We set a goal to see flowers blooming for Valentine’s Day, and I’m excited to share news of how we did it and how you might learn to force bulbs in winter, too.
So here is a little peak behind the scenes. Warning- it isn’t glamorous. This is farm living, folks! I feel a little like I’m putting my underwear out there for everyone to see. This set up is all function, so read on if that is your kind of thing. In the summer, we store our cut flowers in a modified CarryAll trailer. It is about 5x5x8ft - the sort of small trailer you can pull behind a truck. We’re quickly outgrowing the space, but it served us well the first few years.
During my first season, the trailer served 2 purposes. It was our walk-in cooler and my delivery vehicle for large orders and farmers market goods. I pulled it behind our family SUV. Now that I have a delivery van, the cooler sits semi-permanently on our property and acts as temperature-controlled storage (a “walk-in cooler”) all the time.
In the summer, a Coolbot-regulated window air conditioner and spray foam insulation keep everything cool- down to 34 degrees if we want. My challenge in the winter is to maintain the same sort of temperatures in the cooler. In the Adirondacks, that means my focus has to turn from cooling to heating- but not too much heating!
I’m investing this season in figuring out how to force tulip bulbs so that I can provide customers with flowers during the darker, colder months of the year. Emily Von Trapp’s workshop provided the background info. and support I needed to get started. The next step has been figuring out how to make my property’s limited infrastructure work for the job at hand. I need to be able to keep my bulbs around 40 degrees until I want to warm them up and force them to bloom - in my cellar of all places! With Emily’s help, I now have a plan that should work.
Anyhow. I first attempted to prevent the cooler from getting too cold by putting a very small space heater inside set at the lowest setting. Even at that setting it ran up temperatures that were too high. Next, I considered moving all the crates of bulbs to my cellar during the coldest nights. After shuffling a few around, I realized there had to be a better way.
A quick google search for, I think it was, “heater to keep things from freezing” turned up a suggestion in a forum somewhere for the Thermo Cube. It’s an outlet plug that turns devices of up to 120 volts on and off when a minimum temperature around 35 degrees Fahrenheit is reached and a maximum around 45 degrees is reached. That range is pretty close to perfect for tulip rooting/cold storage. Some folks use them in their home with lights attached so that neighbors or house sitters will be alerted to cold temps and possible freezing pipes when they are away on vacation. Others rig them up in chicken coops or small animal enclosures to provide warmth or prevent frozen water bowls during the winter. I picked mine up at a Tractor Supply Store. You can also buy them online. The Thermo Cube is a “thermostatically-controlled outlet,” in case you decide to shop around. There are other, more expensive and more precise options out there, too.
Right now, a Thermo Cube is giving me cool root cellar space that I wouldn’t otherwise have at minimal cost (they run about $15) + a small ceramic heater. Why bother with managing this relatively small space in the winter? Well- by my count, I can fit about 55 crates of planted tulip bulbs in there for their necessary chilling/rooting period. That’s about 3,575 tulips if I decided to max out the space next season. And that still allows for some ventilation aisles around and through the rows of crates- which is really important.
Other things I keep in the cooler to keep the environment healthy: A small window fan for circulation, a thermometer for monitoring the space (I check every couple days), and a battery powered LED light because there is no internal light.
Here are photos of the planted crates in the cooler and one bulb- pulled up so you can see the root mat forming:
My goal is to have tulips blooming for Valentine’s day and then extend their season as long as possible, instead of working to manage a huge rush of blooms that comes in about a two week span when tulips are all planted the same way and affected by the same environmental factors. We felt that last year. It was beautiful. But it was a rush, and we had tulips everywhere. My cooler was packed, and we were shuffling flowers in and out of the cellar, too, until we could sell enough Mother’s Day weekend to get organized again.
Like most of my work in farming, this feels like a big experiment. But, it is also one that can be performed on a small scale if you’re willing to do some research into forcing tulips and figure out how your own set up might work. —And I just have to share another little plug for Emily Von Trapp’s tulip forcing workshop over in Waitsfield, Vermont- because she is amazing and so is that program. She’s the queen of tulips in my mind - with about 80,000 tulip bulbs in the works this winter and spring. Follow Emily on Instagram this winter, and you’ll see what I mean.
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Thanks for reading,