A tulip time cruise in the Netherlands is a terrific spring vacation option. Dozens of river ships sail the canals and rivers of the Netherlands and Belgium from mid-March through mid-May, giving guests the opportunity to see the spectacular tulips and other bulb flowers of the region.
The cruises visit great cities like Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Brussels, along with quaint villages along the waterways. However, the biggest draw for most spring visitors are the tulips, and you'll see plenty of them on one of these 7 to 10-day voyages.
The tulip cruises always include a half-day excursion to the famous Keukenhof Gardens, which are located near the Amsterdam airport. These gardens are only open for six to eight weeks each year when the bulb flowers are blooming, and farmers exhibit their best tulips hoping that amateur and professional horticulturalists will buy their bulbs. It's a colorful, amazing place to spend the day.
In addition to visiting Keukenhof and driving through the countryside to see the fields of blooming bulb flowers, it's fun to walk through the flower markets in Amsterdam to see the bundles of tulips for sale. They are so lovely, one can't help but wonder how they were packaged so perfectly! Therefore, visiting a family-owned tulip farm and observing the whole process of harvesting and preparing the tulips for sale is a great learning opportunity.
Siem Munster, his wife and four young daughters plant 30 hectares of tulips at their farm in the Netherlands. Siem's grandfather first owned the farm and his father ran the farm from 1971 to 2003, when Siem took it over.
The Munster farm, like much of the Netherlands, sits on land reclaimed from the sea, and it sits about 20 feet below sea level. The farmland looks rich today, but it certainly looked much different at the end of World War II. Three weeks before the Allies liberated the Netherlands, German soldiers bombed the dike, and this farm, along with all the surrounding reclaimed land, was flooded with sea water.
Only tulip bulbs are harvested from the Munster's fields, but they also have large greenhouses where they grow and process cut tulip flowers between the end of December and early May each year. Tulips for cut flowers are grown in greenhouses so that the farmers can control the storage temperature from the time the bulbs are harvested in the late summer until they are harvested.
During the summer harvest, the Munsters sell many of their bulbs, but put about 7 to 8 million tulip bulbs in cold storage, with the first million bulbs planted by hand in the greenhouse around the beginning of December. The tulip life cycle in the greenhouse takes about three weeks, with one million tulips processed per three-week cycle. This equates to harvesting, processing, and bundling 80,000 to 100,000 tulip stems per day during this four-month cut flower season. That's a lot of tulips, isn't it?
The Munsters have about 20 people who work each day in the greenhouses. When the work moves to the fields, the number of workers doubles. As seen in the photo above, the tulips are cut before the blossoms are fully open so that they will reach their peak when they reach the final customer, not at the wholesaler or retailer.
Tulips are Harvested From Greenhouses With Bulbs Attached
At the end of the three-week growing cycle in the greenhouses, the tulips are pulled up by hand with the bulbs attached and placed on these carts. This is an important part of the process because about 1 inch of the stem is surrounded by the bulb.
The longer the tulip, the higher the price, and this inch adds one cent to the price of each stem. One cent doesn't sound like much, but it represents $70,000 to $80,000 each year for the farm.
Greenhouse Workers Prepare the Tulips for Processing
The farm has a machine that crushes and removes each bulb but doesn't hurt the stem, leaves, or flower. The workers in this photo are preparing each stem to be passed through the bulb-crushing machine.
Tulips are Lined Up for Sizing and Packaging
After the tulip stems have their bulb crushed, workers align them to be trimmed, counted, and packaged.
The Machine Trims Tulip Stems
It is important that all the tulips be uniformly trimmed, and this machine does the trick, cutting off just a tiny portion of the stems.
The Machine Sorts Tulip Stems into Batches of Ten
The entire tulip process is highly mechanized, but one of the most fascinating pieces of equipment is this tulip-bunching robot, which uses X-ray technology to make bunches of 10 tulips.
Workers Bundle Tulips and Ready for Shipment to Flower Market
Workers wrap five of the ten-tulip bundles together and put them back onto a cart so they can be rolled into the cold storage until they are picked up during the night.
Tulips are Stored Until Picked up and Delivered to Flower Markets
The workers are busy all day long processing the tulips. After a cart is filled, it is rolled back to the cold storage, where it is held until the truck comes during the night to pick them up for delivery to one of the Dutch flower markets. The flowers are auctioned off in the early morning and are then delivered worldwide. Tulips growing on the Munster farm one day can be at a retailer anywhere in the world the next day!
Blooming Tulips in a Field in Holland
The photo above was taken on a previous visit to Holland in early April. The tulips only bloom for about two weeks, but you can usually see fields of them during April, depending on the weather.
What happens to the tulips grown in the fields? They are not cut and sold to the tulip markets. As discussed previously, tulips sold in the markets are grown in greenhouses, whereas tulips grown in the fields are cut off right below the bloom, preserving the leaves. This process enables all of the sun's energy to be pushed into growing a better bulb.
Farmers let the flowers bloom for about two weeks so that they can inspect them for any problems or disease, thereby giving them a chance to destroy any defective bulbs. After pulling up any inferior bulbs, the tulip blossoms are cut using a machine kind of like a giant lawnmower.
As noted before, only the blooms are chopped off, leaving the stem and leaves. The cut blossoms are destroyed since they have no odor, so can't be used for perfume. It is important for the farmers to remove the blooms from the fields since if they lay on the soil, molds or diseases might fester.
Late in the summer, the bulbs are harvested, using sophisticated machinery that can harvest about two hectares of bulbs per day. Before this machine was invented, it took the whole summer to dig up the bulbs by hand. Nowadays, the bulbs are planted between two layers of netting. The machine pulls up the netting and dumps the bulbs into a cart. Amazing, isn't it?