Reconsidering the Tulip
When I first started flower farming, I heard a lot of experienced growers talk about how there was no money to be made in tulips. I could see that. Walk into a supermarket in April here in Philadelphia, and you can grab a decent looking (albeit boring) bunch of tulips for less than six bucks. When you do the math on that, a typical small-scale farmer who can’t order in such bulk that the bulbs are mere pennies is unlikely to make a profit on selling tulips to grocery stores, farmers’ markets, or even florists. I ignored tulips for my first two seasons as a result.
As I got more immersed in wedding work, I needed reliable and easy early spring blooms. So I circled back to tulips and decided that if I was going to grow them, I’d pick the ones unlikely to show up at the supermarket, so that my couples would still feel they were getting something really unique. The bulbs for these varieties are not cheap. The range for my order this year, when buying in quantities of 500-1000 per variety, was 18 to 45 cents per bulb. Tack on shipping, and it’s a bit of an investment.
If you’re doing wedding work with your flowers, growing unique tulips is a no-brainer. You can easily recoup the cost of the bulb and your time growing, plus make a tidy profit. The key is to pay attention to the color trends and/or book your weddings as far out as possible so you know what you are planting is going to be an easy sell to your brides. Peach, white, cream, and soft yellow are always popular for spring weddings so those are safe bets.
If you are selling your flowers to florists, farmers’ markets, or grocery stores, you may still be thinking tulips are not for you. Granted, it’s not going to be a huge money maker, but there is some merit in it, I promise! I discovered purely by accident how great a crop they can be for just such sales outlets.
My first season of growing tulips for cuts I didn’t really know what to expect or when they would be ready. I sheepishly admit to not believing the experienced growers who told me they’d all be ready at once, literally come and done in about a week unless I had chosen varieties carefully to extend that window. So one warm day I walked into my field and realized I had about 1000 tulips all ready and nowhere to sell them! I did not have a cooler at the time so holding them all was not an option. The wedding I had grown them for was the following week, and I figured I could save the tightest blooms for that in a refrigerator I had in my basement. But I still had about 800 fairly open tulips that needed a home. They were beautiful lily and French varieties in complementary shades, and all were a good three feet tall, some taller. I could not let such a great crop go to waste!
I called up my only grocery store at the time, to which I had only sold a handful of bunches previously, so I was decidedly nervous. I knew that tulips were going to be a hard item to push. The buyer said to bring them over and she would take a look. The moment I pulled them out of my van, she was sold. They were like nothing she had seen before and she was confident customers would love them. I sold them too cheap that year, just to get them of my hands. I sadly was not a good record keeper at the time so I do not have an exact number, but I think I sold 10-stem bunches for $3.50. Needless to say, that did not make me any profit.
But! BUT! It had a magical effect on the customers at that grocery store. They were smitten. They clamored for more! The buyer begged me to grow more that following year. And tulips have become a consistent, sold-out, spring crop for us as a result.
They are what some might call a “loss leader”. Those of you with marketing or retail backgrounds know this term already. Basically it’s a technique sometimes employed by businesses to suck in customers. It is an item, usually in abundance, that is marked at a low price, sometimes at a true loss, but ideally not so with tulips. The idea is that a customer will come for that inexpensive item and get hooked on your business, or buy a lot of other stuff at the same time, and then as a whole will bring the business more profit. My friends, tulips are “loss leaders” and you should embrace them!
With tulips you will reach your customers earlier in the season so they will get into the habit of buying from you instead of someone else. Tulips have an incredible vase life that is pretty foolproof so customers will think you have the most amazing, long-lasting blooms. And tulips can be growing all winter long in beds that would otherwise be empty, then plucked out to sell and the bed immediately turned over into a new crop with very little downtime. Planting them tightly in trenches is relatively fast and easy (we plant thousands in one afternoon) and picking/processing is also super fast and easy.
If you are selective in your varieties and invest in some of the more unique (and, yes, pricier) ones, like “peony” or double tulips, you can charge a premium price, especially if you sell to florists who are very excited by the double varieties. Parrot tulips can also be a good investment, but they are becoming more mainstream for florists so choose colors that are unusual and not likely to be available from their wholesalers.
There are quite a number of bulb suppliers, and I have used several. Ednie is great and not as pricey as some, especially if you live on the East Coast so shipping isn’t as expensive. Not to mention Dave Dowling to give you great advice when you order! Gloeckner, Botanical Trading Company (Ko Klaver), and Netherland Bulbs are also suppliers to look into. I have personally enjoyed working with Our American Roots out in Washington State. Great customer service! Check on shipping to you before ordering, though, as that may make the price per bulb more than you want to pay. Shop around and find the right combination of varieties and prices, and then order from one supplier so you can get quantity discounts. Bulbs should be ordered late spring or early summer so order soon if you have not already.
I suspect most of you know, but for newer growers who have not tackled tulips before, you harvest by pulling them out of the ground, not cutting. This gives you added stem length and makes bed clean-up easier. If you are really determined, you can try to save the bulbs and get them to come back, but the quality is never good and many will die. Do yourself a favor, and just compost those old bulbs and order more for the next season. Tulips should be rotated to avoid disease buildup in the soil.
Tulips can be stored for quite a long time in the cooler. I have kept them in the cooler for over a month to use for weddings in that “dead zone” of early June when all there seems to be is peonies and baptisia around here and I want a different shape for my designs. Pick them at “color crack” (just when the bud opens enough so there is a slit of color) for longest storage life. We store ours wrapped tightly in newspaper standing straight up in a Procona bucket, no water. We jam as many into a Procona as possible to help them keep their stems straight. Then we put them in the darkest corner of the cooler where the light from the door opening won’t hit them as much. When ready to use, we pull them out a day ahead and snip an inch off their stems and put in a deep bucket of cool water so they get a really good drink. Remember that tulips will continue to grow in the vase so if you are designing for a wedding, put your tulips way down in the arrangements so when it’s “show time”, they’ll be at the right height, not towering oddly over the other flowers.
So, will you reconsider the tulip?
Visit www.lovenfreshflowers.com/blog/ for more on the specific tulip varieties we grow at Love ‘n Fresh Flowers.