Planting Seven Million Bulbs: A Gardenerís Perspective on Hollandís KeukenhofBy Jill M. Nicolaus (critterologist)
April 25, 2013
(Editor's Note: This article was published on April 16, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
When planning my spring visit to the Netherlands, I knew I had to see the famous Keukenhof gardens. I spent an unforgettable day exploring its splendor. In addition, I had the privilege of spending some time with master gardener André Beijk. He has been gardening at the Keukenhof for 22 years and is one of three head gardeners on staff. I knew he'd have some fascinating insights to share!
Where do the bulbs come from, and where will they go?
The bulbs are donated by growers, who see the gardens are a unique showcase for their wares. Small markers throughout the garden tell visitors what varieties they're admiring. Larger signs next to each bed indicate which grower sponsored the display, letting people know who would be glad to sell them their new favorites this fall.
A landscape designer plans each display area, taking into account how it will look from multiple viewing angles. Including early and late blooming bulbs in the designs ensures interest throughout the ten week season. The designers are true artists, creating an elegant informality with the freeform curves of the perfectly planted beds. Detailed planting diagrams for each bed help the gardeners translate the designer's vision into reality.
Each display bed contains layers of bulbs, from early bloomers to late season bulbs. The display in a bed might begin as a circle of snowy crocus blooms, accented with a swoop of sky blue Scilla siberica, with small islands of canary yellow Iris danfordiae among emerging burgundy-streaked leaves of Tulipa greigii. This could be followed by the brilliant blooms of the tulips across the bed, with an added outline of grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum). Near the end of the season, yet another pattern of late blooming tulips in contrasting colors might emerge.
How do you plant seven million bulbs?
ONE BULB AT A TIME.
The Keukenhof has a year-round staff of thirty gardeners. An additional ten are hired during the two month fall planting season. Crates and boxes of bulbs arrive continuously in October and November and are sorted out according to where they'll be planted. I was envisioning huge tractor trailer trucks backing up to the gates, but André laughed and told me that seven million bulbs didn't take up quite that much space.
Gardeners use motorized carts to bring the boxes of bulbs to each bed. Design diagrams tell them exactly where each variety will go. The bulbs for each layer are placed over the entire bed, creating a balanced look by with careful attention to spacing. Once the bulb placement has been tweaked to the gardener's satisfaction, planting begins.
André starts at one end of the bed, kneeling down so he can dig and plant one bulb at a time into its assigned spot. Once the first layer of bulbs is completed, the second and possibly third layers are laid out and planted just the same way. It takes him just two hours to plant a good sized bed like this, he said, waving at an area I estimated to be nearly a thousand square feet in size.
The sandy, loamy soil in the beds is worked to fluffy perfection before fall planting. André says the soil is so loose that he could just about shove each bulb down into position without actually digging. However, he figures his hands would get a bit sore after the first thousand or so bulbs, so he'd rather use his little shovel.
I asked André if he remembered any particular beds that he had planted last fall. He shook his head and said that by the end of November it was all pretty much a blur. Small wonder! Seven million bulbs divided by 40 gardeners equals an average of 175 thousand bulbs apiece. I strive to add at least a thousand bulbs each year, but numbers like that make my own efforts seem puny.
Most of us garden on a far less grand scale, but we can still learn from the gardeners at the Keukenhof. Whether we're planting a small container or a backyard bonanza of blooms, a little planning may help you create striking displays. Plant layers of early and late varieties for a long blooming season.
And if you ever get the chance to travel to the Netherlands, try to go in late April, during the height of spring flowering at the Keukenhof!
For an overview and more photos of the Keukehnof, please click on Holland's Keukenhof Gardens: Sixty Years of Spectacular Spring Flowers. An upcoming article will have additional information on gardening at the Keukenhof. You may also want to take a look at the Keukenhof's website.
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Photos by Jill M Nicolaus.
Thanks to AnneMarie Gerard and her staff at the Communications Office and to André Beijk for an unforgettable tour. Beyond appreciating his behind-the-scenes insights, it was a pleasure to spend time with a man who so clearly loves what he does.