Believe It or Not, Tulip Fields and Festival Top Unbelievable List

A blog that I follow, Culture Trip, popped up in my e-mail the other day with an article entitled:  15 Unbelievable Places You Probably Never Knew Existed in America . Of course I couldn’t resist the challenge to check it out.  As it turned out, I actually was aware of several of them and had visited four.  To my amusement, topping the list was “Skagit Valley Tulip Fields, Washington.”

The Skagit Valley tulip fields attract photographers, professional and amateurs alike, because of the beautiful settings it provides/

Amusing to me because the tulip fields lie just 20 miles to the south of where I live and have been the subject of my own blog twice.  (Tourists and Locals Love Tulip Time and A Trip to Skagit Valley’s Tulip Farms)  I had already planned to make my re-entry this week to my blog  about the tulip festival (after an absence due to my preoccupation with my duties as Executive Director for CASCADIA International Women’s Film Festival) .  The idea was prompted by a notice that this weekend would be the last for the tulip festival this year.  It’s always a little sad to learn that those beautiful flowers will be clipped and harvested starting tomorrow bringing an end to another display of fields of color.

Visitors are asked to stay out of the fields and park only in designated areas.

I’m sure those who live in the immediate area are a little happy and relieved to see the month-long event come to a close as literally thousands of people are drawn to see the brilliant blooms causing residents to post ‘no parking’ signs along their property and take alternate routes to avoid the traffic back ups leading to and from the nearby freeway.  For visitors, finding a place to park along the roadways becomes a challenge if you opt not to pay the fee asked by those with the lots.  But it all seems worth the time and money spent to admire the planted ribbons of color and masterful landscaped gardens of the various growers.

Mount Baker rises in the distance with bulbs of bright red in the foreground .

Among the most popular of these farm stops is the RoozenGaarde owned by Washington Bulb Company.  The company flourished under the ownership of William Roozen, a Dutch emigrant who purchased the business in 1955 from its original founders and the first bulb growers in the area, Joe Berger and Cornelius Roozekrans. Today, the Washington Bulb Company is the largest tulip-grower in the country with  350 acres of tulips and 70 million cut flowers shipped throughout the U.S. annually.

In addition, the company also plants 500 acres of daffodils (not nearly as much a draw as the tulips), 150 acres of iris and 600 acres of wheat (no one goes to see that.)

Boxfuls of tulips are cut from the fields and shipped throughout the country.

Someone, I can’t recall who, once told me that the tulips cultivated in the Skagit Valley when harvested are shipped to Holland where they are propagated then returned to the U.S.  and marketed as “Dutch” tulips. Whether or not this is true or just legend I don’t know and haven’t, as a good journalist should, followed up to ask company officials.

The flowers were late this year due to an unusually longer cold spell of weather and didn’t come into full flourish until mid-April.  The festival itself, begun in 1984 by the town of Mount Vernon, starts April 1st, regardless.  What began as a three-day event now is a month-long celebration that includes not only self-guided visits to the fields, but a parade, a ‘tulip’ run,’ concerts and a street fair.

Photographing the tulips looking skyward, the cup-like blooms remind me of colorful balloons on strong green strands.

I’ve not seen the figures but I can only imagine what the economic impact of this highly attended annual festival has on the town and the surrounding area as people make the trek from all over the state and British Columbia just to take in the splendorous display by nature and the bulb farmers. Kind of nice to know that in this day and age of virtual reality and high-tech devices that people can still find such enjoyment and pleasure in what nature has to offer.

I didn’t make the trip down to the fields this year, opting instead to satisfy myself with the tulips growing in my own garden.  But it’s likely I will, as in years, past, go again along with the thousands of others because the beauty of the tulip fields of Skagit Valley is still compelling no matter how many times you’ve seen them.

Tourists and Locals Love Tulip Time

It’s tulip time in many parts of the U.S. and nowhere are the tulips more colorful and splendorous than in Washington’s Skagit Valley.  Fields and fields of the highly valued bulb are grown for commercial sales.  Each year at this time, the area plays host to thousands of visitors who come for the annual Tulip Festival.  The exits from Interstate 5 which skirt the town of Mount Vernon and connects Vancouver B.C. to the north with Seattle to the south are literally backed up for miles with cars making their way on the weekends to see the rainbow-colored floral fields.

(I last wrote about the tulips here.)

Farmer workers in the fields help to create interest and perspective when photographing the tulips.

As a local, I have the luxury and advantage of being able to go to the fields on a weekday and avoiding the crowds.  I also get to pick my day, waiting for the weather to clear.  And so I did earlier this week when I awoke to sunny skies at sunrise.  When I go, I’m out the door by 7 a.m. to make the 20-mile scenic drive south so as to arrive by 7:30, even earlier is better.  By arriving about the same time as do the field workers, I not only miss the multitudes of tourists but I have better light for photographing these gorgeous flowers.  The dew is often still on the petals, the colors are bright and the sky is bluer. (That can of course be boosted with the help of a filter over your lens or later manipulated digitally in post-production.)

In the early morning light, the dew shimmers on the flowers.

I never know exactly which field I’ll work in unless I scout them ahead of time, as I did this year when I drove down to get the required permit from the RoozenGaarde growers that allows professional photographers to go into the fields without scrutiny from the field foreman.  I pick one spot because the light changes so quickly that by the time you’ve moved from one place to another, you’ve  lost the optimal conditions.  I “work the location,” capturing the chosen field from as many different angles as I can,  studying the surroundings to maximize what’s there and letting the location be my guide as to what and how to photograph it.

Sitting at the end of the field, boxes of bundled blooms await transport to be distributed to sellers in the area.

Some years I feel more productive than others. I rarely concentrate on just the flowers themselves. I try to make use of whatever is present: field workers, farm implements, signs, other artists or photographers who might be there, farm buildings to help create a sense of place.  When I  focus on the flowers, I strive to find different ways to photograph them and try to zero in on a particular feature or color.  If I decide to photograph the field en masse, I look for the overall impact of color or the setting.  Until I’m in the editing and post-production process  I often don’t know how I ultimately want to treat an image.

After years of having done this, I know how to dress. The fields are frequently muddy and the early a.m. air chilly.  I dress for the conditions.  Jeans and a sweatshirt are must with a warm jacket that I can shed if it should warm up, as it did this year.

Snow-capped Mount Baker rises in the distance and creates contrast with the multi-colored fields of flowers. I used a dry brush treatment in post-production to create a painterly feel to the scene.

Gloves with the fingertips cut out are also handy for those times when the morning temperatures are cold.  I also wear my insulated ‘muck’ shoes that I use for gardening because they are warm and wash off easily.  After years of crawling around in the dirt with a gardening pad, I now strap on heavy-duty knee guards so that I don’t have to scoot around on a pad and can literally get on my hands and knees to  get the shot I want.

Get down low, look up and see the tulips from a different angle to create an out of the ordinary perspective. Not how the tulips shine from the underside.

Equipment-wise, everyone has their own preferences. A UV lens filter is a must. I stick with my zoom lenses and fit close-up filters over them for really tight shots. Sometimes I use a tripod, sometimes not.  And a lens hood helps to block out annoying light flares.  I don’t spend a lot of time switching lenses or cameras in part because it creates less risk of getting damaging dirt on my sensitive digital gear.  I find it’s better  and sometimes more interesting to work within the parameters of my equipment.

I don’t make the trek to the tulips every year but this year I did as a way to unwind and relax after months of preparing for the film festival of which I now head up.  Usually I’ll take a friend along with me. This year I did it solo and enjoyed the time to myself.  No matter how you go, alone, with family or friends, these beautiful blooms are sure to restore your soul and remind you how wonderful the spring season is.

My last photo of the morning was a self-portrait still wearing my knee guards and muck shoes.

A ‘Field Trip’ to Skagit Valley’s Tulip Farms

Every spring, the Skagit Valley, just south of where I live, is bursting with color as the commercial tulip fields there bloom. Thousands of people from the region make the trip just to spend an hour or two admiring the rows of bright flowers growing in the fields. I hadn’t visited the fields for a couple of years so thought I’d wander down on what was the last weekend of this year’s tulip festival.

Getting in close, you can see the beauty of this red tulip.
Getting in close, you can see the beauty of this red tulip.


A garden worker makes certain the exhibition beds look their best before the day's crowds arrive. I shot through the garden's gate to capture this gardener cleaning the beds.
A garden worker makes certain the exhibition beds look their best before the day’s crowds arrive.

The fields had bloomed early this year. The farmers had already begun topping the stems in preparation to harvest the bulbs. Upon arriving at the tulip fields, I checked in at the office of the Washington Bulb Company and asked about the conditions of the fields. The only field still in flower was behind the bulb company’s exhibition gardens. Access to it, through the gardens, wasn’t possible until 9 a.m.

A thin layer of fog covered the field as morning began in the Skagit Valley.
A thin layer of fog covered the field as morning began in the Skagit Valley.

By that time the light would be too bright for my photographs. A nice layer of low fog lying over the field could have made for some dramatic photos but since I couldn’t get into it until 9, it could disappear by then.

My choices were either to leave and go home without taking a single image or stay and see what I could do despite the limited access. I decided to stay and see what photographs I could make before the gates opened and the crowds began to arrive. It would be a good challenge.

Three purple tulips peak above the brilliant red tulips in the bed outside the gardent's gates.
Three purple tulips peak above the brilliant red tulips in the bed outside the gardent’s gates.
The morning dew on the petals of this tulip gives the flower a velvety look.

My friend and I walked down the road to the unopened gardens. Plenty of tulips were growing in the beds outside the main gate and fence. I pulled out my camera and began photographing.  Thirty minutes later, I had finished. I gathered up my gear and we headed back, stopping along the way for a couple more photos before pulling into a little cafe for breakfast.  We were back in Bellingham by 10 a.m., our ‘field trip’ was over and the rest of the weekend still lay ahead.  The images from that morning were not what I had expected and yet I found many that I liked. I hope you do too.

The snow-covered peak of Mount Baker rises in the distance from the Skagit Valley. This was the last photograph I made the morning of my 'field trip.'
The snow-covered peak of Mount Baker rises in the distance from the Skagit Valley.



The Optimist’s Autumn Ritual

I must be an optimist.  What else could explain why, every year about this time I spend hours in my garden planting hundreds (yes, hundreds) of tulip bulbs?  I do this every autumn despite the fact that I know I will need to do battle with the voracious tulip-devouring deer that frequent my neighborhood.

Every autumn, I gather my gardening tools, my bulb food, my bags of newly purchased tulip bulbs and head out to my flower beds to spend an hour or two. I pull on my gloves and strap on my knee pads and begin  punching holes into the ground with a clever little cone-shaped tool designed to do exactly that.

I gather my tools, slip on my gloves and set out to plant my tulip bulbs.
I gather my tools, slip on my gloves and set out to plant my tulip bulbs.

After years of performing this annual ritual, I have finally developed a system. It may not work for everyone, but it works for me. Punch the holes, place the individual bulbs over each one, then twist and lift out a cylinder of dirt using my bulb planter. Next, I sprinkle a little bulb food or bone meal into the hole, stir it up a bit to mix it into the dirt, drop the bulb into place, then empty out the dirt from my tool back into the hole.  I do this for no less than 15 bulbs at a time as it seems to make the process go more quickly. Once I’ve covered over the planted bulbs, I poke a little red marker into the perimeter of the area  I’ve just worked so that I don’t mistakenly repeat it later.  (Took me a few years to figure that one out.)

In the spring, my hard work pays off with a display of red blooms.
In the spring, my hard work pays off with a display of red blooms.

Usually, I have fairly good luck with this method.  Doesn’t even matter if I accidentally slice in half an old bulb buried deep in the ground from last season because tulips left over from the year before rarely produce good flowers the second or third year. (Unless, of course, you go to the trouble of digging them all up and separate off all the baby bulbs.)

My tulips take over inthe garden just as the daffodils are at the end of their run.
My tulips take over inthe garden just as the daffodils are at the end of their run.

For that reason, I quit wasting my money on the fancier breed of tulips from the nearby tulip farms or ordering the tempting delights found on the pages of the full-color catalogs that  arrived in the mail. Now, I settle for inexpensive bags of 90 sold at a big box store because, as my husband never ceases to remind me, I’m just buying food for the deer.

They are so adorable, but my tulips are like candy to these two. It's not why I plant them.
They are so adorable, but my tulips are like candy to these two. It’s not why I plant them.

If I am diligent and start in February to discourage the deer from having dinner on me, I wind up with a pretty lovely display of color in the spring. If I plan carefully, this springtime show will last for a couple of months. I try not to leave home too much during late March and April, when the flowers are in full bloom, so that I can literally enjoy the ‘flowers of my labor.’ I still like to make trips to the local tulip fields, but I find my own much more gratifying.

So, today I once again don my gardener’s gear, collect my tools and spend some time digging in the soil, performing the exercise of the optimist.  Let me know if you’re an optimist too.

The bright blooms of my tulips pop against the iron dragonfly in my garden.
The bright blooms of my tulips pop against the iron dragonfly in my garden.



Pat in the Fields

My friend, Pat, has accompanied me on my photo expeditions to the tulip fields in Skagit Valley for the past several years. I captured this moment of her in the fields during our last foray there.

Scarlet Snips

The remains of the day’s cuttings lie in the tulips fields of Skagit Valley. Beautiful but at the same time, a bit sad.