Every year in August I sit down with a number of bulb suppliers’ website pages open and start to formulate a selection of tulips for the coming spring. This has customarily been an enjoyable process, with little more on my mind than assembling a good colour selection alongside consideration of a range of flowering heights and times to ensure a longlasting display. I must admit to never having given the means of production of the bulbs much thought, although in recent years there has been a growing niggling doubt, which I have shamefully chosen not to examine too closely.
In 2021 approximately 14,400 hectares of Dutch farmland was dedicated to the production of tulip bulbs. This is where almost all commercially grown tulip bulbs come from and the majority of them are treated with a range of phosphate fertilisers, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. All of these chemicals persist in soil and water and have a seriously damaging effects on soil-living creatures and mycorrhiza. In the case of systemic insecticides(although the use of three key neonicotinoids has been banned in the Netherlands since 2021) these can persist in the bulbs after lifting, so that bees visiting your tulip display will be directly affected and transport poisoned pollen back to the hive. Dutch studies have also shown that people living in the vicinity of commercial bulb growers have higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies with as yet unknown effects on biology and health, although in animals they are known to affect reproductive health and the respiratory system. The more you look into it the reasons to only grow organic bulbs are legion.
As we are still learning with food production, if things come cheap there is always a hidden cost, whether human or environmental. So last August I made a commitment to buy organic bulbs, something I wouldn’t think twice about with groceries, but which I had chosen to bury my head in the sand over in regard to bulbs. I ordered from Organic Bulbs, a company started by Lulu Urquhart and Adam Hunt of Urquhart & Hunt.
Although the bulbs are twice the price of those from non-organic suppliers, they are certified 100% organic, come in paper packaging not plastic nets and are shipped by a courier company whose fleet runs on biomethane compressed natural gas, a by-product of the decomposition of food and animal waste. To reduce costs I simply placed a smaller order than usual.
Of course, I was interested to see whether there was any noticeable difference between the organic and non-organic bulbs, and have been pleasantly surprised to see that the plants are just as strong and healthy, with vigorous, disease free foliage and large, lustrous flowers. Many of them have also produced smaller flowering offsets, producing diminutive versions of the mother plant, which I have not seen before.
Even with Dutch grown organic bulbs there are still the issues of water use and fossil fuel usage for overseas transport. Since Brexit many Dutch suppliers have stopped shipping to the UK and there do not yet appear to be any British organic bulb growers who are filling the gap. The good news is that there is a growing number of organic growers in the Netherlands and consequently more British suppliers each year stocking their bulbs including The Organic Gardener and Peter Nyssen’s Bee Friendly range.
This year’s display may be a bit smaller, but it’s still sumptuous and has provided a colourful kickstart to spring. However, I am now aware that, as we have learned with single use plastics and disposable fashion, we may soon see that the resources which go into the production of single use bulbs are no longer worth the price, financially or environmentally.
The varieties we grew this year were:
A classic. Tall. Large flowers of a strong candy pink. The inner petals are glossy with a distinct black base. 55-60cm
At first glance very similar to Pink Impression. However, it is a little shorter and the outer petals are flushed apricot when they first open. The inner petals are a bright coral. 50cm.
A handsome, tall double. Flame red petals which grade through orange and gold towards the edges. 50cm.
An everlasting favourite. Boxy, upright blood red flowers with distinct gold shading to the edges. 45cm
A striking crimson fringed tulip, with a strong black and yellow blotch to the base. Very upright. 50cm.
A shorter tulip of a dull, matt scarlet. The petals of the boxy flowers are pointed. The flowers are sweetly scented. 40-45cm
A single, small-flowered late tulip of a rich burgundy with a lilac bloom. 40cm
Burnt orange with slightly paler picotee edges. A good strong tulip for cutting. 50cm
A modern classic lily-flowered tulip of a very similar colouring to Orange Cassini, burnt orange with paler edges. Has the scent of orange sherbet.
Upright and tall this elegant and well-named tulip has flowers the size of a duck egg which remain closed in the first weeks of flowering. 60-65cm
Words & photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 29 April 2023