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Tulips to Amsterdam

26 September 2022

The Southland temperature is just right. Add great soil, Dutch genes, 50 million tulip bulbs and ideal storage timing and you’ve a recipe for export success. Words Diana Noonan Photos Mark Jongejan, Triflor

Mark Jongejan loves tulips – so much so that if he ever gets married, he definitely plans to incorporate them into the big day. In fact, he says he may even get married in a tulip field! So why on earth is this Southland tulip farmer mowing off the heads of his gorgeous spring flowers right when they’re in their prime?

Mark manages Triflor tulip farm at Edendale in Southland, supervising the growing of 50 million tulip bulbs on 100ha of land. It’s a job he built his way up to. But, as he explains, he’s worked with tulips all his life. “My uncle had a tulip farm in Holland. As a little kid, I used to ride on his tractor, and then at some stage, I moved from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat!” After finishing agricultural school and specialising in tulip growing, a working holiday took Mark to New Zealand, where he started working for Triflor, a Dutch company growing tulips in Southland. And the rest is history!

Tulips love Southland

Mark says the tulip bulbs thrive in their Southland environment. “The soils here are very fertile and high in organic matter. Because we grow on an old river terrace, the draining capacity of the soil is fairly high, which is very important because we plant our crops in June, and they have to survive a Southland winter.”

Because Edendale is relatively close to the coast, it never gets extremely hot or extremely cold, which also suits tulip requirements. “As my grandfather used to say,” laughs Mark: “‘If you want to grow tulips, you need to wear a jacket, because if you can take your jacket off, it’s too warm for them!’”

Edendale’s proximity to the coast also means there’s plenty of wind about, which helps subdue aphids, the crop’s main pest (the insect doesn’t like to fly in windy conditions).

To what are already great soils for tulips, Mark and his team add potassium and nitrogen. The potassium, which is slow to move through the ground, goes on at cultivation time and is worked into the soil so that it reaches what will be the tulips’ root level. The nitrogen, which travels more readily in the soil, is added at the end of July, just before the bulbs’ shoots start to emerge from the ground (adding it any later is to risk chemically burning the foliage).

Challenging times

Southland weather can play havoc with tulips, though, and Mark says that heavy rain is always something he has to keep in mind.

“We don’t plant in low spots in a field, and we have ways of pumping water out of the field if it gathers. But our biggest risk is hail because our tulips are planted outside, without any covering. If the flower gets damaged, it doesn’t necessarily matter. But if the hail is so severe that it badly damages or destroys the leaves, then the plant can no longer grow, and it won’t be able to produce a commercial bulb.”

Snow in Southland is also a problem. About two years ago, it lay on Mark’s tulip crop for two days, reducing the bulb yield by 15–20 per cent. Dry weather can also take its toll, as Mark explains.

“A mature tulip crop will evaporate about 6–7mm of moisture a day. That means a good shower of 30mm is probably going to last the crop just five to six days, and then we’ll need to irrigate. Irrigation keeps us busy from October to January.”

Growing for export

Some of the bulbs are destined for the New Zealand market, where they are sold under the brand ‘Fiesta’. But most are shipped off to Europe and North America, where they are grown in greenhouses and ‘forced’ to bloom at just the right time (September to December) for the outof- season cut flower industry.

Tulip bulbs are measured in centimetres around their circumference, with size determining spacing and marketability. Every bulb above 10cm is sold. Every bulb that is 7–10cm is planted. Bulbs smaller than 7cm are planted 700 bulbs to a square metre, and will take two or more seasons to reach commercial size. Bulbs that are 7cm in circumference are planted 200 to a square metre, while those 8–10cm are planted 150 to a square metre.

Mark says that once the bulbs reach their greenhouse market destination, it’s a different ball game. “Nowadays, in glasshouse situations, the bulbs are either grown hard up against each other to maximise yield, or are grown in a hydroculture situation, using only water. By the time the water-grown bulbs produce a flower, there’s nothing left of the bulb. It has consumed itself to feed the flower. Which is why we need to keep producing bulbs for the greenhouse market!”

The southern hemisphere advantage

The normal storage period for a tulip is between 6–8 months, after which its quality starts to drop quickly. In Holland, tulips are auctioned in big flower markets, where the price they fetch is based on the length of the stem and the combined weight of the stem and flower.

If northern hemisphere growers wanted to grow out-of-season tulips from their own bulbs, they would have to store them for too long before planting them. By buying New Zealand bulbs, they are guaranteed quality flowers from bulbs that have been stored for just the right length of time.


Harvest is the busiest time on the Edendale farm, which employs around a hundred staff for the period. The bulbs (which are grown between layers of plastic net buried in the ground in order to reduce the amount of soil that is c arried with them to the shed) are mechanically lifted. They are washed (they must be thoroughly clean of soil for some overseas markets), then peeled. During peeling, the old skin is removed, along with the roots (old roots can inhibit the development of new roots, especially in greenhouse environments).

The bulbs are then stored for five weeks at 25°C. The heat helps them produce a bigger flower, and also delays their coming through the soil after being planted. This can mean the foliage escapes the worst of the winter and spring weather.

The bulbs go to their overseas destinations in chilled shipping containers. Each variety of tulip needs the right amount of cold to reach its full potential, but the average length of time is 15 weeks.

Colour & Fusarium

Fusarium disease is a problem in tulips, but some colours and varieties are more resistant to it than others. Yellow tulips (especially ‘Strong Gold’), ‘Ad Rem’ (in orange) and ‘Marit’ (a soft-pink tulip) tend to come into this category. Pinks, in general, however, tend to be less resistant to fusarium, as are parrot tulips (with ruffled petals and bright colours resembling the bird’s feathers).

Where have all the flowers gone?

To return to Mark’s habit of cutting the heads off the flowers he loves... when asked to explain himself, he replies:

“If you don’t take the flower off a tulip, seed will start to form, and that’s going to take a lot of energy away from the new bulb that’s forming, and reduce its size. However, we do leave most of the flowers on long enough for staff to cull any rogue ones (ones that may be the wrong colour or which have a virus).”

The removing of heads is done with a mower. Local school children are employed to remove, by hand, any heads that the mower misses. Mark enjoys having the young people on the farm.

“We pick up the kids from school, and take them to the paddock for a couple hours before driving them home. It’s nice, because they get to earn a bit of pocket money, and it’s fun for them to be out in the paddock with all their mates.”

For anyone visiting Edendale on Labour Weekend (while the heads are still on the tulips!), check out the possibility of attending Triflor’s open day. The farm hands the management of this to local churches, who use it as a fundraiser.

Mark’s tips for home tulip growers

• When it comes to achieving longevity, some varieties of tulips are tougher than others. But because of disease, on average, only 50 per cent of garden tulip bulbs flower in their second season. To get the best chance of second year blooming, take off the flower head after it’s spent, but leave it on the stem. Once the stem and foliage has dried off, dig up the bulb, and store it in a warm, dry place (a hot water cylinder cupboard is ideal). Replant the bulbs in June. Leaving bulbs in the ground is to risk them becoming diseased.

• When you dig up bulbs, remove the old roots (it makes it easier for the new bulb to grow new roots). To remove the old roots, peel off the old skin from the bulb, pull it down lightly, and twist it, gently removing the old roots with it. Take care not to tear off the roots or you’ll damage the bulb.

• Growers in warm regions should keep their tulips well watered. The life of tulip flowers in warm regions can be increased by planting bulbs beneath the shade of trees, close to a hedge or in the shade of a house. Colour & Fusarium Fusarium disease is a problem in tulips, but some colours and varieties are more resistant to it than others. Yellow tulips (especially ‘Strong Gold’), ‘Ad Rem’ (in orange) and ‘Marit’ (a soft-pink tulip) tend to come into this category. Pinks, in general, however, tend to be less resistant to fusarium, as are parrot tulips (with ruffled petals and bright colours resembling the bird’s feathers).

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