Tulip Experiments in North Texas
Updated: Jan 11
There is something seriously mesmerizing about Tulips. Perhaps it's because they're one of the first signs of beauty after a dreary winter. Perhaps, for Texas, they're seductiveness comes from their inaccessibility. I want to grow what I can't have. :D
But why can't I? The reason is because Tulips need vernalization. Specifically, weeks upon weeks of cold weather and North Texas simple can't give them what they need. Even more challenging, after weeks of cold weather, they need weeks of cool weather: temperatures that are not freezing (which kills the flower bud) but cool and prolonged enough to elongate the stem. And they need generous amounts of water during that time. We REALLY don't have that here in North Texas.
Just for fun, let's add another challenge. There's many different types of Tulips, some are early season, some are mid season, some are late season. Some are double, single, parrot, etc. And each variety has it's own requirements for cooling and blooming. It's infuriating really :p
Spoiler alert: let me warn you right now that this post will contain far more questions than answers. When we look at what a Tulip might need to successfully produce a nice long stem, you can look at your own situation to determine if you can meet it's needs. If you really want to invest in large scale tulip production, I encourage you to take the Tulip Forcing Workshop by Little Farm House Flowers. They are a powerhouse of tulip knowledge.
The first several years of farming, we found that prechilled Impressions responded well with nice long stems. Many wholesale tulip bulb suppliers will offer to prechill your bulbs for a little extra cost. We order ours from Ball Seed and they offer both 9C and 5C options for chilling. Planted outside in December, they had some cool weather to develop roots (40 degrees is ideal), sprout and elongate during our typical mild January, and finish off in our cool February. I could often harvest early February before a deep freeze swooped in. Or, planted in our high tunnel, they were protected from random freezes that could kill the bud, while having time to elongate their stem during the cooler days of February.
I still wasn't satisfied, however. I wanted to crack the code on those ruffly double tulips or unique parrot ones. A single tulip wasn't good enough for me. So I ordered some doubles, pre chilled them myself, planted in crates for nice root development, let them begin to sprout and then transplanted them in the high tunnel late January where they could be protected from freeze. It failed miserably. My stems were 6 inches at best. Furthermore the field Impressions also failed miserably. Suddenly, I was longing for even just a simple single beautiful tulip. What went wrong??! In a nutshell: the weather.
The weather patterns for North Texas have shifted the past two years. We used to get several weeks worth of nice cool weather at a time, so if you ordered pre-chilled tulips and planted at the right time, you could get a nice harvest. The past two winters, however, we've seen months of extreme temperature swings, from high 70's to mid-20's every other week. This makes tulip growing especially difficult. The hot weather causes the tulip to set bud very quickly, often before the stem has had a chance to elongate. If the tulips is in a high tunnel you're left with super short stems. If it's outside, then the deep freeze kills the bud. You could plant your tulips very far into the ground, so that even if it sets a bud near the surface of the soil, there's a nice long stem underneath the soil. Unfortunately, we can't do that because we have heavy clay and planting the bulb that deep will result in death by rot.
What's a farmer to do? Well, a smart one would write off Tulips and move on. I, however, am far more stubborn than smart. So this is what I did: I again ordered double tulips (Mary Jo, 17 weeks of cooling required) and immediately planted them into a crate. Well watered, I put them in my cooler at 40 degrees for root development. There's a small light in my cooler and just like a merry-go-round of moving seedling trays in and out to harden, etc., I moved that silly crate of tulips inside my house every time it froze. And every time it got above 65 degrees, I moved it back into my cool cooler under that little light. It's ALOT of moving. We've 65+ degree temperatures every 3-4 days and freezes the next 3-4 days for the entire winter. My lower back thinks I'm an idiot. :D It might be right.
Clearly, on a large scale, this is a ridiculous approach. If you had structure that you could temperature & light control, this would work just fine. But I don't. I simply have a little cooler with a little light. Tulips need at least 6 hours of bright sunlight so unless I invest in much stronger lighting, the crate needs to come out into the sun when ever possible, when ever it's not hotter than 65. This is a tall order.
The results aren't in yet. I'm still moving that silly crate in and out of the cooler trying to get the stems to elongate before the buds burst open. As I look at the next 5 days of temperatures near 80, I'm beginning to regret this experiment. But I'm also wondering if a different variety would do better. I'm peaking at tulip bulbs in catalogs. I'm saving tulips pics on instagram. I'm toying with all sorts of other ridiculous ideas about next year. One crate isn't too much to trial is it? The tulip spell is strong.
It seems I just can't help myself.