But in Holland, attitudes and practices have begun to change, Dwarswaard says. Growers rotate their crops to keep the soil from being depleted by monoculture. There is a movement to reduce tilling. Composting has become an increasingly common practice, and integrated pest management has replaced the routine use of pesticides. Both growers and water-quality officials are paying close attention to the purity of water around bulb fields. These developments, driven by environmental regulations, politics, and economics, are raising awareness of the possibilities of organic bulb culture.
EcoTulips, an American company based in Brightwood, Virginia, is the only supplier of organic tulip bulbs (and a few other organically grown spring-flowering bulbs) in the United States.
“I started this business because I saw the quality bulbs that could be produced without the use of harmful pesticides and I believed Americans would be interested in organic flowers,” says Jeroen Koeman, co-owner of EcoTulips with his wife, Keriann Koeman. Jeroen Koeman’s family has been in the bulb business in Holland for generations, but he is a pioneer in the organic trade. Since 2009, when the company was founded, the Koemans have cultivated relationships with organic bulb growers in the Netherlands and developed a base of mail-order customers in the United States. Koeman also sells to independent garden centers, mostly on the East Coast. He imports about 200,000 organic bulbs yearly—a small number compared to his competitors. But he predicts that the market for organic bulbs will grow, and that conventional bulb culture will change as growers see that switching to organic can be successful.
Members of Koeman’s own family—which grows about 30 million bulbs a year in Holland—were skeptical about his venture into selling only organic bulbs, he says. They are now following his progress with interest. “I have the dream, the belief that my brothers will change towards organic,” he says. “I do believe in change.”
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Agriculture is central to the economy and identity of Holland; more than half of the country’s land is dedicated to crops or pasture. About 10,000 hectares (almost 25,000 acres) of tulips are grown, Dwarswaard says. Every year, Dutch growers produce 5 billion tulip bulbs, of which two-thirds are used to grow cut flowers. The other third, which is still a huge number of tulips, are grown for dry-bulb sales—these are the bulbs gardeners plant every fall.
Of course, you do not have to buy organically produced bulbs to grow tulips, daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, and other spring-flowering bulbs organically in your own garden. When you buy spring-flowering bulbs in fall, they already contain the tiny bud of next year’s flowers, and they can be relied upon to produce a dazzling display of blooms in the spring without any need for chemical fertilizers or pesticides. But by buying organically grown bulbs, you’re investing in change.
Koeman buys from three growers in Holland, including Wilbrord Braakman, who has been growing bulbs organically for about 25 years. Braakman uses compost and organic fertilizers to improve the soil in his fields and rotates his bulb crops with vegetables and soil-enriching cover crops. In the best years, his harvest exceeds that of conventional growing methods, he says. Braakman also teaches classes for growers who are interested in limiting their use of pesticides and in improving their soil.
Conventional growers are following the organic trend with considerable interest. Carlos van der Veek, a Dutch nurseryman, grower, and hybridizer, grows 10 hectares of tulips. “I have open eyes to use as few chemicals as possible,” and most growers feel the same way, he says. The growers who follow completely organic practices “are true pioneers,” Van der Veek says, “and hopefully they will find ways of better growing which can be used by the whole industry.”
Brent and Becky Heath, owners of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, Virginia, do not offer organic bulbs in their extensive mail-order catalog, but they are themselves chemical-free gardeners who pay close attention to the ecology of the bulb business. “We do get questions asking if there are lots and lots of chemicals used in growing the tulips we send out,” Brent Heath says. “The chemicals used are minimal. We deal with 40 or 50 different growers, and we look at how clean their practices are. We want them to do the best job in an earth-friendly way.”
Converting the bulb industry to organic culture is a formidable challenge. Sandy regions in Holland are not well suited for organic culture, Dwarswaard says, because nutrients leach quickly out of the thin soil; heavier soils in northern Holland give better results. Bloembollenvisie has published several stories recently about growers working to improve their soil, “with maybe [organic] growing as a goal,” Dwarswaard says. “Their opinion is that a healthy soil makes the plant stronger, so that the plant becomes less sensitive to all kinds of diseases.”
Pests are also a challenge, and the dry bulb mite, a tiny insect that lives in the scales or layers of bulbs and damages them during storage, is perhaps the most devastating. The Dutch government has restricted the use of neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been linked to the death of bees. Other systemic insecticides are permitted for use on bulb crops, but not all growers use them, Van der Veek says. Researchers are working on nontoxic ways to limit bulb-mite damage, such as cool storage conditions and a predatory species of mite.
Tulips grown from organically cultivated bulbs might not appear bigger or better than conventional tulips, Koeman says, “but I am a firm believer that my bulbs are better quality because they are grown in healthy soil. You don’t have to be a scientist to figure out that healthy soil creates healthy products.”
Change is coming. “We are very interested in what Wilbrord Braakman achieves with just a different way of thinking,” Van der Veek says. “You take big risks by doing things differently.” The scale of the challenge is great: In Holland, agriculture is an important industry. But industry “has to be ecological too,” Braakman says. The future may be up to people like Braakman, Koeman, and others invested in the organic cultivation of flower bulbs. As Braakman says, “We, the farmers, have it in our hands!”
Check out our 8 favorite tulip varieties, provided by EcoTulips!
Photography by Thomas MacDonald and Patrick Montero
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, October/November 2014