulips, these extra inches of length are necessary for a nice, tall bouquet.

  4. Storage: This is, for me, the key reason to pull tulips with the bulbs attached. If caught at just the right stage of maturity, tulips can be pulled, bulb attached, and stored dry in a cooler for several days or weeks. For us, this is vital, with Mother’s Day being such an important flower holiday, and Wisconsin springs being so inconsistent and sometimes fickle. We need a little wiggle-room with the timing of our tulip crop, and the ability to store them temporarily is a huge part of our success.

Now– a secret confession. I too struggled with the idea of pulling all bulbs when we first started, and for the first few seasons, I intentionally left some bulbs in the ground to see what might happen. In my experience, the doubles and parrots really struggled and either didn’t come back at all, or came back with just foliage (no flower), or maybe one or two small flowers. For us-- not worth the space. We have other, more productive things that could be planted there. For someone who just enjoys tulips in the landscape, it might be worth a try.

The only types that did okay with leaving the bulbs in the ground to produce again next year were the Darwin types. These are your classic-looking tulips. They are generally tall enough that we can cut them above the bottom set of leaves, and although the buds are smaller than the first year they are planted, they are still big enough to be useful. For us, they are not enough to sustain our tulip production– we still have to rely on fresh bulbs each fall for the bulk of our stems– but it is nice to have a few patches of perennial tulips to fall back on if we need to mix them in.

Aaaaand the second burning question: But can’t you just replant the same bulbs in the fall? Why do you have to buy new bulbs each year?

I think it pains people to hear that all bulbs get composted in the spring. (I know it was hard for my father-in-law to watch me throw them over the fence!) But the reason is actually quite simple: those bulbs are unable to produce a flower again UNLESS they remain in the ground, with access to water, attached to green foliage (at least one set of leaves), which have the opportunity to photosynthesize for 4-8 weeks following harvest. Those weeks after harvest are critical for any bulb to regenerate and put energy back into the bulb for next year’s flower.

Since we have so many reasons to pull the bulbs at harvest, using them again next year is out of the question. I mean, they could be replanted. But it sure seems like a lot of work for a bulb that’s not prepared/equipped to produce well.

So there you have it! Your burning questions about cut flower tulips— answered!

If you have tulips planted in your yard or around your home, I’m sure you have a beautiful spring show every year. When planted with that purpose, they are perfect to be left to do their thing and return on their own each season. Tulips planted for cuts, on the other hand, have a different purpose, and different process. Either way– tulips are definitely one of the comforts of spring after a long, cold winter.

Do you have tulips planted in your landscape or garden? If you don’t, there’s still time to plant before winter sets in! Trust me-- you will thank yourself in May.

Be well-- and thanks for reading!



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