Tulipmania

The tulip. The flower that created Tulipmania in the Netherlands in the 1630s is causing quite a stir in the cut flower world these days. New varieties, colors, shapes, and sizes have captured the hearts of farmers and florists alike. ‘Belle Epoque’, ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Renown Unique’, and dozens more with crazy names are quickly becoming a staple of our spring designs.

The challenge with tulips is their harvest and postharvest treatments. They need to be picked at the exact right moment—often they must be picked all at once. This could mean constant picking day after day for a few short weeks. Planting a range of early-, middle-, and late-blooming varieties is no guarantee, as erratic weather can influence their bloom time.

Growing great tulips is a feat in itself. But once you grow them, selling them is a whole other issue. Florists may not need the colors you have. They might think the cost of fancy tulips is too high to buy more than a few. Or they may buy dozens of bunches, but thousands of stems might be too many.

Despite the challenges of selling tulips, many growers put sales low on the priority list when it’s time to buy bulbs in the summer and fall. Price of the bulb (sometimes on sale), popularity (you saw it on Instagram and you have to have it), and space in the tulip bed seem to be bigger considerations. But selling thousands of bulbs in a matter of weeks is harder than it sounds.

This is where STORING comes in. Many growers store their tulips in order to extend their window sales. Tulips can be stored either wet or dry. The idea of storing tulips, either in water or dry packed, seems like a great solution to the problem of too many tulips blooming at once and not enough immediate sales outlets. However, storing is tricky and can lead to all sorts of problems.

Ellen’s Story

This year we were beyond excited about the tulips that were coming through our door. Yes, they all seemed to come at once. Yes, we were getting texts throughout the day from multiple growers saying “There are MORE—can you use MORE?” We were loving them…until we weren’t.

The first week of May we had several growers who still had tulips on their availability lists. With one exception, the offerings were not described as stored tulips. For florists like us who do singles orders and weekly orders, vase life is critical. The tulips we had been getting for the previous four weeks were lasting anywhere from 7-10 days. That week, we decided not to order from the grower who revealed that the flowers were stored. Experience held us back. I knew that vase life for stored tulips could be compromised and I knew we would be looking to have the stems last at least as long as the previous stems had. We did, however, order from several other growers who advertised tulips that week. The first bunches arrived and when they were unwrapped, there was visual damage to the petals. The petals looked as if the flower had been laid down wet. Additionally, the flowers were fully colored and almost to the point of being fully blown open. We threw these out right away. We couldn’t risk sending out an inferior product.

The next batch that came in did not have any visual problems. They were fully colored but they were closed and from the outside, looked fine. We loaded up our weekly orders and special event orders for the day with these flowers, and sent them out for delivery. As we continued on with our day, we kept several bunches of these tulips in buckets around the shop (not in the cooler). As they began to open, we noticed two things: they were moldy inside and as they opened, they almost immediately fell apart. You can imagine our panic as we had already sent a dozen orders out with these flowers in them.

A series of uncomfortable tasks followed. First, we called the clients who were receiving the flowers that day to warn them of the problem and offer them a refund or a new arrangement. Next we notified the growers who had supplied the flowers so that they didn’t sell them to anyone else. We provided photos of the problems so that they understood what we were dealing with. Finally, we called Dave. (Isn’t that what everyone does in a flower crisis?) Dave warned us that mold spores can spread and urged us to get rid of the tulips and scrub down the cooler to ensure this wouldn’t happen. Into the trash went $1600 worth of tulips. Additionally, we paid three of our staff to empty out the cooler, wash it all down, and put everything back. While this was bad, the equally terrible problem was that we then didn’t have enough flowers for the weddings and events we had scheduled for that week.

It was sad times that week. I didn’t cry, but it was close. In an attempt to learn from the situation, I reached out to Laura Beth, to see if she thought it was appropriate for me to retell this story and the resulting suggestions on the Maryland Cut Flower Growers email list. We both agreed that everyone could learn from our experience.

Dave’s Thoughts

• Don’t try to hold tulips to sell after the season is over. Quality can be diminished and no one should be selling a product with diminished quality.
• Warmer weather makes it nearly impossible to sell tulips. If it’s too warm at a farmers’ market, the tulips may blow open. Event florists may try to use them for outdoor events where they can’t take the heat. Delivering them to the florist or the final customer can be difficult in 70-80 degree weather, especially if your delivery vehicle is not air-conditioned.
• It’s better to use a tunnel and get tulips ready 2-3 weeks earlier than to have them go bad by storing them too long at the end of the season.
• When faced with a complaint like the one described above, try to determine if the problem was caused before or after delivery. Florists may try to hold flowers in the cooler too long too, instead of trashing them, even though trashing them may be the best thing to do. If the problem is the grower’s fault, a full refund or replacement flowers should be given.
• The best way to store tulips is to hold “tight” tulips for up to one week in water in a 34-38 degree cooler, or up to two weeks if stored dry and wrapped in a 34-38 degree cooler. Storing longer than that, you are risking botrytis damage or having the flowers dry out. Additionally, if the bloom is not perfectly dry when stored in the cooler, you are risking petal damage.

Ellen’s Thoughts

• If you’re selling to florists, let them know that the tulips have been stored and might be better for event work rather than single orders or weekly orders. Let the florists decide if they want them.
• If you are selling at the market, don’t risk your good name and reputation selling flowers that might not hold up well.
• Plan for another crop that will come right after tulips so there isn’t as much pressure to extend the buying window.

Laura Beth’s Thoughts

The biggest reason that farmers sell second-quality product is that we don’t plan to fail. We buy 1,000 tulip bulbs hoping to sell all of the blooms. We plant 1,000 dahlia tubers, hoping every one will be viable. We plant 100 sunflowers, hoping the bunny rabbits won’t see them.

But bunnies happen, and sometimes florists don’t have a need for your gorgeous orange parrot tulips in April. Instead of expecting to sell every last stem and then panicking when you can’t, I suggest an alternative: planning for failure.

This is not a pessimistic outlook, but rather a realistic one. No one is perfect, and neither is a farm. That’s why, when I plan my season, I put failure into the equation. Here’s a simple example of what I mean:

In Field A, I will plant 100 tulips, 100 snapdragons, and 100 dahlias. Below, I’ve made a chart of how many sellable stems I can cut from each plant over the course of the season if everything goes perfectly. If I sell every stem, the total sales will be $1525.

But everything will not go perfectly. So, I shave 40% off that perfect sales amount of $1525. That number, $915, is now my minimum sales goal for these crops. Then I shave 20% off of the perfect sales goal, to get $1220. That’s now my maximum sales goal for these crops.

Every year, when I make my crop plan, I expect to lose between 20% and 40% of what we grow to bugs, weather, slow market, my own mistakes, volunteers stepping on plants, etc. Believe it or not, every single year (this is our fifth year in business) we have lost almost exactly 30%, which is right in the middle.

Of course, we constantly strive to bring that percentage down. But expecting some amount of loss is important because I will plan my finances knowing that there will be some failures. So, when I can’t sell those orange parrot tulips, I’ll throw them in the compost pile instead of trying to sell them a few weeks too late. I’ll know that loss was coming, and I won’t be as tempted to sell second quality product as a result.

Optimism Meets Reality

Tulips are gorgeous, early spring flowers, and growing them makes sense for many of us. Simple solutions like calculating how many stems you can realistically sell, storing them carefully, and then accepting that you might not sell all of them can make the process a lot smoother. If there are issues with a florist, responding quickly and giving refunds when necessary are crucial steps to maintaining a good relationship. We all have accidentally sold faulty flowers before, and we’ll probably do it again—the important thing is to take responsibility and learn from those mistakes. There’s always next year!

CropNumber of Bulbs or PlantsOptimum Sellable
Stems per Crop
Price per StemOptimum Sales
Tulips100100$1.50 $150
Snapdragons100500$.75 $375
Dahlias100800$1.25 $1,000
   Total Optimum Sales$1,525

Ellen Frost

Local Color Flowers

Ellen Frost is owner of Local Color Flowers. Contact her at [email protected]

Laura Beth Resnick

Butterbee Farm

Laura Beth Resnick is owner of Butterbee Farm. Contact her at [email protected]