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Tulips from the Netherlands

Dianne and Gary Westlake

We just got back from a trip to Europe we arranged mostly to visit gardens. One of the primary reasons for going this time of year was to see tulips in the Netherlands. We took a trip to the Keukenhof Gardens south west of Amsterdam which are only open a few weeks out of the year so that the growers can show off their tulips and other spring bulbs. This also gave us a great way to escape for a few hours from the party that was going on in the streets of Amsterdam as they celebrated their Queen’s birthday. The Keukenhof gardens contain bed after bed of tulips of all shapes, colours and sizes - a dazzling display. In order to extend the season, the Keukenhof uses early to late varieties in huge drifts. Many of the beds have circular or oval shapes, divided into crescent sections so that when the flowers are over in one section, the gardeners can snip off the heads and still leave lots of colour in the bed.

We were not quite so lucky with the other reason for our visit to these gardens. During normal years at this time, the nearby tulip growing fields are full of colour but the timing was accelerated this year by the extraordinarily warm weather in Europe. We did see a few fields in bloom though so we got a sense of what it must be like. So when you go, and you must, be careful with the timing because the growers will only leave the flowers briefly in order to maximize the energy from the leaves going into the bulbs. This way they can sell you the plumpest ones for your garden. They are pretty clever guys, because they know that when your tulips flower, you cannot bear to cut them right away. This way yours will eventually peter out and you will have to buy replacements from them. On the way to Keukenhof, we saw the fruits of your investments in the form of the grand homes and estates owned and enjoyed by the growers.

We will probably always plant a few of the large tulip bulbs in our garden because they are wonderful, but we have found a way to outsmart the growers by planting the smaller species tulips. These work very well in partially shaded areas or in rock gardens. The size of the flowers stays the same, while the clump increases and sometimes they even self-seed. After a few years these seedlings should produce flowers.

You do not need to be as quick to remove flowers as the growers, but you can improve the quality and growth of most of your spring bulbs by cutting off the flowers once the blooms have faded. You should also leave the foliage to mature even though it can sometimes get a bit unsightly. It is not hard to hide the tulip foliage with a few plants that mature later in the year. You should also top dress with compost to ensure a steady supply of nutrients.

Flowers are a huge export for the Netherlands and not just flower bulbs. While we were there we visited the largest cut flower auction and distribution centre in the world in Aalsmeer. Situated near the main Amsterdam airport, this is the place that auctions off 22 million cut flowers and houseplants a day. This highly perishable commodity passes through a huge automated centre with blinding speed and extraordinary efficiency. Only a few hours separate the time the growers bring truckloads of flowers to the door from the time they are on the plane to your local florist. Trains of carts full of flowers are made up on the floor and pulled into the auction rooms where buyers sitting in five large auditoriums purchase them. It looks like a busy hive of bees with the trains of carts crisscrossing each other and the workers scurrying around setting up carts of flowers. The auction is the Dutch style and is called the 'clock'. As each lot of flowers comes into the room, it shows up on a large screen at the front of the room. The price starts high and begins to decrease on the clock. The first one to press their button gets to buy.

The distribution system is equally impressive. It involves a robotic transfer system that takes the flowers to waiting planes and trucks. It can move 2,600 carts per hour by rail (enough to fill 120 trucks).

Flowers are serious, big business for the people of the Netherlands – lucky for us because we get to enjoy their products in our gardens and in our homes.