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Indoor Tulips to Ease the Winter Malaise

Part 1: The first three weeks

Last March, I decided to experiment with growing tulips indoors to help get me through the January doldrums. A major motivation in this experiment is that most of us crave fresh and colorful life in the middle of the dormant winter. I also love experimenting with new flowers and growing methods, so this is a great reason to turn my grow lights on earlier than usual. I figured I'd share a little more about them because, like me, you might feel that winter is slowly shrinking your soul and you need to see something green.

So here we go!

The Process

Okay, let's talk tulips. Tulips are interesting because as a bulb they have all the energy they need to bloom already stored. They send out roots and leaves to photosynthesize so they can grow, but tulips that are used for cut flowers are grown as a “one and done”. This means they can be “forced” into flowering by just using water to grow. We do not need to provide additional nutrition because we aren't aiming for them to reproduce and grow another flower. Really this means that I'm not growing them hydroponically because I'm not using nutrients in the water, but let’s not get too technical here.

What tulips do need to flower is a certain number of cold hours, just like fruit trees. Bulbs used for forcing are chilled at a specific temperature by the bulb supplier for 15-20 weeks before “planting”. The bulbs are placed in trays without any growing medium (aka soil or potting mix) and given clean water to initiate rooting. The bulbs root for two weeks in the dark at about 40-45 degrees F. With roots and shoots, they are then placed under grow lights in a warmer temperature where they grow for another month before flowering.

Naked tulips ready for planting.

The Nitty Gritty

The first step to preparing these soon-to-be-beauties is to remove their tunic. Yep, you have to undress these bulbs from their papery skin since they will not be pushing up through soil to remove it for them.

The second step is to place each bulb in the tray with the point facing up. Our Dutch friends have been doing this process for quite some time and have created a handy little tray made specifically for this purpose. Of course, I didn't buy enough of these fancy trays so I'm also experimenting with some standard seeding trays. Gotta problem solve, you know.

In the hydroponic trays, the bulb sits nicely in between the rows of needles. By nicely, I mean that some of them get impaled a bit, but it helps them stay anchored and upright as they grow their heavy foliage.

There is something very satisfying in seeing all these bulbs nicely lined up, don't you think?

Left: Planted in hydro trays and filled with water. Middle: Planted in 72-cell seeding trays. Right: Day 3 roots and shoots.

In the hydroponic trays, the water line reaches perfectly to the basal plate of the bulb which is where the roots grow. The bulbs don't want to be submerged in water so the trays have holes punched in the side so this doesn't happen. I simply top off with fresh water as the roots grow and the water level goes down.

Left: Close up of tray spikes and root growth (day 22). Right: Day 16 growth of shorter varieties.

After two weeks in my garage at about 42 degrees, I bring the trays in to my grow room (aka spare bedroom exclusively for growing plants), turn on my racks of grow lights and keep the temperature at a nice 60-70 degrees by using fans and opening the window. Now they should grow for about 4 more weeks and be ready to harvest in time for my first round of bouquet subscriptions.

That was the plan at least...

Set #1, batch #1 day 22. Five different varieties of what should be a purple and white palette.

Wait, there was a plan?

One of my favorite aspects of growing is the planning. It's like taking a trip - half the fun is in the anticipation. I had a beautiful plan for growing these tulips that I carefully crafted for WEEKS. Selecting the right type of tulips, lining up timing, scrutinizing the color palettes, staying on budget, and creating space in the grow room. Weeks of planning resulted in three different color palettes (planted between two weeks) with one week between starting a new color set so that customers would receive a bouquet every three weeks. Oh yeah, plus a set in the middle scheduled to bloom in time for Valentine's Day. Perfect! It makes fantastic sense on paper.

I know, the only thing that I should plan for is for the plan to change. So far this plan has changed about ten times and I'm only 22 days into this process. As you can see, the varieties in this batch are not growing evenly. There is even a variety that is starting to color up three weeks early! Did these tulips not see the plan?!

Set #1 batch #2 day 16, same five varieties. Second day under lights.

Over Here in Reality...

It's okay though. I knew that I was taking a risk and trying something new. That is the point of experimenting - keeping life fresh with new learning experiences. It's exciting to watch the sprouts getting taller every day. It's exciting to see differences in color and height. It's exciting to have the first buds showing color even if it is not in line with my plan.

Buds coloring up on day 22. Will these be purple, or did I misjudge the variety?

Why does the plan matter so much anyway? Well, because I'm a perfectionist that deeply strives to maintain a sense of order in life. Yeah, I know, I'm in the wrong line of work to hold that expectation. Really the plan is meant to understand the required space, tools, and timing. More importantly, the plan is to be able to communicate with the lovely, lovely people who buy these beautiful flowers. There are no markets open this early in the year (January - March) which means I rely on bouquet subscriptions to have homes for these flowers. This means that I need to tell people when there bouquets should arrive, but these little divas don't follow anyone's schedule but their own.

All that goes to say, thank you for being here on this flower journey with me and understanding that the flowers will be beautiful but probably not on schedule!

Stay tuned and we'll see what delights the next few weeks has in store...

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