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Growing Tulip Hydroponically

Growing Tulip Hydroponically

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Published by: triaulia on Sep 28, 2009
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Hydroponic tulips succeed at second attempt

Available land in the Netherlands is becoming increasing scarce. Nevertheless bulbs are still propagated on over 20,000 ha of land of which 50% is down to tulips. It is not surprising therefore that tulips are still a Dutch national symbol. Of the total number of bulbs grown in Holland some 76% - or 7 billion bulbs – are exported every year. Of this, just over half will be sold to home gardeners while the remainder are sold to professional growers. The remainder stay in Holland and nearly all will be cultivated by flower growers. So how do they produce cut flower tulips in Holland? At the beginning of the 1990s the government began encouraging a reduction in the amount of chemical emissions into the environment so more and more producers switched to closed systems. However, problems with rooting media arose on grounds of avail-

Lessons learnt from the past coupled to continuous research means that tulips can now be cultivated successfully on water.
By Helen Armstrong

ability, susceptibility to disease and disposal. Different substrates were investigated as well as hydroponic production. The advantage of this method is that water is cheap and readily available. The only problem was how to keep the bulbs in place but this was solved by a number of tray manufacturers. The Triflor Company produced a tray from Tempex which held the bulbs in place with tooth pick like projections. Then the Curtec company produced a similar tray made of plastic. Kenn also introduced the Kenn tray which has a row of pins at the bottom to anchor the bulbs. A further problem arose due to bacterial growth on the roots which made them slimy. In fact it made many growers give up on hydroponics but research, in particular by the Dutch Bulb Research Council continued. The slime was shown to be due to lack of oxygen in the water

and it was found that the problem could be completely avoided by planting the bulbs three to one week before adding the water. The success has meant that hydroponic production of tulip bulbs has grown from virtually nil in 1997 to over 40% last year and the expectation is that this will rise to 90% within the next five years. Challenge The brothers Mark and Meindert-Jan de Wit, of Andijk, previously grew bulbs on peat and sand but switched, two years ago, to forcing them in water. This was mainly because they wanted a challenge and because it did not require any investment. It also freed up some cooling space. They now produce about 1.9 million tulips per year of seven cultivars of which about 95% come from their own nine hectares of fields.

The cool room. The temperature is about 5°C.

Tulip bulbs are secured on the pins of the Hydro Tray. One tray will take about 100 bulbs.


FlowerTECH 2002, vol. 5/no. 1



Tulip bulbs ready for planting.

Bulbs are secured by pins in HydroTrays, about 100 bulbs per tray of bulbs size 12+. Then, before any water is added, the trays are put in the cold store to break dormancy – the temperature must be under 9°C. The water is added later. The boxes are then returned to the cold store where the temperature is about 5°C. It then takes three weeks, sometimes only 10 days later in the season, before the bulbs are ready to transfer to the greenhouse. No further water is added during this period. Previously, with the peat and sand system, bulbs needed to stay up to 18 weeks in the cold

store because the rooting system needed to be much more extensive in order to anchor the bulb. “They only require about 4cm of roots,” said Mark de Wit “because the roots are only necessary to take up water, not to anchor the bulb.” As well as the time saving, the advantage of the water system is that is it not necessary to buy in the sand and peat, the boxes with water are lighter (10 kg per box, compared wit 18kg), less room is required in the cold store and less energy is required to bring the temperature of the boxes down. Also harvesting is much

When the tulip bulbs have about 4cm of root they can be transferred to the greenhouse.

The stacked trays are automatically filled with water. www.HortiWorld.nl

Tulips in the greenhouse, ready for harvesting.

FlowerTECH 2002, vol. 5/no. 1


faster and the flowers are cleaner, says Mark. All together, it is one euro cent cheaper per stem to produce tulips on water than on soil. The only problem is that some cultivars are not suitable for hydroponic production. And during dull weather the bulbs still take up water but they cannot transpire so readily so sometimes in winter it is necessary to increase the EC of the water in an attempt to slow down water uptake. This they do by adding a solu-

tion of nitrogen, nitrate oxide and calcium oxide. Greenhouse After the cold store, bulbs are moved to the greenhouse which in total covers 1,200 m2. In the beginning the temperature is set at 21°C which s gradually reduced to 18°C and then 16°C. The house is heated by hot water pipes which are suspended above the crop – tulips like to have “cold feet” – and watering is via hoses which lie over the boxes.

Irrigating from above can lead to Botrytis and if the cultivar is susceptible to calcium deficiency then overhead watering can cause the stems to fall over and break. The boxes are sterilised between batches by steam cleaning at 60°C for a couple of hours. ❙ More information on hydroponic production of tulips is available from the International Flower Bulb Centre. Email: info@bulbsonline.org

Forcing hyacinths for winter cut flowers
Given the right treatment, hyacinths make very fragrant cut flowers in winter and can bring a splash of blue to bouquets, a difficult colour to find during this period of the year.
by Helen Armstrong
Hyacinths make a fragrant, short cut flower in the winter.

Hyacinths are usually sold as pot plants, either in soil or with the bulb just floating on a vase of water. But the same bulbs, given a slightly different treatment so that they produce longer stems, can be used to produce cut flowers. The majority of these will be forced in soil but one Dutch grower has almost perfected the hydroponic production of cut hyacinths. Peter Knijnenburg and his wife Lenie, of Noordwijk, first started forcing cut flower hyacinths in 1974, firstly on soil and since 1994, on water. It took them about three years to master water cultivation and still they are the only people in the Netherlands using this technique. Currently they produce 400,000 cut 10
FlowerTECH 2002, vol. 5/no. 1

flower hyacinths between December and March, half on water, half on soil from seven cultivars: White Giant; Blue Giant, Mulberry Rose, Delft’s Blue; Prinses Marie Christina, Prins Hendrik and Nereus. Many growers buy bulbs from specialist growers or via a bulb auction while others propagate their own lifting them at the end of May, early June. The bulbs are then stored at 25°C, followed by a period at 23°C and then 13°C. And then to force them, the temperature in the cold

store will be reduced to 9°C. In order to produce cut flowers from late November Mr. Knijnenburg plants the bulbs in wooden boxes, previously used to grow chicory, at the end of August. The difference between pot plants and cut flowers is that cut flowers require longer cold treatment in order to produce longer stems. There is quite a difference between those bulbs being grown on peat and sand and those being forced on water. Bulbs in peat require 13 weeks at 9°C


Bulbs being forced in chicory boxes.

Plastic covered mesh hold the bulbs in place while the roots are growing

while those grown on water require just nine weeks of cold treatment. This is because the peat takes longer to reach 9°C and, because the bulbs are respiring and producing heat, it is possible that the peat around the bulbs never reaches 9°C. On the other hand, the bulbs growing hydroponically are in direct contact with the water and it is easier for this to be maintained at a constant 9°C. Despite the saving of four weeks, Knijnenburg says that he will continue to grow some hyacinths in soil because not all varieties are suitable for water culture. “Not all varieties are possible, because, the roots, although thicker become too brittle and break easily,” he says. This is

the main reason why it is also not possible to transfer water grown plants to soil and vice versa. Bulbs for cut flowers required after 1 January are planted at regular intervals from the end of September onwards. Again they will be forced at 9°C and require 8-12 weeks dormancy break depending on the variety. If during this period the stems become too long too quickly, the temperature will be dropped to 2°C. Knijnenburg tops up the water in the boxes during the forcing period but he no longer feels it necessary to change it. He used to renew it for fear of the fungus Penicillium building up, but even if this does occur it is not harmful to the bulbs, he says. The bulbs grown on peat have a layer of sand poured over them which is necessary to weigh them down and prevent them being forced upward by the growing roots. Greenhouse After the forcing period Knijnenburg transfers the boxes to his greenhouse, which covers an area of 110m2, and where the temperature is 18°C. The bulbs grown on water are held in place by two layers of plastic-covered mesh (see photo). He used to use metal wire to secure the bulbs but this lead to zinc toxicity. Unfortunately, the plastic wire also presents problems because when they

touch it, rather than growing between the holes, they stop growing. Therefore, he is currently experimenting with a honeycomb type plastic which is usually lain under gravel paths to hold the stones in place. The bulbs are placed on the plastic

Peter Knijnenburg. www.HortiWorld.nl

Mr. Knijenburg is experimenting by putting the bulbs on a honeycomb type of plastic mat.

FlowerTECH 2002, vol. 5/no. 1



of the stem while those in the peat have to be worked loose by putting a finger in into the soil and under the bulb. Post harvest After harvesting, the bulbs are removed from the stems by a machine invented by Knijnenburg himself. It first cuts the roots off the bulb and then pushes the stem out of the bulb so that some of the bulb remains on the stem. This allows the leaves to remain attached to the stem. If the stem is cut above the bulb the leaves have no point of contact and fall off. The stems are bunched in fives and are put in water for about five minutes before being packed ready for transport to the nearby auction. At the moment there is no difference in price between a hyacinth grown in peat or on water but if supplies of hydroponic hyacinths were to

Hyacinths in the greenhouse where the temperature is maintained at 18°C.

which also has the advantage that it remains much flatter than the plastic wire. Flowers from the bulbs raised on water are ready for cutting after one week in the greenhouse while those grown on soil take about ten days. And as the season progresses it becomes possible to harvest two consecutive water crops for every peat crop. Another benefit of the hydroponic hyacinth is that harvesting is three times faster and the flower is cleaner. Those on water are grabbed at the base

The machine (pictured open) removes the roots and pushed the stems out of the bulb.

increase they might, in future, receive a premium because they are cleaner, hopes Knijnenburg. ❙


FlowerTECH 2002, vol. 5/no. 1


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