Fields of spring bulbs are usually associated with the Netherlands. But there is a place in France where you can go to see more than 40 hectares of hyacinths and tulips in full bloom in March and April. These can be seen from your car, during organised walks, and you can also take a trip amongst the flowers in a “petit train”.
Sarl Kaandorp at La Torche in south west Finistère is owned by a Dutch family. The parents of the present owners, had been growing bulbs in Holland from 1960, but they wanted to expand and land was both difficult to find and expensive. They took a trip around the French coast and in 1980, they chose this corner of Brittany where there was the right climate and sandy soil to suit their needs. They are now one of the biggest growers in France.
Sarl Kaandorp specialises in hyacinths, tulips and irises but they also grow daffodils, alliums, anemones and scillas. They sell cut flowers but their main interest is in producing bulbs for the Dutch market. Ard Kaandorp says that being in France gives them an important advantage over Dutch growers:
“It is never cold here with no frosts and an average winter temperature of 10°C. This means that our hyacinths are in flower a month earlier than in the Netherlands and so we are able to sell ahead of our Dutch competitors.”
The hyacinth bulbs they produce in France are grown to provide flowers for sale in the Netherlands for the following autumn. This means they give a good show in Brittany as they are kept in flower in the fields until they have gone over.
“We plant the hyacinth bulbs in September. They flower in March and we harvest the bulbs in May,” says Mr Kaandorp. “These are sent to the Netherlands. There they are dried and put into cold storage, which tricks them into thinking they have gone through the winter months. They are then planted and sold in small pots, which flower in October. The bulbs grown in the Netherlands do not give flowers until November.”
The same process happens with tulips, though a month later for each procedure, and for irises, which are another month later. The irises cultivated for their bulbs do not put on a big flower show, so you see mainly hyacinths and tulips in full bloom in their Finistère fields. Hyacinths are the main crop, as the Kaandorp family discovered that tulips grow less well in Brittany as they like a period of real cold in the winter. The tulips are sold as cut flowers as well as bulbs.
Mr Kaandorp says the same rules apply to growing bulbs in your garden in France as anywhere else. “They are becoming more popular here but they are a plant which need a certain amount of care and attention and they are not as easy to grow as perennials. This means we find it is mainly older people who favour bulbs as they have more time for their gardens. We appreciate the sandy soil which is here, but that is to make cultivation easier for us. Spring bulbs will also grow well in clay soil if it is well drained.”
He says that a hyacinth bulb will only last two to three years so he advises buying small bulbs that are younger and so will give you flowers for longer. They should be planted in the autumn, and then taken out of the ground, dried, and then stored in a dark, cool and dry area before being re-planted in the autumn. As with all bulbs, the leaves should be left to die back naturally after flowering, because they provide nourishment for the bulb. “The same procedure should be carried out for tulips”, he says. “I recommend cutting the stem so that the flower will not go to seed, but not the leaves. When you lift the tulip bulbs in mid-June, discard the small ones, as when you replant they will only produce leaves, which will smother the other bulbs. Tulips have a longer life than hyacinths and should flower for five to six years.”
If you buy a spring flowering bulb in a pot in the autumn, you can keep it and it will flower again but not the following spring. “If you want to prolong the life of the bulb, take it out of its pot and plant it in the garden. Take it out of the soil in May with your other bulbs and follow the same procedure and you should get flowers again the following spring.”
At La Torche the hyacinths are in bloom from around March 14 to April 5 and the tulips from around April 1 to April 15, which gives visitors and locals a good month in which to admire the flowers. During that period you can see them from the road or there is a petit train which leaves their courtyard every day from Wednesday March 14 to Sunday April 15 (price and times on Allo train 06 59 45 18 93.)
You are not allowed to walk in the fields unless you take part in two organised walks, which take place during that time. Le Circuit Découverte des Jacinthes (hyacinths), 5km, will take place on Saturday, March 17, 13.30-16.00. It is free and you can sign up when you arrive at the farm. There will also be a walk organised by the Comité des Fêtes de Plomeur on April 1 or 8 (date not confirmed when we went to press) – details on www.plomeur.com.
The other site not to be missed is a floral sculpture in the farm garden. Every year a famous monument is represented. More than a million hyacinth flowers are placed on a wire base by a team of 30 volunteers. It takes more than 150 hours. Last year the chosen building was the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This year the theme is Symbolica, the fantasy palace at Efteling in the Netherlands. Entrance is free.