Tulip fields in bloom at Vanco Farms, Prince Edward Island. Photo: Vanco Farms
Two years ago, I was able to make a rather unique visit: to Vanco Farms on Prince Edward Island, specialized in the production of organic and specialty potatoes … and of tulips!
And the latter fact may surprise many readers. After all, don’t tulips come from the Netherlands (Holland)? Yes, the vast majority do. That country produces 4.3 billion tulip bulbs every year and ships them all over the world. But tulip production now has a foothold in Eastern Canada as well, so I traveled to PEI (Prince Edward Island) to see it for myself.
The Other Side of the Coin
I’ve been growing tulips ever since I was a child and writing and lecturing about them for over 40 years. I’ve been to the Netherlands at “tulip time” many, many times, always visiting the gorgeous Keukenhof Gardens, and am always fascinated by the extraordinary beauty of tulip fields in full bloom. It really is an amazing experience that I recommend to anyone.
But I wanted to see more than just tulips in bloom. How, I wondered, are tulip bulbs produced? I mean, I’ve dug up and replanted tulip bulbs before, but I could hardly make a living at it. How is it done on a large scale?
When I learned that a company was now producing tulips in Atlantic Canada, and only about 600 miles (1,000 km) from where I live, I contacted them. Is there any way I could come out and see how you harvest and plant bulbs?, I asked.
It turned out that you can’t really see both in a single trip (tulip bulbs are harvested in July and August and planted separately in September), so we discussed the best timing so I could see as much as possible. Thus, it was in late September 2018 that I hopped onto a plane and was soon on beautiful Prince Edward Island, where Ann Carrière of Vanco Farms escorted me around for the next few days. And it was a fascinating experience!
The owners of Vanco Farms are of Dutch origin. In 1982, potato farmers Peter and Jetty Van Nieuwenhuyzen left the Netherlands with their family to settle on Prince Edward Island where they bought a 150-acre (60 ha) potato farm at Oyster Bed Bridge. Their three sons, Willem, Rit and Philip Van Nieuwenhuyzen, took over the family farm in 2001 and changed its focus a bit, although growing potatoes remains their main business to this day. But they also found the conditions in PEI’s sandy red soils strangely similar to those in the Netherlands’ Bollenstreek (bulb region), so they thought they’d try growing tulips as well.
Of course, the climate was vastly different. Much colder, to start with, with a shorter growing season. (Locals say, exaggerating somewhat, that they have “nine months of winter and three months of poor sledding.”) But that could actually be an advantage. Tulip “bulb up” better when springs are long and cool and those in the Netherlands are getting shorter and hotter, causing tulip bulb quality to decline.
That’s how they came to bring tulip expert Bastiaan (Bas) Arendse over from the Netherlands to lead the development of this new niche and he is now co-owner of the tulip division of Vanco Farms. Since 2012, Vanco Farms has been selling tulip bulbs all across Canada, originally in bulk to parks, botanical gardens, municipalities and landscapers, but now also, on a more modest scale, to the gardening public through specially selected garden centers.
The farm now has more than 33 hectares under bulb culture and produces more than 8 million cut tulips per year.
At the Warehouse
My visit, on a beautiful, cool September day, began at the company’s warehouse. There, on long conveyors, rolled millions of bulbs. The bulbs had already been washed, peeled and graded, then inspected twice by an experienced sorting team. All those who have flaws are rejected. At the time of my visit, it was the third and final grading: only the very best quality bulbs were being kept. The machine counts the bulbs automatically: 3,000 poured into every one of the giant crates.
Then we moved on to the refrigerated area, nearly filled with huge wooden crates brimming with bulbs, literally millions of them. The ones I saw there were for cut flower production (those intended for wholesale and garden centers had already been shipped across Canada by then).
Next, we visited the vast greenhouses, stretching out as far as the eye could see … but they were empty. It wasn’t yet quite time to start the forcing process that would lead to the production of cut tulips for the florist industry.
I also got to visit the packing and sorting facilities for Vanco Farms enormous potato production of tiny potatoes … but that’s another story!
Starting in mid-October, the bulbs intended for the production of cut flowers are taken out of refrigeration and planted in large trays filled with moist potting soil, then refrigerated again. That’s because tulip bulbs will only awaken under cold, moist conditions, simulating the winter conditions they receive in nature.
No light is needed at this stage. In the cold and dark, they produce roots and start to sprout. After at least two months of cold treatment, the bulbs are placed in the company’s large greenhouses where warmth and bright sun stimulate rapid green growth. Only 21 days later, the tulips for cutting are already in full bloom and ready to be harvested and shipped. Then the old trays are removed, their contents composted, and more trays of bulbs are brought from refrigeration into the greenhouses. This is repeated again and again over the winter and early spring, ensuring nonstop production of cut tulips from January to Mother’s Day.
Vanco Farms ships its cut tulip production to eastern Canada (the Maritime provinces and Quebec) and the northeastern United States (New York, Boston, etc.).
In the Tulip Fields
Fall is also the season for planting tulip bulbs in the ground. And that I did see.
The field is first harrowed, then a huge planter kicks in. Directed by a GPS to ensure perfectly straight rows, but with a driver on board for adjustments (like stopping to pick any large rocks brought to the surface by harrowing), it drives the full length of the field, bearing a huge bin full of bulbs. As the bin empties, a new crate of bulbs is poured into the bin, then again and again.
As the planter moves along, the soil is pulled back and special netting is laid on the ground, following by carefully spaced bulbs, then another layer of netting before the soil is put back in place. This is all done in a single passage of the planter.
The double layer of netting is designed to facilitate harvesting: in July and August. A tractor goes up and down the fields, pulling on the netting and, in doing so, harvests the bulbs, while the sandy soil simply falls through the mesh and thus remains in place! A neat little trick!
Thanks to the planter, Vanco Farms can plant up to 15 acres (6 hectares) per day, or 30 kilometers of tulip beds! It plants around 750,000 bulbs per hectare.
When planting is complete, the planter covers the field with a thick layer of straw. It’s used as mulch, preventing the frost from penetrating too deeply into the soil, as severe cold could harm the bulbs.
Very early in spring, the planter swings back into action: it’s time to remove most of the mulch in order to expose the soil to the sun so it thaws more quickly and this also allows the bulbs to grow unhindered.
Towards the last week of May, the fields fill with flowers: blooms as far as the eye can see! You’d really think you were in Holland!
Teams of employees are quickly dispatched to the field to pull out any diseased plants or tulips of the wrong color. This is called roguing. Then a specially modified harvester mows the flowers off, yet leaves the foliage intact. Yes, the flowers are clipped off at the peak of their bloom! All of those beautiful flowers fall to the ground where they decompose on the spot. Cutting off the flowers early, before they go to seed, allows the tulip plant to direct its energy to the bulb rather than towards seed production.
Letting the Tulip Bulbs Ripen
The period after flowering is crucial for the formation of big, healthy bulbs. The fields are therefore weeded, fertilized and even irrigated if necessary. The goal is to keep the tulip leaves green as long as possible.
But you can’t stop tulips from going through their normal cycle. So, about 6–7 weeks after flowering, the foliage turns yellow and then dries up as the bulbs go dormant.
And then the harvest begins. It takes place from mid-July to mid-August. Timing is crucial, as too early or too late a harvest can have a negative effect on tulip performance.
The same tractor that planted the bulbs now harvests them. It works the fields back and forth, pulling the netting from the ground and rolling it up. As it does so, the soil falls back to the ground, the bulbs tumble onto a conveyor, then are dropped into a huge wooden crate.
All the bulbs are harvested, both large and small. The small ones will be replanted so they can grow even bigger in future years. The large ones are ready for use and will shortly be used in cut flower production or for the wholesale and retail bulb trade. First, though, the freshly harvested bulbs are transported to the farm where they are dried in the hot air of the otherwise empty greenhouses.
Hard on the Soil!
Growing tulips is so exhausting for the soil that a bulb field can’t be used again for tulip production for another 6 years. In the meantime, Vanco reinvigorates the soil by planting a succession of crops: first green manure, then cereal crops and lastly, potatoes. Only then will the field be used again for another production of tulip bulbs!
The Bulbs Gardeners Can Buy
The majority of the tulip bulbs harvested are used in cut tulip production, but part of the harvest is boxed up for sale to consumers, public gardens, landscapers and municipalities.
Starting early in September and through to early October, the bulbs meant for sale hit the road. You can find Vanco Farms bulbs in garden centers across Canada between mid-September and mid-October.
What? Your garden center doesn’t yet offer Vanco Farms bulbs? Just tell them all they have to do is email Ann Carrière, manager of business development at Vanco Farms, at firstname.lastname@example.org and she can set things up for next year.
And before you even ask, let me answer your question. No, Vanco Farms does not offer bulbs by mail order. Nor are Vanco Farms bulbs available outside of Canada. In other countries, you’ll just have to make do with tulip bulbs from their traditional source, the Netherlands!
An Unforgettable Experience
My visit to Vanco Farms was an unforgettable experience for me. I would like to thank Ann Carrière for organizing my visit and Bas Arendse for all his explanations. I really learned a lot … and I hope this article teaches you a thing or two as well!