- At Keukenhof 7 million bulbs are planted by hand in just three months.
- Gardeners work year round and the flowers only bloom for 8 weeks.
- Opening day was postponed til April.
- The Dutch government has opened the gardens to a maximum of 5,000 people per day on weekends.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Narrator: Here at Keukenhof, 7 million bulbs are planted by hand in just three months. Spread across 80 acres, it’s one of the world’s largest spring flower gardens, with 800 varieties of tulips.
Owen Carroll: That’s a tulip. That’s a tulip, yeah.
Narrator: Gardeners like Owen Carroll work year-round to make sure these flowers impress.
Owen: It has to be perfect, because people come from over over the whole world.
Narrator: It takes millions of dollars and 40 gardeners to create the dozens of designs for this flower garden. And they bloom for only eight weeks. So every day counts. But last year, because of COVID-19, the gardens were closed to the public for the first time in 71 years.
Bart Siemerink: We had no income at all in 2020, which was really a disaster for us. We faced a financial loss of between of between 5 and 10 million euros.
Narrator: Knowing the lockdown was likely again this year, Keukenhof had to make a choice: Plant everything as usual, or play it safe and plant a more modest garden. They decided to take the risk, but this year’s opening has already been delayed by several weeks.
Bart: We make costs during the entire year, 12 months of the year, and we only make money in eight weeks.
Narrator: With the clock already ticking, will these efforts be for nothing? Keukenhof is located in Lisse, Netherlands, and roughly translates to kitchen garden. Owen has been working at Keukenhof for 33 years, and he’s pretty much a tulip expert.
Owen: I didn’t see much flowers when I came here first. Now, I knew what a daffodil was, but not a tulip.
Narrator: Every season begins by tearing last year’s bulbs out of the ground. They’ll be composted and used as fertilizer.
Owen: For your own garden, you can leave it in the ground. But if you leave in the ground for three or four years, the flower is going to be smaller, and smaller, and smaller. You won’t get the accepted quality as you put in new bulbs. So, that’s the whole idea.
Narrator: Harvesting 7 million bulbs is no easy task, and it’s definitely not quick. It takes the gardeners almost two months.
Henk de Mooij: This is where the creative stuff happens.
Narrator: Meanwhile, designers like Frans get to work.
Frans Beijk: I do this by hand, and then I put it in a computer.
Narrator: It takes him about four months to get dozens of designs from draft to final. Each of the 800 different varieties of tulip in this year’s show was hand-selected based on its quality and color. The designs are finalized by early summer. And then the orders are sent out to bulb growers.
Meanwhile, gardeners use Frans’ map to measure and mark the boundaries to prepare the garden. In late summer, the millions of bulbs Frans ordered arrive. They’re then sorted by color, shape, and variety, and checked for size and firmness. Each bag will be assigned a number that corresponds to a plot and type of bulb to ensure the gardeners make no mistakes.
Henk: Preparation is everything. If the preparation isn’t good, the result will not be good also.
Narrator: When October hits, it’s time to plant.
Owen: Everybody’s got his own spade.
Narrator: This is the most important tool in the gardener’s toolbox.
Owen: I got it nearly 25 years. It’s like my second marriage.
Narrator: The tulip is a beautiful but short-lived flower, lasting only about a week and a half. So to keep the gardens flowering all eight weeks of the season, the gardeners use a technique called the lasagna method, where they stagger early- and late-blooming bulbs. The late bloomers are planted first and deeper, and they arrive in May. The middle row blooms around April, and the crocuses are on top since they blossom in March.
Owen: If you pay money, you want to see your flowers. So that’s why we plant in different layers. Late flowers, early flowers, and crocuses.
Narrator: All of the planting here is done entirely by hand.
Henk: A machine cannot plant shapes like this. A machine cannot plant in layers. And a machine cannot plant mixtures. Every day, cold, rain, doesn’t matter.
Owen: It’s just a lot of work. There’s no problem.
Narrator: The Dutch climate is perfect for tulips – not too hot, and with winters just cold enough to trigger an important biochemical process needed for the tulips to bloom properly. When the soil temperature is below 55 degrees, it breaks down starches and carbohydrates in the bulb to form glucose. Glucose is less likely to freeze than water and helps the bulb withstand colder temperatures. Then when the temperature rises, the glucose becomes an energy source that helps the flower bloom. For ideal growth, it should stay cold for around 12 to 14 weeks.
Tulips originated in the central plains of Asia and were a favorite flower of the Ottoman Empire before being imported to the Netherlands around 400 years ago.
Bart: It was the time of Rembrandt, Vermeer, famous Dutch painters, and the prices of tulip bulbs, they go sky-high. One of the canal houses was sold for three tulip bulbs, which is nowadays, of course, impossible to understand.
Narrator: The Dutch were basically trading in tulip futures, speculating the price would go higher and higher.
Bart: And then at one time, people started to realize that it was gone up a little bit too high, like the bubbles that we have now in the economy, and the prices went down. And that’s what we call the tulip mania times. And then 100 years ago, the first real professional tulip growers created their farms here in this surrounding.
Narrator: Now, almost every tulip flower you see around the world has its origins here in the Netherlands. And that’s pretty big business.
Bart: The floral industry in the Netherlands is about 6 billion euros, and the flower bulb industry is about 700, 800 million euros a year.
Narrator: Since tulips are generally grown from a bulb, not a seed, they take patience to propagate. And creating enough bulbs to introduce a new variety can take 20 years. You can see some of them on display here at Keukenhof’s Greenhouse Pavilion.
Henk: The grower brought it to Keukenhof to show it to the audience.
Narrator: New tulips aren’t just named, they’re baptized.
Henk: As soon as someone wants to baptize it, there will be a ceremony with a lot of Champagne and the big certificates, and then the tulip will be registered to its new name.
Narrator: There are about 6,500 tulip varieties. And each is registered at the Royal General Bulb Growers’ Association.
Henk: It’s from the Darwin hybrid group, and it’s called a Momotaro. Yes, no clue what it means. An old, traditional, small tulip, and it’s called Quebec. This one’s called Neglige. It’s very pointy. The color changes. It starts yellow, and in the end it’s red.
Narrator: Leading up to the opening, things get pretty stressful here as everyone works tirelessly to make sure things look perfect.
Bart: Sometimes you see a little spot where something is mixed up, a yellow one in a field of red tulips. It’s a disgrace for the gardener. They’ll pick it away anyway.
Owen: There’s a crocus from last year. See, we just keep them tidy.
Narrator: They had hoped to open on March 20, but with the Netherlands still in lockdown, opening day came and went with the park staying empty.
Henk: It’s been hard for the people. For instance, gardeners that have been planting bulbs for three months, have been on their knees. And there’s no problem because that’s their job. They love it. They also love to show what they’ve made to the public.
Narrator: For now, the rest of the world will have to wait and view Keukenhof via virtual tour.
Bart: It’s a very hard time. We have to adjust, of course, as every company does, but we will face it. Keukenhof is an institute. We’re the showcase of the floral industry in the Netherlands. It’s a hard period of time, but we will survive at least. And we hope for a good 2022, because Keukenhof is still beautiful.