Monday, May 4, 2009

Bulb fields, the Netherlands

If there is one thing that can compete with the spectacular display of spring bulbs at Keukenhof gardens, it is the commercial bulb fields that surround it. Each year from mid-March to mid-May, 52,000 acres of Dutch countryside erupt in stunning colour thanks to billions of tulips, daffodils and hyacinths.

Holland is one of the main producers of both bulbs and cut flowers in the world – an unbelievable 93% of the world's bulbs come from this tiny country. There are about 2,700 Dutch bulb growers, who produce 9 billion bulbs each year. Most fields are destined for the bulb industry, meaning that the plants are allowed to flower and die back naturally in order to grow the bulb. Others are for cut flowers, but these are not as spectacular since flowers must be picked while still in bud to ensure that they are fresh when they reach costumers.
The bulb growing area is concentrated in the west of the country around Lisse, which conveniently is also where Keukehof is located. Keukenhof is in fact a showcase for the bulb industry, as most displays in the garden are sponsored by various bulb growers. And while Lisse touts itself as the epicenter of the bulb growing industry, the whole area between Haarlem and Leiden is known as 'De bollenstreek' - the Bulb District. In these parts, many people’s livelihood depends either directly or indirectly on the bulb or flower industry.
As a gardener, one of the things I found most astonishing about the bulb fields is the soil, or rather the lack thereof. Of course I was expecting sandy soil in the Netherlands, but this was outrageous – it’s not sandy, it’s actually SAND! Tulips originate in Turkey, and like dry summers and winters. The well-drained sand actually suits them perfectly, and allows them to stay dry even with much more rain than they would receive in Turkey.
The bulb field experience is really unique and definitely worthwhile. Instead of being met by fields of green as you go through the country side, huge swathes of land are covered in hot pink, deep crimson or intense blue, sometimes coupled with incredible scent. A surreal experience that both delights and confuses the senses.
'Garden' Summary
What: Bulb fields, the Netherlands.
Where: Centered around Lisse, but strech from Haarlem to Leiden in the west of the country.
When: Mid-March to mid-May, although given that 1/3 of bulbs are tulips and they are later bloomers, the second half of April is probably peak season.

The best way to experience the bulb fields is probably by bike. If you’re in a car, you’ll want to stop and take pictures much too often. Just be respectful of the bulb fields – they are someone’s livelihood, and as many signs point out, please don’t walk all over the fields and do not pick the flowers!

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