Tulips are the first major crop in spring for flower farmers. I consider this my first influx of cash at the beginning of the season. They can be spaced very close together to only take up a small area, plus are grown as annuals and harvested with the bulb attached so the beds are easily flipped for summer crops. The best part: they can be stored for weeks in the cooler to help stockpile for holidays like Mother’s Day.

With all of these positives, every flower farmer should be digging trenches and planting thousands of bulbs, but there is a dark side to planting tulips. Pests, disease, timing, color selection and markets to sell are all moving targets in any given spring. For example, rotation of beds is vital each year to ward off tulip fire, a fungal disease caused by Botrytis tulipae. It causes brown spots and twisted leaves. Moving the beds to prevent it then complicates every other issue.

The best tulips are grown under cover in unheated tunnels or forced in bulb crates in a heated greenhouse. Those of us without those structures face additional challenges in the field. Bulbs are planted in autumn and require a period of cold over winter. There are pre-chilled bulbs available for growers in southern regions. Commercially, tulips are grown as an annual and harvested with the bulb attached for length and holding. Since the leaves are attached to the stem, the remaining bulb has no food source and is composted. Throwing them out is a hard concept to grasp as a new grower. My neighbor rescues the bulbs and plants them around our properties. In reality, only about 20% amount to much.

Varieties of tulips are considered early, mid or late season bloomers. Early singles are boring colors. Some of the mid blooming are more interesting. In my opinion, the best varieties are late season with doubles, frilly and parrots. What is going to be ready for Mother’s Day is dependent entirely on climate conditions that can change from year to year. The fanciest varieties are not always the most vigorous, but singles fill out bunches well.

Tulips, while beautiful, can be tricky as a crop. Photo by Betsy Busche

Conventionally, most growers dig a trench, amend the soil, lay the bulbs like eggs in a carton, then cover. The latest trend is a no-till method of building sides for a temporary bed, laying out the bulbs and covering with six inches of compost. This is championed by Jennie Love of Love ‘n Fresh Flowers in Philadelphia and the “No-Till Flowers” podcast, and she has resources available. It makes harvest easier in spring. Of course, this option is dependent on a source of large quantity of quality compost in autumn. I struggle with this every year.

The biggest deterrent for me to grow a plot of tulips is deer and vole damage. The deer will come down off the hill and into the garden if there are leaves to munch in early spring. The years we grew tulips we planted them in a fenced area. The problem is we usually take the fence down at the ends to bring in machinery in both autumn and spring.

Little creatures underground will eat the bulbs. Some growers have success laying hardcloth and creating a cage to protect the bulbs. But again, that’s additional labor and because the area must be rotated each year, pulling the mesh in spring can be a challenge.

Another technique to explore is not planting them outside in autumn but rather filling bulb crates, chilling them in a protected area, then bringing them into heat to force the tulips to bloom. Ideally, this is a heated greenhouse, but under lights in a basement works also. The grower has control of bloom time. It is an art and science that has been perfected by Linda D’Arcy and Emily von Trapp of the Tulip Workshop. They offer online and in-person workshops.

For all of these reasons, until I have a high tunnel and a greenhouse to force bulbs, I only plant  enough mid-season bulbs to supplement the flowers I order through the wholesaler for Mother’s Day. Deer pressure is crazy on my hill and tulip leaves are deer candy in early spring.