Growing and Marketing Bulb Plants
When to Plant Tulip Bulbs and Other Bulbs to Sell in the Spring
By Lew Small – Experimenting with new ways to earn an income from our small farm, we recently discovered the possibilities of spring flower bulb plants. We had a lot of success with them on our small farm, and I think that spring bulbs have the potential to be profitable for almost anyone with knowledge of growing, a suitable climate, and some room.
The key to success with spring bulb plants is to plan ahead. Bulbs must be planted during late fall in order to have them in bloom for spring. There are two possible sources for the bulbs. You could put in an extensive bulb garden and propagate your own, or you could buy the bulbs from a dealer. Since we didn’t want to wait for a bulb garden to get established, we purchased our bulbs from a mail-order dealer. We used daffodil, tulip and hyacinth bulbs. In selecting varieties it is best to use ones that do not get too large because they tend to fall over in the pot. Don’t overlook popular mini-daffodils and rock garden tulips when making your selection.
The bulbs should be potted in the late fall, late November or December. It is important that you use clean, undamaged pots because your customers will give most of the bulb plants as gifts. You can scavenge pots or get them from a local greenhouse supply company. Larger pots are better because you can get more bulbs into them, which will produce a nicer looking product come spring. We used two different sizes of pots. The larger size were eight-inch pots call “mum pans” that we placed seven to 10 bulbs in. We also used smaller six-inch pots with three bulbs each. With the larger pots, you can mix types of flowers to create mini-gardens in which the daffodils will bloom first, followed by the tulips and finally hyacinths.
Once again, keep in mind the bulb plants will ultimately be given as gifts, so you want to plant the bulbs in the best potting soil that also has high aesthetic appeal. While I would sing the praises of using manure in my vegetable patch, I don’t think anyone would want to place a pot of tulips and manure on their dinner table as a holiday decoration. If you have clean non-odorous soil and compost you can screen them to make your own potting soil. If you are short on time and have the funds to invest, you can get compressed bales of potting soil from your local greenhouse supply company at a reasonable cost.
Planting the bulbs is a very simple operation. We put some soil in the bottom of each pot, and the bulbs, and then more soil. Next, we watered all the pots to allow the bulb plants to start to grow roots. The pots must then be placed in a cool dark place to allow the bulbs to go somewhat dormant, otherwise, you may find yourself trying to sell Easter flowers for New Year’s or Valentine’s Day. Since our farm is in Pennsylvania which has relatively cool winters, we were able to simply place the pots into some unused concrete stalls in the bottom of the bunk barn. It does not matter if the area where the bulb pots are kept get below freezing, as long as it does not freeze too hard. You want a place where the temperature will range between 25° and 45°F for most of the winter. It is also important that you do not water the bulbs again after you plant them. The combination of no water, darkness and cool temperatures will keep the plants from developing before you are ready for them.
We found that flowering pots of spring bulbs sell best in the week leading up to Easter. You want to try to time your bulbs so that they will be coming into bloom during that week. In order to get the bulbs to develop and bloom you need to move them from their dark cool enclosure to a warm sunny one, and add lots of water. These are some of the best plants for greenhouses or cold frames. Timing the move is the key. The daffodils will bloom a few days before the other bulbs, so we water and move the pots containing daffodils five days before the first day we plan to offer them for sale. Pots containing tulips and hyacinths we move nine days before we wish to sell them. The number of days that it takes the bulbs to be ready for sale will vary depending on the temperature and brightness of your greenhouse or cold frame gardening setup. Therefore, I would recommend experimenting with a sample pot or two a few weeks before the selling season so that you can determine the number of days you will need.
Once your bulb plants have started to bloom, you are ready to sell them. Besides being a small grower, I also teach and consult in marketing and advertising, and would like to share some of the basics. If you happen to live near a well-traveled road, this can be easily accomplished with some signs directing people to your homestead. You will get much more traffic from signs for Easter flowers than you might have in the past if you’ve used signs to sell bulb plants or produce. Keep in mind that people are actively (and sometimes even desperately) looking for Easter flowers for gifts during the week leading up to Easter. The key to successful signing is to have a price on the sign. People are much more willing to follow a series of twists and turns if they have an idea of what they are getting into. Since you have grown the bulb plants yourself you should easily be able to offer a slightly better price than your competition and still maintain a nice profit.
You also want to pay attention to how you merchandise or display the bulb plants you are offering for sale. If at all possible, place them so that they are visible from the road in front of your property, or failing that, from your driveway. Allowing people to see what you are offering will greatly increase the likelihood of their stopping to make a purchase. If you plan to sell the bulb plants on a self-serve basis, make sure that the container you wish the customer to leave payment in is clearly marked. If you plan to wait on your customers make sure that you are readily available. Many people will be in a hurry and others may be intimated by the idea of having to approach the house or wonder through the fields and outbuildings to find you. Remember, also, that many people will be intimidated by that overly friendly critter(s) of yours, so pen it way from your sales area while you are open for business.
The key to successful retailing from your homestead are signs. You should have signs with instructions on how to pay, and signs clearly identifying the types of bulb plants and their prices. The more signs, the better. Your goal is to make it as easy for the customer as possible. Give people plenty to choose from. Make it look like you are a serious vendor. We always try to display every single flower that we are offering, holding nothing back. Try to set up a display that is attractive from the front of your property—what real estate agents call “curb appeal.” Don’t just have all of the pots sitting on the ground; place some up on well-arranged benches or tables. You can easily make temporary display benches by placing boards across concrete blocks, bricks or logs. You want to create a tiered arrangement with bulb plants displayed at several levels. Before you are satisfied, make sure you walk out to the front of your place and look back at your display with the eye of a customer.
If you don’t live in an area with much traffic, you will have to be a little more creative in selling your bulb plants. A technique that has worked well for us in the past is to run the sale as a fundraiser for some local worthy organization. You want to pick an organization that has a lot of active members or beneficiaries. Approach the organization and work out a deal under which you will sell the bulb plants and give a percentage of the proceeds to them. Schools, community groups, fire companies and churches can all work well in this role. You want to make sure that the organization has a newsletter or regular meeting that can be used to promote the fundraiser. If possible, it is still a good idea to bring purchasers of the bulb plants out to your place, as that allows you to start to build a customer base for future sales.
One final note: You will likely find that most of your sales will be of the last-minute type, so be prepared. Our heaviest sales of Easter bulb plants are always on the Friday and Saturday before Easter. A large number of the customers will turn out to be people on their way to visit a friend or relative. So make sure that you time your bulb plants and efforts to coincide with the last-minute nature of the business.
Originally published in Countryside 2002 and regularly vetted for accuracy.