What the Dutch know

A trip to the Netherlands gives a garden writer inspiration for fall

Bulbs pack such promise: Dry, odd-shaped bundles, the spring-flowering bulbs filling bins right now in every garden center come complete with a year's worth of food, roots-in-waiting, and embryonic leaves and blossoms compressed snugly inside. Toenail- to fist-size, these reliable, efficient units ask only for a well-drained home in decent soil and a good drink of water before the ground freezes.

Nothing gives me more pleasure than to plunge my spade into the leaf-strewn earth along my driveway, bury a dozen daffodil bulbs in a big hole, and envision the April parade of gold trumpets, fragrant frilly pink cups, and translucent ivory petals.

This fall, having already assembled a legion of 400 narcissus (the family name for all daffodils), I can't seem to resist buying one more bag.

Then another.

There are 24,000 different named cultivars waiting to tempt. But can any garden suffer from too many fresh-faced daffodils bringing on spring?

The best country in the world to test potential bulb overload is the Netherlands.

For a tour of the bulb farms, I joined fellow garden enthusiasts in a minibus that cut through the heart of Flevoland's 5,000-acre bulb country, less than an hour northeast of Amsterdam. Flevoland is the area most recently reclaimed from the sea and the largest bulb-growing area in The Netherlands.

On the poplar-lined highways east of the dikes, we passed bold ribbons of pink, orange, yellow, and white tulips that disappeared into the runway-flat horizon ending in a faint line of trees.

Mild, wet winters and freely draining, sandy soil make ideal conditions for bulb propagation and explain why the Dutch are the world's largest producers of flower bulbs - 9 billion a year, 7 billion of which are exported. The US is the largest market.

Jan, a grower we talked to last spring, is pleased to be farming fields that are not even 30 years old and fertile. But even on newly cultivated land, he rotates crops annually, replacing tulips with onions, potatoes, and sugar beets in order to avoid depleting the earth of nutrients. The most valuable cash crop, tulips are planted only once every six years.

In what seemed almost sacrilege, a shiny green tractor in the neighboring field was beheading every beautiful vermilion cup.

"The leaves will feed the bulb until they wither," he explained, "but flowers take away energy so we cut them off."

After another month in the fields, the bulbs are lifted, then dried in computerized ovens. This crop had already been sold to a dealer. In fact, those very tulips could now be sitting at my local bulb outlet.

As we walked through Jan's enormous barns, he pointed out towering stacks of wooden crates, each filled with thousands of tiny bulblets, deep in beds of peat and covered in plastic. These are the nurseries, dark and moist, cradling the next generation of bulbs.

With its geometric swatches of bright primary colors, Flevoland offered an agricultural introduction to bulb production. But for a radiant show of ornamental planting, garden lovers from around the globe convene at the famous 80-acre display gardens of Keukenhof in Lisse, southwest of Amsterdam.

"The crowds will be crushing. Don't even think of visiting on a weekend," everyone warned. But the first Sunday in May was a gorgeous sleeveless-shirt day under shimmering blue skies, and 7 million tulips, hyacinths, anemones, and daffodils were in bloom.

The early bus from the charming old city of Haarlem was packed, so I stood, wobbling with strap in hand, for the half-hour ride. Wandering wide-eyed onto paths winding under ancient beech trees pooled by cobalt-blue grape hyacinths and around lakes swathed in ladylike lily-flowered tulips and brash, flaming parrot tulips, I was swept along in an exuberant flow of enthralled humanity.

The map I clutched was useless. Strollers gummed up pedestrian traffic, motorized wheelchairs nipped at everyone's heels, and family photographers leapt to snap their adorable babies menacing the blooms.

From late March to mid-May, Keukenhof is a joyful, multigenerational carnival.

Planted by the large commercial bulb-trading houses, the waves of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths are designed to entice visitors to buy. Longing to whip out a credit card, instead I penciled notes (it's more convenient for Americans to buy in the US although this doesn't stop many an acquisitive Yankee on the road).

For all the dazzle of phalanxes of fancy fringed tulips, colonies of giant anemones, and regiments of brassy yellow crown imperial fritillarias, I found myself yearning for a little disorder.

The precise beds jammed with obedient blooms reminded me how much I love disheveled gardens where boundaries are blurred and plants mingle democratically.

Back home in Massachusetts, with vivid images of Keukenhof's extravaganza, I got down to bulb planting last week. From our cobblestone front walk, I had intended to fan out marble-sized white muscari bulbs under dwarf narcissus with pale yellow cups framed by ivory petals. But the phone rang and the bulbs seem to have been misplaced. Or maybe I got them all in.

At the fringe of a full-skirted old hemlock I sprinkled a bag of 50 snowdrops, to look like a bit of lace petticoat.

But that may be the spot where I planted blue anemones last year, in which case the effect won't be quite what I expected.

All I can be sure of is that wherever a bulb went in, something pretty will appear in spring.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.