The Magic Behind Tulip Time in Holland, MI

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The Magic Behind Tulip Time in Holland, MI

The Home and Garden Show hit the road and visited the nation’s “Best Small Town Festival.”

Photo Credit: Tulip Time Office. 

Since 1929, Holland, Michigan has held a now infamous tulip festival. This little city just off of the shores of Lake Michigan covers their whole town in a rainbow of tulips every May. City parks, storefronts, 200 planters blooming on sidewalks, a 6-mile Tulip Lane lining neighborhood streets, dedicated footpaths and gardens are all centered around celebrating tulips. Over 500,000 visitors from all over the world came to see the 5 million tulips in full bloom this year over the course of 9 days.

 

The vibrant colors that signal "spring is here" is actually not the main reason this city gravitates towards the tulips-though it does help! Dutch settlers founded Holland in the 1800s and to this day the city still takes immense pride in their heritage.

 

Welcome to Downtown Holland sign. PC: Tulip Time Office.

Photo Credit: Tulip Time Office. Holland, MI

So why Tulips?

 

Executive Director of Tulip Time, Gwen Auwerda, says it’s all about commemorating the city’s ties to their European heritage. “Tulips are reminiscent of the Netherlands. When you think of tulips, you think  ‘oh they came from the Netherlands.’”

 

Even though tulips originated from Turkey, the Netherlands have always been known for the flower. In the 1600s tulips were a rarity only the wealthy could afford. One tulip was equivalent to a commoner’s year wages, approximately $1,500. 

 

Today the Netherlands is still sought out for their prominent spring flowers. Over three billion tulip bulbs are produced in the country. Two million of those are imported, with the US being the top importer!

 

Windmill and a flower bed of tulips. PC: Allison Lemons. WIBC.

Photo  Credit: Allison Lemons. WIBC.

Jumping back to the late 1920s in Holland, Michigan. The Tulip Time festival was being proposed to the Woman’s Literary Club meeting by a biology teacher, Miss Lida Rogers. Auwerda says, “She noticed that most of her class was of Dutch descent. She had been looking for ways to beautify the city, so she pitched this idea: to get 100,000 tulips from the Netherlands. The hope was to connect the old country to the new.” A few years later, the Tulip Time Festival was born.

 

Now to present day, the nine-day festival kicked off May 4th and wrapped up on the 12th. This year was extra special to the city as it was the 90th celebration with the theme of “Paint the Town Orange.” When I asked why orange? It was explained to me that each year in late April the King or Queen’s birthday would be celebrated in the Netherlands and it was called the House of Orange. The streets would be covered in orange flags; people would dress in bright orange attire and more. So as a nod to their home country, the city of Holland painted the town orange for their 90th celebration.

 

Rows of red, yellow, orange tulips. PC: Allison Lemons WIBC

Photo  Credit: Allison Lemons. WIBC.

 

Let’s talk about the tulips themselves. How did the city get them? How do they plant all 5 million? When?

 

As I sat talking to Auwerda, she talked me through the process. The Tulip Time offices work year round with the city to make this special week and a half happen each May. A majority of the tulips come straight from the Netherlands. They work with a broker who represents the US for certain tulip farms in the Netherlands. The city of Holland orders the bulbs in mid-June. After they are inspected by the Department of Agriculture they are delivered to the town in September. Close to 1 million bulbs arrive in over 120 varieties of tulips. Come October through mid-November planting season begins!

 

That is a lot of tulips, so you can imagine the planning and help needed to get the job done correctly. Auwerda notes that the irony of her office is they may be in charge of the festival, but the real credit of planting goes to the city’s Park Department and volunteers.

 

“The parks department and horticulturalists decide what colors and what tulips go where and in what beds. They do the layout.”

As far as planting goes, they get the job done within just TWO DAYS thanks in part to the community.

“We have what we call a ‘Community Planting Day.’ Residents can sign-up to volunteer to help plant. We have usually around a couple hundred people who will work for four hours in both parks to get the job done. Without the volunteers, it would take the city months to get it all done.”  

Two-thirds of the tulips at one of the bigger attraction sites, the Window at the Water Front, a 30 acre-park, are hand planted by these volunteers. 

 

Close Up of Orange Tulips. PC: Allison Lemons WIBC

Photo  Credit: Allison Lemons. WIBC.

While several thousands are planted by hand, it largely depends on where the bulbs are being planted. Tulip Lanes along the city’s streets use a special machine invented by Holland Transplanter. After digging a trench and dropping the bulbs in, the machine goes along covering them in soil.

The bigger areas with fields are planted with a six row modified planter to emulate tulip fields found in the Netherlands. Other areas use onion planters; since tulip bulbs are the same size as an onion it makes distributing much easier. Check out this video of how that whole process works!

 

After the hard work of planting is taken care of, maintaining the bulbs is the next step. Unfortunately the city and parks aren’t immune to all gardeners biggest hurdle: mother nature.

 

“The deer are awful!” notes Auwerda. “We fence around every tulip bed and place netting to discourage the animals. Once the tulips come up, the deer tend to go away. Occasionally squirrels will dig a few bulbs up and move them around too.” 

 

She proceeded to tell me during her first year working for the festival a customer was very adamant about the significance of a single red tulip in some of the flower beds. After talking with the parks department, they realized that a squirrel might have moved some bulbs around trying to make an arrangement themselves...

Another possibility, and something they see often, is some tulips come back on their own and unexpectedly pop up in a display. On occasion, during the move some bulbs do get mixed in crates they weren’t supposed to be in. Nothing is ever devastating though; in fact it’s more of a fun surprise for everybody!

 

Close Up of pink tulips with orange and yellow tulips in the background. PC: Allison Lemons WIBC

Photo  Credit: Allison Lemons. WIBC.

After the celebration is over, the thousands of visitors travel home, the hundreds of Dutch dancers pack up their wooden shoes, the carnival shuts down the rides, and artisans pack their bags where do all the tulips go?

 

Once the tulips have ran their cycle, the city puts on a “Community Dig Day.” The community can come out with their buckets and shovels and dig up as many bulbs as they like. After drying them over the summer, many plant them in their own gardens and yards in the fall to help celebrate next year!

 

As you can tell, there is a lot of hard work, planning, and love that goes into what Reader’s Digest calls “The Best Small Town Festival in America.” The thought and dedication Holland puts into their prized tulip town can be seen all over the city in each spring flower!

 

Dutch Windmill with several rows of colored tulips in front. PC: Allison Lemons WIBC

Photo  Credit: Allison Lemons. WIBC.

 

 

Editor’s Personal Note:

What was really impressive to me and what in my opinion makes the whole festival unique is there is no one set area where the festival is. The town IS the festival!

 

Every festival can have great entertainment, food, and shops, but what separates Holland’s is their community. From the moment I drove through the city streets, the store windows, banks, local businesses, town homes, all had tulips in their yards and surrounding areas. Tulip Time is clearly a community effort and the pride they have of their heritage and beautiful blooms cannot be ignored. The combination of both allows the town’s history and spirit to come to life.

 

Some of my favorites include Windmill Island, an area off of downtown where an authentic Dutch working windmill still stands surrounded by the iconic tulip fields. The island also hosts a 111 year-old organ that was given to the city by the Netherlands as well as a beautiful carousel that still works today.

 

A brightly painted pair of giant wooden shoes in a tulip bed. PC: Allison Lemons WIBC

Photo  Credit: Allison Lemons. WIBC.

Another favorite was the Kompen Garden at the Window at the Waterfront park. They just redid the paths and I’ve never seen so many different kinds of tulips! For the first time these paths were accompanied by 45 pairs of large wooden shoes through the park. Each one decorated by local artists celebrating the 90th year celebration.

 

There was so much to do in my short time there, but I was thrilled to scratch the surface of Tulip Time.  A truly fun weekend trip to reward yourself for making it through the cold grey winter season! Maybe I’ll see you there next May?

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