Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival is bursting with bulbs — and ideas

People who've seen the Skagit Valley in April will instantly recall the way the flat farmland is painted in broad swaths of red and yellow during the tulip bloom, one of the state's postcard tourist images.

But visitors this year may find fresh angles on this favorite day trip. Between a new attraction at one of the two big display gardens and the way the tulips appear in different fields due to crop rotation, you should be able to rekindle that feeling of "awww."

The newest attraction is an homage to the world's peace gardens, being inaugurated at Tulip Town.

Peace gardens began to sprout due to a friendship made during World War II. The heir to the Dutch crown, Princess Juliana, was whisked off to Canada to protect her from the war. After she returned safely to Holland, she sent Ottawa yearly thank-you gifts of thousands of tulip bulbs.

The practice caught on, and now the tulip torch of friendship is passed from one country to another each year; there are now 16 gardens in capitals around the world. The U.S. peace garden is across from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

"We thought, it is such a beautiful thing, we're going to represent all 16 countries with a garden," says Jeannette DeGoede, owner of Skagit Valley Bulb Farm, which operates Tulip Town on Bradshaw Road. In the new, half-acre garden, each country is represented by a flag; a series of arches will connect them. A mass of tulips, hyacinths and anemones will bloom beneath the flags in a red, white and blue design.

The farm is inaugurating a new tulip exclusively for the peace garden. "It's dark red with a white edge," says DeGoede, "and will bloom with anemones in soft purple and white, and over 10,000 grape hyacinths, planted in sweeping bands."

Those broad swaths of color across the tabletop landscape are what draw the crowds. Even among returning visitors, "many people comment that it's all new," says Washington Bulb Company president Leo Roozen.

Traveling tulips

The active tulip fields are moved to new land each year in a rotation to rest the soil, making the perspective change each season.

"One time, you're shooting pictures to the West, next time you have Mount Baker as your backdrop, or straight to the east, and you're seeing the Cascades," Roozen says. "On clear days, if you're shooting in the right direction, you have the Olympics in the background."

Anyone with a good eye and a long lens will tell you that the white-capped crags of our local peaks make a stunning backdrop to the bright, curvaceous tulips.

New varieties are introduced in his Roozengarde display gardens on Beaver Marsh Road each year, Roozen says, but "when you have hundreds of acres of tulips and a few feet of a new variety, people don't even notice it." Besides, he says, it might be best not to single out the new entries, because they could become victims of eager hands. "People say, 'Hey, I've gotta have one of these.' It's human nature."

That is experience talking. Roozen's family has been in the tulip business for 35 years, and he recalls walking the fields as a young boy with his dad. "He was topping off a row of tulips, and he left one," Roozen recalls. "I topped it off and ran up and said, 'You left this.' Of course, he had left it on purpose."

Shooting pictures of the flowers and resisting the urge to pick are not the only pastimes in the Skagit Valley during the tulip bloom. At the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, which runs through April 30, there are art shows, an air show, a street festival in Mount Vernon, a fundraising bike tour and many other attractions and events. "A lot of these activities are free, and you can take the family," says DeGoede.

In recent years, the fields have been made more accessible, she says. At Tulip Town, along with improving wheelchair accessibility, handrails have been added for safety on the uneven farm ground. You can also replace a walking tour completely by riding a trolley that loops the colorful fields.

If you are on foot, though, you may be able to answer a common visitor question: "How many tulips are in the fields?" Not an easy bit of math, because "we have some fields that are a half-mile long, some only an eighth of a mile," says Roozen. But he does offer an equation: "Take the size of your foot, count the plants next to it, and then start walking and multiplying." Foot times plants times steps may equal the number of flowers in a row, but the total bulb count will still be elusive. "There's more than one bulb per plant," he says. In the end, this is his only speculation: "There's a lot."

If you don't believe him, go see it for yourself.

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