Sometimes Mother Nature can be downright cruel. Just ask Chris Connell, grounds and garden manager at Vintners Resort in Santa Rosa.
He and his crew of three planted 10,000 tulips between early January and early February, “with the goal of getting them all to bloom around the same time frame, which ideally would be the end of March and into April,” Connell says.
Connell is guiding us around some of Vintners’ 92 acres that make up the long-established resort, a destination for those eager to explore Northern Sonoma County’s wineries and other attractions.
The hotel’s annual tulip bloom is a major event that requires fairly precise calculations.
“Sometimes this means planting one of the shadier flower beds a week or two weeks ahead of the flower beds that get more sun,” Connell says. “For instance, the front entrance faces west, so I plant the north-facing flower bed two weeks prior to planting the south-facing bed.”
So, this part of the Grand Plant went well; what happened next didn’t.
“We had a challenging year… with Mother Nature and our tulips,” Connell says with incongruous calm. “First off, most of the month of January and February had above-average temperatures. February had a string of five or six days at 15 to 20 degrees above average. These warmer temps caused our tulips to start growing sooner than anticipated.”
This caused about half of the tulips to break ground and begin to form flowers. Unfortunately, “the warmup was followed by a weeklong cold snap where temps dipped into the high 20s at night. (This) led to some delay in flowering and caused some tulips not to flower at all.”
“Mother Nature decided to bring us some much-needed water right when most of our tulips were in full bloom — three-fourths of an inch (in a short time).”
Upon our arrival at the hotel, we could see how the downpour had surgically decapitated hundreds of the blooms. Oddly, like a post-tornado landscape, there were fully blooming tulip beds standing just feet from the beds with green, leafy stalks still standing but headless.
“We order the bulbs from Holland and usually keep them refrigerated at least 10 weeks (before planting),” Connell tells us. “Next year, I think we’ll keep them cool for 15 weeks.”
And perhaps order the tulips earlier, too.
“This year we had some supply-chain problems. During the pandemic, everyone decided to be a gardener. That’s great, but it made it more difficult for us to get what we wanted.”
Despite all this, there were still enough tulips intact to satisfy enthusiastic photographers and those who just wanted to revel in the glory of spring. As Connell escorted us about his kingdom, we marveled at the blooms’ variety, brilliance and color, and the perfectness of the survivors. The flowers also stood taller than I remember from springs long ago.
“My guess, after a little research is, yes, the tulips are probably taller than they were 50 to 100 years ago,” Connell says. “Tulips have had ongoing breeding and hybridization for well over 500 years in Holland alone.”
The Tulip Kingdom is not Connell’s only responsibility.
The Vintners’ property supports 300 olive trees that provide oil for the hotel’s three restaurants and for purchase; 97 espaliered fig trees (branches trained to grow on a framework) of five varieties; blackberry bushes; 300 tomato plants of rotating variety; and 20 fruit trees (Asian pears, Gravenstein apples, pluots and Santa Rosa plums). To come next spring: peaches and nectarines.
“(My job) is a constant dance of give-and-take that I’m happy to do with Mother Nature,” Connell says thoughtfully. “I don’t look at it as a bad thing when we lose our tulip blooms or plants due to unexpected weather changes. I look at it as a challenge to adapt and try again next year. I’ll work with our bulb provider to find tulip varieties that will hold up better in whatever Mother Nature may throw at us next.”