Our Hunt for Bulbs in Holland

As fall planting season approaches and you begin to consider which spring-blooming bulbs to add to your garden, we thought we’d tell you a bit about how we find those bulbs and introduce you to some of the bulb experts who help us do it.

To search out Daffodils, Tulips and other spring bloomers, we fly each spring to northern Holland, an area of the Netherlands that contains one of the largest concentrations of bulb growers in the world. Because of demands back at the farm, our trips have to be kept fairly short, only 2 to 3 days, but we pack in a great deal, visiting 6 to 8 bulb growers, and always making time for a visit to the legendary flower garden Keukenhof in Lisse.

On each trip, our first view of what awaits comes through the plane window. Laid out below is a colorful patchwork of Holland’s bulb fields in full and glorious bloom, stretching as far as the eye can see. As many times as we’ve seen this spectacle, it still does something to our hearts, stirring wonder and pure joy in equal measure.

The view from the plane. Photo credit: Eric Breed
The view from the plane. Photo credit: Eric Breed

At the airport gate, we’re met by two extraordinary men we’re privileged to consider our Dutch partners and friends. Carlos van der Veek and Eric Breed are two of the principals in Fluwel, an internationally recognized bulb breeding, growing, and exporting company. Carlos founded Fluwel in 1992 with Tulip expert Jeroen van dan Hoek, and Eric joined the company in 2008. “Fluwel” is an acronym for “Flowers love u, we enjoy life,” and it gives you some idea of the spirit that infuses the whole operation.

Our Dutch Partners

Carlos, a self-professed “bulb nerd,” grew up in the business. His late father, Karel van der Veek, was a renowned Daffodil hybridizer who collected and grew Daffodils behind the farmhouse where Carlos was raised and where his mother still lives. (Carlos is bringing up his own children in a house across the street.) Karel’s garden, which began with just two types of Daffodils, now contains 2,635 varieties. Carlos was “spoon-fed” bulb know-how by his Dad from an early age. Today, he’s internationally regarded as a “walking encyclopedia” on Daffodils.

Carlos van der Veek
Carlos van der Veek

Eric, who is “a bulb nerd like me,” according to Carlos, is the son of bulb breeder Kees Breed. His maternal grandfather was a 3rd generation bulb grower whose fields abutted Keukenhof. Eric spent his youth in and around the fields, deadheading flowers, scanning for virus, driving the tractor, and cutting Tulips. He also worked with Jeroen’s father to learn about forcing Tulips. A photographer and consultant, Eric has traveled the world hunting for Tulips, and his trips to Kazakhstan, Georgia, Israel, Crete, Turkey, Spain, and Tibet are chronicled in his booklet Going Wild for Tulips.

Eric Breed in Kazakhstan in 2001, hunting for Tulip greigii and Tulip kaufmanniana
Eric Breed in Kazakhstan in 2001, hunting for Tulip greigii and Tulip kaufmanniana

Guided by Carlos, Jeroen, and Eric, who seem to have new and creative ideas every 6 seconds, the men have made Fluwel an international force that is synonymous with expertise and the highest quality bulbs. Their flowers are sought by buyers all over the world and can be seen in displays in Keukenhof; at Germany’s Schloss Ippenburg; and at the Tivoli amusement park in Copenhagen, among many other venues. Their passion for bulbs inspires their efforts to educate people of all ages and to make learning about and living with flowers a fun and enriching experience for all. In Sint-Maartensvlotbrug, they created Tulpenland, a theme park and “land of eternal spring” that attracts visitors of all ages who are invited to walk through exhibits and playscapes inspired by the history of the Tulip.

The Barnum-like expansion of Fluwel over the years is governed by the same passion and enthusiasm that characterizes our meetings with Carlos and Eric, who are equal parts farmers, bulb experts, and ambassadors for all they grow.

The Search Is On

Leaving the airport, we hop into Carlos’ van, and we’re off, traveling across miles of Holland’s flat fields, all of them exploding with colorful flowers. Among our stops is Fluwel, where acres are planted with Daffodils, Tulips, and Crocuses. Over coffee, a tradition of Dutch hospitality, we talk bulbs. As Carlos likes to say, “Once you start talking about Tulips and Daffodils, just make another cup of coffee, because we won’t stop talking anymore.”

ea & carlos in field
White Flower Farm’s marketing director, Eliot A. Wadsworth, left, and Daffodil expert Carlos van der Veek

When coffee time comes to an end (about 3 cups later), we head outdoors.

Walking the fields with Carlos and Eric is an extraordinary pleasure and an inspiration. They might show us ancient Narcissus varieties rescued from abandoned home sites; talk about how the different colors of the blooms change over the course of time as the flowers age; help us learn about optimal planting depths and how they affect the overall success rate or possibly just the bloom timing; and point out planned and unplanned color combinations that we can translate into the garden pairings we suggest in our catalogs. What we learn on these walks, we pass along to our customers, the benefit of Carlos and Eric’s wisdom distilled not only in our plant choices but in the information we provide for growing and taking care of them.

Tulip 'Lalibella'
Tulip ‘Lalibella’
A yellow double in its habitat
A yellow double in its habitat

While at Fluwel, Carlos, Eric and our staff members work together to create the proprietary mixes of Daffodils and Tulips that White Flower Farm customers love. Many longtime favorites including our Pastel Stretch Tulip Mix, The Works Daffodil Mix, and the Golden Legacy Daffodil Mix were designed in the fields at Fluwel. (Both Daffodil collections include varieties grown and tended by Carlos’ father.)

Fluwel Mix at Keukenhof
The gardens at Keukenhof attract thousands of visitors each spring.

Before leaving Fluwel, the fittest among us take the time to climb one of the company’s wind turbines, reaching the top to get a bird’s eye view of the fields below.

In addition to showing us around Fluwel, Carlos and Eric don their hats as bulb exporters, and we spend the next few days visiting a handful of select specialty growers. These are individuals who have worked with and grown bulbs for Fluwel for years, and most are personal friends of Carlos and Eric. At each stop, we’re offered coffee, of course, and before the day is through, we’ll have had about 15 cups; which is quite useful when battling jet lag.

We visit growers who specialize in the hybridization of new varieties of Tulips; maintain stocks of existing varieties; grow for the cut flower market; or have a wide range of very special bulbs.

Muscari Maxibell
Muscari Maxibell

Everywhere we go, enchantments abound, with unusual flowers to see and choose from. One highly specialized grower produces only varieties of miniature Muscari, and the tiny blossoms are so small they seem suitable for dollhouses. With Carlos and Eric at our elbows, we take notes, snap pictures, and begin ordering samples to be shipped back to Connecticut for trials in our gardens.

Tulip 'Red Impression,' Tulip 'Pink Impression,' and Tulip 'Apricot Impression'
Tulips ‘Red Impression,’ ‘Pink Impression,’ and ‘Apricot Impression’

Keukenhof Gardens

No spring trip to Holland is complete without a detour to world famous Keukenhof. Carlos and Eric accompany us, escorting us through the displays of individual bulbs and the stunning combinations created by a variety of growers and designers including Fluwel.

Combinations we see sometimes become the inspiration for the bulb gardens we offer White Flower Farm customers at holiday time. But early on, we learned that bulb combinations that bloom simultaneously in Holland don’t always perform similarly in the United States. Because our climates are different, and the sun tends to be stronger in the U.S., combinations that work beautifully at Keukenhof don’t always succeed in our part of the world. Carlos and Eric tell us which combinations will work stateside and which won’t. (We also trial each combo we create to ensure that the results are as spectacular as they can be.)

As our Holland visit comes to an end, we place our bulb orders, and bid our Dutch friends goodbye.

Back in Connecticut, as we usher in the busy spring season, the bulbs in Holland continue to grow. When summer arrives in the Netherlands, the bulbs are harvested and cured by drying them or keeping them at particular temperatures, depending on their type. In the large warehouse at Fluwel, the bulbs are sorted, counted and packed by machines. Proprietary mixes, including our Pastel Stretch Tulip Mix, are assembled by hand.

Tutti Tulpi, the making of a mix
The making of a bulb mix in the warehouse at Fluwel.

Our brand labels are added, and the bulbs are moved to temperature-controlled containers for the trip across the ocean. Maintaining optimal temperatures is a critical part of the process because buying the best bulbs in the world does no good unless they’re properly stored during transport. To ensure our bulbs are kept at optimal temperatures, each container houses a thermostatic recorder to keep an account of temperatures from portal to portal. When we receive the bulbs at our warehouse in Torrington, Conn., in late August and early September, members of our staff carefully check the recorders to ensure that the correct temperatures were maintained during the trip. If everything is in good order, we transfer the bulbs to our own temperature-controlled coolers and keep the bulbs active and healthy until they’re shipped to customers.

Our partnership with Carlos and Eric is one of the highlights of being in the gardening business. It’s a relationship that’s built on friendship, trust, mutual admiration, and a common desire to share the benefit of our knowledge with those who plant bulbs in their gardens.

Narcsissus Pinza_colorful daff blue sky_RS

As Carlos puts it, “We gather knowledge and share it.”

For us, that’s what gardening is all about. That, and all those beautiful flowers.