From Bulb to Bloom
January 8, 2010
Mark Twain was wrong. Some of the coldest winters are actually winters in San Francisco, and this has been a mean one. The silver lining? Local tulips.
These hearty, elegant flowers start appearing in the market by mid-January and last through March or April, depending on the temperature. “Tulips don’t like hot weather,” says Howard McGinnis of McGinnis Ranch, who tries to extend the growing season until Easter if he can (next he year plans to install hoop houses).
Howard generally plants around 100,000 bulbs a year on five acres — roughly one third of his 16-acre farm. He’s grown tulips, along with a few other flower varieties, such as anemones and ranunculus, for almost as long as he’s been farming — about two decades. While flowers demand a little more attention than most vegetables, he says, they really make the trip to the Ferry Plaza worth it this time of year. “We only have a few other things to sell right now,” he says. “Just winter squash and some carrots. Tulips get us through the winter.”
Josh Thomas of Thomas Farm grows tulips for similar reasons. “It really helps us keep our employees here all year,” he says. Before they had a solid winter flower crop, their four full-time workers had to find other farm work for three months a year. This year, all four will have plenty of work on the farm through the winter. “It really makes a difference for them," adds Josh. “I can tell that they’re less stressed.”
Thomas Farm is an organic operation, and Josh and his wife Kari see no reason why the flowers shouldn’t be grown the same way. “Organic flowers are still getting a foothold,” he says. “People can’t quite wrap their brain around why it’s important to spare the ground and the air all those pesticides, regardless of whether it’s for something you’ll put in your mouth.”
Tulips are notoriously long lasting, and can be sold several days after harvest. Unlike other varieties, the unsold bunches are not likely to end up in the compost heap at the end of the market day. Many growers use greenhouses, says Josh, meaning their tulips go from bulb to bloom in just about three weeks. “It takes us more like 60 or 70 days outside. But what we get is this big, strong-stemmed tulip that has slowly developed in a cool climate. It has gathered so many nutrients from the soil, that — once it’s in a vase — it grows to be easily four times as big. And six inches taller.”
Tulip bulbs must be replanted every year and it’s not quite cold enough to raise them in Northern California, says Howard. He buys his from Holland, where the perfect climate makes bulbs that create remarkable flowers. Josh also ordered his bulbs from Holland this year. In an effort to source them from closer to home, he has, in the past, planted some from Washington State. “The quality’s not quite as good," he says. "But I might try again in the years ahead,” he says.
Relying on Danish bulbs means pricing based on the Euro, so this year both farms made a bigger investment than usual. At Thomas Farm, they nearly doubled the number they planted last year to make them worth growing without raising the selling price. But, says Kari, they always lose some to gophers, other pests, or disease. Even though the farm gets about 80 cents a stem, she adds, "growing organics tulips is always a gamble.”
Photo of tulips in a wheelbarrow by Kari Thomas.