“Talking Tulips with Eric Olson of DeVroomen,”
By Becke Davis
Tulips are one of the most easily recognized heralds of spring, providing welcome color in beds and borders. To landscape contractors, though, tulips sometimes spell trouble. “They worry about deer damage and tulips only lasting one year,” observes Eric Olson, sales and marketing adviser of De Vroomen Holland Garden Products in Holland, MI. While Olson agrees that deer can be a problem, he adds, “People need to try other types of spring flowering bulbs.
Tulips are not the only spring flowering bulbs, so try some of the other spring beauties. There are no deer resistant tulip varieties yet, but researchers are working on it and getting closer. Maybe some day we will have this problem figured out. As for the other concern, we do have new research on tulips that perennialize. You can also plant a combination of early, mid and late blooming tulips you can have 40 days of bloom, from the first part of April to mid-May in the mid-west. Mix in other bulbs and you can extend that to three and a half months of bloom.”
The timing of those blooms can be essential, for example when millions of tulips must flower all at once for Holland Michigan’s annual tulip festival, usually timed for the middle of the tulip season. De Vroomen prepares for all eventualities by growing both early and late-blooming varieties to make sure there will be plenty of blooms if weather is not normal. The tulip festival is not the only demand on the tulip crop where timing is an issue. “We have received call from universities in the past that need masses of tulips for graduation day, or others may be needed for a May wedding,” says Olson. “We plant early and late blooming tulips together, mixing them will make sure one or the other will be in full bloom. You never know what the weather will be and you have to have them blooming on that special date so we cover a longer blooming time.
“Red is still the best selling tulip color, usually followed by yellow,” Olson notes. “That can change -- pinks and purples are also popular lately. A few years ago oranges and purples were very slow but now those two colors together are very popular. Darwin hybrid types like ‘Apeldoorn’ in red or ‘Golden Apeldoorn’ yellow are the basic cup shaped best selling tulips, reaching 20 to 24 inches but the Triumph-type tulips, which reach about 16 to 18 inches, are also popular because they are a manageable height and available in wider range of colors. They don’t lean over as much in wind conditions. The single late tulips, which reach 24 to 33 inches tall, are also basic cup shaped tulips that bloom a little later. The double-flowering pink tulip ‘Angelique’ is not as popular as it was a few years ago but it is still a good one. Other double (peony-looking) tulip varieties and colors have become more popular and we have seen more blend of these varieties. Purples are in demand -- ‘Queen of the Night’ is well known but its blossoms are a little smaller and darker than some, and it blooms late. Purple tulips with a blueish color such as ‘Attila’ and ‘Blue Ribbon’ are popular especially when looking for red, white and blue combination plantings.
“Fosteriana ‘Emperor’ type tulips have a very big flower head in proportion to their 12 to 16 inch height. Greigii types like ‘Red Riding Hood’ is always popular -- it has a big leaf with red striping. ‘Czar Peter’ is similar with really showy flowers, white with a red stripe. One that is very popular but a little more expensive is Tulipa praestans ‘Unicum’ which has a variegated white-edged leaf. Coming up out of the ground they almost look like hostas. It has a smaller, bright red flower but it’s multiflowering. With top sized bulbs you can get two to five blossoms per bulb for a nice cluster of flowers.
“All of the Apeldoorns are still the biggest sellers -- they are good, reliable tulips,” says Olson. “There are others that also come back for years. Cornell University recently was part of a study to determine which flower bulbs perennialized best for different zones. Some tulips have been hybridized in the past for forcing or for new colors and are not know for returning year after year. The single early & Darwin hybrids are closer to the original species -- they haven’t been crossbred as much so they naturalize better. Newer varieties like red Darwin hybrid ‘Oxford’ and ‘Golden Oxford’ are a little bit better growers. The red ‘Come Back’ naturalizes a little better, and name says it all.”
In recent years there have been some big changes in the way people buy tulips bulbs, Olson explains: “Instead of just wanting to know what basics are available, our customers are now looking for blends or mixes. When different colors are planted together, they will look to see what’s different in the flower beds every day. A mass of red tulips has the ‘wow’ effect but it loses interest. Instead, plant early, mid and late-blooming tulips in a combination like “the wave,” with short tulips such as the white, 8-10 inch mid-season ‘Calgary’ in front of a taller blooming tulip such as the red, 18 inch Triumph ‘Oscar’, which blooms at the same time. Try planting some Muscari (grape hyacinth) in front of ‘Calgary’ -- it is used a lot in Europe. Muscari is inexpensive and covers a lot of ground with a flash of blue color.
“We have been promoting a lot of blends, mixing two, three or four different varieties, mixing colors, or mixing early, mid and late-season bloomers. People are asking for these blends, combining tulips like ‘Angelique’, ‘Lilac Perfection’ and the white ‘Mt. Tacoma’. We recommend that people get away from the basics, the rows of tulips planted like little soldiers. Planting tulips in little clumps is more effective than planting them in straight lines. One of the biggest problems here is the tendency to plant tulips six to eight inches apart. This creates the ‘little soldier’ effect instead of a nice mass. In Europe, tulips are usually planted closer together. Six inch spacing is okay but for that ‘wow’ effect, closer to four inches is better. Here, tulips are often just used to fill the holes, so the amount of bulbs planted per square foot is usually different than it would be in Europe. If you are planting double-flowered or parrot tulips which have larger blooms, you don’t need quite as many, but there is a big difference in the effect they make if you pack them in.”
Another reason to pack in a lot of tulips initially is the likelihood that you will lose some tulips after a year or two, Olson notes. For commercial plantings, spotlighting a company entrance or sign, Olson recommends planting tulips that will create “a big show.” “The goal is to draw your attention to the sign. A blend of bright colors gets you out of the ‘blur’. The tulips you select would depend on the height of the sign, but the Darwin hybrid ‘Daydream’ is one people wanted this year. It’s listed as orange, but it comes out yellow with an orange edge, turning more orange as it matures. This year the demand for ‘Daydream’ exceeded our supply.
“The Emperor tulips are very showy, shorter with big flower heads. Combine one or two colors -- Emperor tulips come in red, yellow, pink, orange, white and more. ‘Fancy Frills’ is a pink tulip with an ivory back and a fringed edge, while ‘Green Wave’ is a new pale pink and green parrot tulip. We’re always looking for a better mid-season pink, and one I really like is ‘Lydia’, which is a good medium height. We used to have it for special order only but now it is in our catalogue.”
For landscape contractors, one of the concerns about tulips is whether to take a chance on them coming back from one year to the next. Some contractors dig up the bulbs, store them and replant the same bulbs the next spring, while others treat them as annuals by digging the bulbs and disposing of them when they have finished flowering. “If you need to make it look good and you don’t want to take a chance, treat tulips as annuals -- lift them and replace them,” says Olson. Lifting and storing them can be trickier. “If you dig them up, the plant will still be green when it is done flowering,” he says. “They need time to store energy, so give them a few weeks to die out before lifting them. If a bulb doesn’t have enough food stored, the next year you’ll will not have flowers and all you will get is big, wide leaves to help the bulb collect energy for the following year’s flowers.”
To ensure the best tulip display, it is important to add a slow-release fertilizer, Olson says, and not necessarily the old standby, bone meal. “Bone meal has changed over the years. It used to be 4-12-5 but now they take the bone marrow out and it’s usually 0-11-0, with no nitrogen, which bulbs need. You can use a fertilizer like Bulb Booster, which is a slow-release coated urea 9-9-6 formulation that helps build the following year’s flowers and give you more, bigger flowers. A bulb food like Osmocote also works. The important thing is that the bulbs get a slow-release nitrogen in early spring. We use Holland Supreme slow release bulb food, a 9-9-6 formula with Polyon.”
Many problems with tulip performance come down to just a few things, in Olson’s experience: lack of fertilization, lack of soil preparation and insufficient planting depth. “As a rule of thumb, bulbs should be planted to a depth three times the thickness of the bulb. This does not refer to the depth of the hole, but to the amount of soil on top of the bulb. When in doubt, it’s better to plant deeper than not deep enough. Good drainage is a must for most bulbs. If the ground is very hard with lots of clay covered by four inches of topsoil, the water won’t drain through the clay and the bulbs will be sitting in water. You have to work the soil to about twelve inches deep to allow for root growth. If there is no food and no place for the roots to grow, the bulb won’t perform or flower. If you need a hole six inches deep, prepare the soil to a depth of twelve inches.”
One of the most commonly concerns to those new to bulb planting is whether bulbs will grow if they are planted upside down. “The ideal would be to plant them right side up,” says Olson. “On tulips, the point of the bulb is up and the root forms at the opposite end. Tulip bulbs have a flat side from which the leaves form and a more rounded side, and they tend to be heavier on one side than the other. This means that when we dig trenches for bed planting or use larger bulb planters to plant the bulbs, the tulip bulbs tend to land on the heavy side. The pull against gravity and sunlight will help the bulb find its way up, but they might not be as uniform spacing as if they were each planted with the points straight up. With a big bulb like hyacinths it can be a potential problem if the bulbs are planted upside down, because they have big, thick heavy stems that can push the bulb right out of the ground. Fritillaria imperialis, the crown imperial, is a big bulb that is hollow in the middle where the stem comes out. If the drainage is not good, water can collect in the hollow area. In this case, it is a good idea to plant the bulb sideways unless there is good drainage. And again, deeper is better.”
Planting bulbs and perennials in combination can be useful since the emerging foliage of some perennials will camouflage the dying foliage of the bulbs, which should not be cut back until it has completely dried out. Olson notes that competition is not normally a problem since the root system of perennials don’t usually go down as deep as the bulbs are planted. His only concern would be making sure that fertilizer reaches the bulb, a problem that should not arise if a slow-release fertilizer is used. When combining perennials or other bulbs with tulips, Olson’s advice is straightforward: “Try to come up with combinations that will extend the season. In Holland trials, bulbs were mixed with sedums, three-season perennials, and perennials like pulmonaria that bloom together with the bulbs.”
When it comes to promoting the use of bulbs, particularly the concept of planting bulb blends, mixed types of bulbs and bulbs planted with perennials, Olson’s advice is to take plenty of pictures to illustrate your ideas. “Don’t wait for your customers to come to you. Take pictures in the spring and use them to promote your ideas, reminding your customers that fall is the time to plant bulbs.”
For over 30 years, Eric Olson has been involved with growing, selling and promoting tulips and perennials to mail order companies, garden centers, landscapers, greenhouse and perennial growers and final consumers in the U.S. and Canada. While in high school, he worked at a tulip farm and gardens in Holland, Michigan and became involved with the annual Tulip Time Festival. He graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in business and marketing. For more than ten years, Olson was general manager and part owner of a tulip garden that grew over four million tulips annually. Olson has been marketing and sales advisor for DeVroomen Holland Garden Products for over 20 years. He is also the sales representative for midwest and specialty accounts throughout the U.S. and Canada.
“The Roots of De Vroomen”
De Vroomen Holland Garden Products has been a member of the ILCA since 1982. This family business was established in Holland in 1925 and has been a supplier of quality bulbs and bare root perennials ever since. De Vroomen’s founder, Jacobus Theodorus De Vroomen, grandfather of the current president, started growing bulbs in 1890 as a hobby that gradually evolved into a small business.
The company had its ups and downs in the early years, but despite the struggles it continued to grow. The advent of World War II brought some dramatic changes when the Dutch army took over the building and settled officers in the family home. After the German invasion of Holland, De Vroomen land was used as an air raid shelter and the company car was fitted with air raid sirens. The senior De Vroomen was held as a prisoner by German followers for two months in 1943.
After the Allies liberated Holland in 1945, the company began to rebuild and three of the founder’s sons became partners in the business. About the time of the company’s fortieth anniversary, a perennial nursery focusing on peonies, daylilies and hosta was added. The sales force ventured across the Atlantic and as some of the family settled in the U.S., De Vroomen Bulb Company was formed to serve the American market.
The 1980s were eventful for the company and for the De Vroomen family. Ben De Vroomen was awarded a royal medal of honor for his contributions to the company, to the bulb industry and to his community of Lisse, Holland. Dick De Vroomen was active in both the American branch of the Federation of Bulb Traders and the Dutch ice skating team. His skating talents earned him a medal of honor from the Dutch Olympic Community and from the Dutch royal family. The company expanded into the European market and also became a major exporter of perennials.
Today De Vroomen Holland Garden Products is a modern company flourishing in Lisse, Holland and Russell, IL. It is still a family business, with one of the largest nurseries in Holland, and is one of the largest importers of perennials into the US with about thirty-five percent of sales focusing on Dutch bulbs and sixty-five percent on bare root perennials such as peonies, hosta, daylilies and iris, specializing in new and different plants from Europe. Their U.S. market mainly aims at zones 4, 5, 6 and 7, providing plants that will survive in those regions with twelve sales representatives throughout the US and Canada to help with selections and information.
Telephone interview with Eric Olson
DeVroomen Holland Garden Products
665 136th Ave., Suite 120
Holland, MI 49424
Photos by Becke Davis
The top two photos were taken on Chicago's Michigan Avenue in May 2007