Tulip Forcing Update

Hi folks!

I figured that it’s time for a little check in on the tulip operation here. Before I go much further I have to put out another plug for Emily VonTrapp’s tulip/bulb forcing program over in Waitsfield, Vermont. If spending the day on an innovative farm with another grower who loves to figure stuff out sounds amazing, please contact Emily and let her know you’d like information regarding her next workshop. You won’t be disappointed! One thing I appreciate tremendously about her program is that it is not just about showing you what works for her on her farm/nursery. She actually works with you to build a plan to force bulbs successfully at your own place with whatever facilities (or lack thereof) you have when you go home. And then she keeps in touch with you and your classmates to see how you’re doing and offer up advice along the way!

After attending Emily’s workshop last fall, I set a goal to offer our own flowers for Valentine’s Day this year. It seemed a little crazy, but entirely possible given what I’d learned and the plan I came home with. We make use of our “walk-in” CoolBot cooler trailer (Emily has no walk-in cooler) and our basement (Emily uses a heated greenhouse) as our prime growing areas. I mention her situation only to further demonstrate how vastly different our facilities are and how we’re both able to grow tulips. Click here to read the introduction post to tulip forcing on our farm that I wrote back in December.

Anyhow - goal reached! We have tulips blooming, and I wish I had tons more, which is food for thought for next year. As soon as I put them out there to our local retailers, they are gobbled up. And every last stem that was ready for Valentine’s Day was sold. I’m so hungry for the color myself, that I have a hard time saying goodbye to these flowers, but I know they are finding loving homes. And I know that other people need these hopeful spring bunches, too.

What I’ve learned is that in our growing conditions, I’m able to harvest about 3-6 tulips per crate, per day (not that I’m standing over them with my snips or anything!) I suppose if I waited a little longer between harvests, I’d be cutting them all at once or close to it. But I’ve been sending them out the door as quickly as possible. I’m also going to want to make sure I get my bulbs planted closer to the schedule Emily uses to make sure I have more that are ready to go for the blessed February 14th holiday.

So how does this work?

Well— there are some primary factors that play a role in tulip production. Make sure you take advantage of the good information that is out there if you decide to try tulip forcing. Determine how your pricing will look and what our sales outlets will be to insure a profit margin. And lastly- know that you can’t count on everything working out perfectly.

The first consideration is temperature. You need the right temperature for the chilling/rooting period and then the right temperature for the growing period. So you have to figure out how to accomplish that obstacle first. Cold, but not freezing, and then warm, but not too warm. These temps for us this year are 40 degrees followed by 55 degrees. But hold on. You can learn to manipulate the temperature and suspend the growth from the bulb if you store them colder for longer, too. This is how Emily achieves not just an early tulip season, but also a late tulip season. Pretty nifty.

Next - light. Your tulips will need light to grow, but it can be artificial light. If you are already using grow lights or florescent lights or LED lights for seed starting — you might be all set. If you have a heated greenhouse — bam you’re all set, too, as long as you have the first consideration figured out. You might even be all set with a sunny, but cool room at home.

A third major factor is timing. Tulips require a set amount of time to chill or be tricked into thinking they’ve experienced “winter.” This cooling period can be accomplished by your bulb provider if you are willing to purchase pre-chilled bulbs, by you — in your cold storage, or naturally in the ground if you live in a cold climate and are growing a field or garden crop. Each variety of tulip has a minimum, optimum, and maximum number of cold weeks. Length of cooling period affects stem length and the number of days it takes to force a bulb into bloom. Application of these “rules” is pretty important.

A fourth factor is variety. Some tulip varieties force well and some do not. Don’t waste your time trying to force a variety that has been proven not to be up for the job. Emily’s workshop provides students with extensive lists and data on tulip varieties, and an opportunity to purchase some of her favorites during your visit.

One more significant factor (in my opinion) is “rodentia.” Yuck. Gross. I know. But rodents can do significant damage to a tulip crop in a very short amount of time. They love to dig down and eat the bulbs in the winter. Our outdoor crop actually seems to be protected a bit from that problem because the ground freezes solid not long after we plant, and we use beds that are surrounded by open beds, away from landscape fabric and other places the critters like to hide. Other rodents (squirrels, I’ve heard) like to chomp off the tops as the tulip plants push up through the ground in the spring. Wherever you decide to grow your tulips - in the ground, in crates, in your cellar or in a greenhouse — you’ll need to have a plan to keep critters at bay. We set lots of traps in the cellar and we give our two kitties hours of “play” time down there.

Now - here’s where a workshop on bulb forcing really comes in handy: the issues that come up if the factors above are not met well can be tricky to diagnose. And it is so handy to have a mentor lined up to help you through. For example, ‘tulip bud abortion’ can be caused by long, dry storage, storage at a temperature that is too warm, or exposure to ethylene gas (released during decomposition). Bud abortion by ethylene gas can also be caused by Fusarium - a disease that every serious tulip grower needs to be aware of. The Fusarium fungus itself can release ethylene, and thereby damage a crop. How do you identify Fusarium? Telltale signs: a white powdery appearance on the outside of a bulb. A bulb that feels unusually lightweight or hollow. Or a bulb that shows signs of gummosis, a gummy clear to brownish substance that can harden on the outside of a bulb or between the scales on the inside of a bulb. If this fungus gets into your growing space, it will affect tulip development for tulips planted in the same areas for the next seven years. That is why many flower farmers rotate tulip crops through beds on a seven year cycle.

So, now that I’m writing this all out, I’m wondering if there is a product or invention that can help with ethylene removal from an enclosed space (like my cellar)? Yep — Check this out: ‘BluApple’ Ethylene Gas Absorber. Available from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. I’m curious…. Ooh— and other similar products can be found right in your grocery store, alongside your produce. Ever wonder what that pad at the bottom of your raspberry container does? It’s there to absorb ethylene and help keep your fruit fresher, longer.

I’ve shared a lot of information here. If you’re thinking about tulip forcing on a scale that will allow for sales, I highly recommend investing in more education for yourself and your business, especially since there are lower profit margins with tulips than most other cut flower crops. If you’re not ready for that kind of scale, why not try forcing just a few next winter and see what happens?

Please share comments and questions. I’ll do my best to help or steer you in the right direction.