Red Deer tulip growers are continuing a long-standing international tradition in central Alberta

Red Deer tulip growers are continuing a long-standing international tradition in central Alberta

Spring greens have been blooming since January in snow-covered Alberta, at Jack and Trudy Thelen’s Tulip Farm.

The Thelens are Alberta’s only tulip growers — or rather, “tulip executors,” Jack said.

The couple takes bulbs imported from their native Netherlands and grows them hydroponically in boxes until they take root on the farm southeast of Red Deer.

With consistent care and constant vigilance, these bulbs will eventually produce flowers in a variety of bright colors – from lavender to yellow, pink and deep shades of orange.

But the Theelens don’t live in this colorful world. The tulips on their farm stay green because, by the time the buds open, they better be in a customer’s vase — it will be too late to sell them, Jack said with a laugh.

It is recommended to buy tulips with unopened buds that have not grown much higher than their leaves for the longest flowering period.

Just as winter-hardened shoppers seek out tulips for a flash of green and color at a dreary time of year, Trudy said she enjoys running the business, because “it’s nice to have a lot of greenery in the winter.”

The Theelens grow and sell tulips from January through Mother’s Day. After a short break, they begin growing flowers outdoors for farmers markets from summer to fall, including lilies, sunflowers, peonies and alstroemeria.

Jack and Trudy have 40 years of experience, starting with a shop and garden center they owned in the Netherlands – a country steeped in tulip history.

Tulips arrived in the Netherlands in the late 16th century from Central Asia. By the 17th century, the popularity of these colorful flowers had exploded into “tulip mania” – a craze that led to bulbs trading like stocks on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange.

Some were worth more than the cost of a house, so owning tulips – or even paintings of tulips – became a symbol of wealth and status.

Despite its glorious history, the tulip trade is not without tension. The Theelens thought they were done with tulips by about 1999. “I was exhausted,” Jack recalls. He and Trudy moved to Alberta with their three children to try something different.

They bought sheep. Jack also obtained his Alberta Real Estate License to help Dutch farmers coming to Canada find land that suits their needs.

Just to hedge their bets, the Thelens decided to try growing tulips in Alberta, as a sideline.

Much of what they learned in the Netherlands had to be modified because everything is different here, from the weather to the humidity and water.

Tulips are high maintenance plants. They get nervous if conditions aren’t quite right, so the couple relies on the advice of their friend, retired gardener Willy de Vries, from the Netherlands, who is visiting them again this month.

While tulips are grown in more temperate areas of British Columbia, de Vries knows that’s not easy in Alberta, where temperatures can drop to -40 degrees Celsius. But after suggesting some modifications, he declared the Thelens’ operation “perfect.”

Jack pointed out that Tulip Farm did not start making money until after its fifth year of operation. But in the long run, the tulips outlived the sheep.

Theelens flowers, which are especially sought after for Valentine’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day, are sold at the Old Strathcona Farmers Market in Edmonton and at the Calgary Farmers Market, through Innisfail Growers.

While Tulip Farm is not open to the public for sales, Theelens occasionally holds pop-up sales of pre-ordered tulips in Red Deer, with notices on the Tulip Farm Red Deer Facebook or Instagram sites.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply