Skagit Valley Food Co-op’s Quarterly Newsletter Outlines how to Embrace the Tulip

October 02 2019

Reprinted with permission. Written by Jay Williams, originally published in the Skagit Valley Food Co-op’s Natural Enquirer Newsletter

Thirty-odd Aprils ago my paternal grandparents came to visit me for the first time since I’d relocated here from eastern Washington.  They’d heard about the tulips, too, so of course we went out for a tour.

A stern, hard-bitten old Mormon dirt farmer, my grandfather’s only visible emotion like, ever, was a perpetual grumpiness that radiated from him even when he tried to be complimentary or in any way pleasant. Not a bad man, but you had to know him before you could appreciate him.  So I was startled when I looked at his face as he stared into a vast field of screaming red tulips and saw…tears?  Seriously?! Maybe his retinas died looking into the throbbing, hypersaturated color without eye protection?  No.  He said in a low, almost reverent voice that it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

We’re easily jaded when we live here, anger boiling over when we’re caught in festival traffic or tourists crowd us out of our Co-op’s parking lot, and we lose our appreciation for this internationally renowned marvel of spring we get to live with.  Duuuude, have you even SEEN the rest of the country?  Okay, there are probably a few places even more beautiful than the Skagit Valley but mostly not, and nothing quite like what we’ve got here, especially in enchanted April. 

Ever wonder how it happened, why our little valley is the sweet spot for growing them in the US?  Where are they from originally?  Hint: not the Netherlands. 

Wild species tulips that all our flashy modern hybrids derive from are mostly native to high elevations throughout much of the Middle East, especially Turkey, where they get chilly and fairly wet winters followed by dry, dry summers.  Sound familiar?  Other temperate parts of the US have wetter summers that can rot them and keep them from going fully dormant, while much of the south can’t provide adequate winter chill.  So, we won the contract.

They made it to Europe in 1554, a diplomatic gift from the Sultan of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire to the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna. They soon made their way to Holland, Europe’s newly-risen economic powerhouse, and the plant-geek Dutch were captivated by these new dainties.  Breeders soon created varieties with bigger, bolder blooms and managed to build a lucrative industry around them, with new hybrids fetching prices that escalated from high to very high to crazy.  “Tulipmania” was all fun and games until their futures market crashed in 1637, leaving many unlucky peeps in financial ruin.  You’re short on cash, you trade 12 acres of farmland for a single tulip bulb…what could possibly go wrong?! 

The Dutch stoically refused to fall out of love with them, though, so the hybridizing continues there to this day and tulips are still synonymous with Holland.  In the early mid-20th century Dutch immigrants brought them to the Valley, Mount
Vernon launched the Tulip Festival in 1984 and now it’s the most popular festival
in Washington state. 

You don’t need the likes of me to go all Chamber of Commerce on you and remind you that they pump a gazillion dollars into our economy, but maybe I can convince you to be proud of this thing we’re known for and grow some of the madness for yourself?  Plugging in a few bulbs now will bring spring splendor and might even help you grow some love, if love is what you need but never had, or have and want to share.  Love the tulip.  Embrace the tulip.  Become the tulip.  Chop the tulip’s little head off when it’s no longer pretty.  There!  Feel better?

Step one, buy some bulbs.  The box stores have them as early as August and you can plant them then if you like, but pros recommend October – December to avoid early sprouting that could damage them when a hard, sustained freeze hits (though it should be noted, they’ll recover, this just delays blooming a bit).  If you misplace the bulbs but find them again in February and they still look good, plant them!  They’ll still bloom but as with the frozen sprouts, a few weeks later than first planned.  If you wouldn’t dream of buying them from a box store, your Co-op will have a nice selection in stock by the time you read this.

Planting is really easy.  You don’t need to work the soil much, just dig the planting holes, drop them in, cover, water once and you’re done.  No further maintenance needed before you enjoy them in spring.  Of course, if you WANT to make it more work, you can…

Adding fertilizer isn’t really necessary, as the whole point of bulbs is that they’re a “deluxe” seed that contains not just a plant but the food it needs to begin life and beyond.  Okay, so what about the bulb food you see for sale, even at the Co-op where Jay puts out boxes of fish bone meal and extols its virtues for great root and flower development?  Yeah, it’s great but not needed for tulips since most people treat them as an annual and just expect the one season from them (more on that in a bit – it ain’t always so).  What I really push the bone meal for is almost all the other bulbs we sell that are more reliably perennial and prolific or edibles like garlic and shallots, where multiplying and good individual clove size are important.  Tulips as most people grow them are truly plug-and-play.  There’s a delayed gratification issue since you’ve got about six months between planting and bloomtime but not much else about them is distressingly un-American. 

Most frequently asked question: how deep do you plant them?  In my experience, you won’t go wrong with most bulbs if you plant them 4x as deep as they are “tall.”  Your average tulip bulb is maybe 1.5”-2” from base to tip so if the base rests on the bottom of an 8” deep planting hole, you’ve got it.  It’s fine if you don’t go as deep, they’ll still bloom and be pretty but there are some potential issues: it’s easier for squirrels and other critters to dig them up, they’re not as well insulated in the winter and they may fall over in wind or heavy rain if they’re not as deeply anchored.

They look best in odd-numbered groups of 5 or more, or multiples of three which makes 6 or 12 okay, too.  More is better, 5 should be the minimum I think.  I’m not sure why this is true, it just is.  Don’t overthink it like I just did.  In containers, just stuff ‘em full and don’t fuss as much about planting depth.

Finally, if you hate that they peter out after the first year and in a not-too-distant spring sprout just a few leaves and no flowers at all, the Google and YouTube can guide you through the tedious process of digging, dividing, curing, re-planting and repeating all these steps for several years if you’re so inclined, but I’m not and I’m guessing you’re not either.  You’ll find some types, notably the Giant Darwins and the fosterianas (aka Emperor tulips), come back strongly for more years than the others do.  Just enjoy them while you have them.

Just enjoy them.