Spring bulbs are almost magical. These small, modified stems grow underground and spend most of their life in a dormant state. Although bulbs are strongly associated with Holland and its moist, mild climate, they originally come from Turkey and other parts of Asia Minor.
This Mediterranean climate is characterized by cool, moist winters and hot, dry summers. This is the perfect scenario for bulbs because they grow and bloom when the temperatures are cool and moist and then spend the summers as a dry, dormant bulb in the soil.
Sometimes I'm asked why we don't plant bulbs and other spring flowers in the spring. The answer is that most spring blooming bulbs have a chilling requirement, meaning they need to stay cold for an extended time.
If we plant bulbs in the fall, nature takes care of chilling. To force bulbs inside a home, or to grow plants in warm areas, the bulbs have to spend time in the refrigerator before they bloom.
This spring, I had a chance to visit the tulip-growing areas in the Skagit Valley, north of Seattle, Wash. This valley has the largest tulip bulb farm in the world, as well as several other large farms that grow other assorted bulbs. Seeing how the bulbs grow there gives an appreciation of all the work and time that goes into producing them for our gardens.
Tulip growing started in the Skagit Valley more than 100 years ago, but it got a major boost when the United States Department of Agriculture quarantined bulbs coming into this country from Holland because of a microscopic worm. Because of this, many tulip growers facing financial ruin decided to emigrate from Holland and grow their bulbs in America.
The Skagit Valley had good soil, and the rainfall pattern supplied enough moisture at the right time. Two of the area's first bulb farmers started Washington Bulb Co., which was purchased by William Roozen, who emigrated from Holland in 1947. Although new to America, he was not new to growing bulbs as his family started raising tulips in Holland in the mid-1700s.
Washington Bulb Co. is still a family business that currently grows 550 acres of daffodils, 450 acres of tulips and 200 acres of irises. To prevent diseases, the company rotates its crops and grows 240 acres of green peas and 400 acres of wheat.
Growing bulbs to sell is different than growing bulbs to flower. The only bulbs grown from seed are by plant breeders who have crossed the bulbs in hopes of getting new varieties that are better than the current ones. That might include different colors, sizes or flower forms.
Most bulbs produce an offset or small bulb that is also referred to as a "split" or "spoon." These develop naturally at the base of the parent bulb. Growers separate them when they dig the bulbs they are going to sell.
The next step is to plant the small bulbs in a nursery area. These offsets grow vegetatively, without producing a flower for one or more years to increase the bulb size. Depending on the type of bulb, it may take several years before the bulb is big enough to produce a flower.
The bulb plant produces food in its green leaves. Energy goes into producing flowers or it goes into producing bigger bulbs. In many cases, growers cut off the blossoms so the energy goes into making bigger bulbs. When you purchase your bulbs, remember bigger bulbs usually mean bigger flowers so shop accordingly.
Hyacinth and some other bulbs do not readily produce offsets. Because that is the case, growers cut the base of the bulb to induce it to form offshoots. This adds to the cost of the bulb because of the additional labor involved.
Like most other commodities, supply and demand also affect cost. New varieties or unusual kinds of bulbs cost more. More common varieties and bulbs that propagate more easily are less expensive. Keep in mind that some bulbs take several years from the time the offshoot first appears until the bulb is ready to sell. That drives the price up considerably.
Buy your bulbs early. There is only one crop per year. If you wait until late in the season, you run the risk of not finding the colors or types you like. Most nurseries order their bulbs far in advance and don't reorder until the next season. Keep them cool and dry until planting time.
Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist at the Utah State University Extension at Thanksgiving Point.