When the next tulip show will open up in March next year, it will be an exciting time for Martin Elling, of the Keukenhof. As the only designer in the only tulip garden in the world, Elling has landed himself quite a job. “Every part of the cycle has its challenge. It never gets boring,” he told Hi-Europe.
In fall, around 7 million flower bulbs, mostly tulips, will be planted at the Keukenhof, to bloom in spring. According to tradition, every person working at the flower garden will spend one day planting bulbs. After that, it is up to a team of 40 gardeners to finish the job, preferable before Christmas.
Designing the Keukenhof is not just a question of drawing pictures, Elling explains. “When I draw the designs, I keep the images as simple as possible, as they need to include big color sections.” Next comes the harder job of choosing which flowers will be used. “The pictures and designs are made up of three layers of tulips, and each layer needs to bloom at the same time. I have 800 sorts of tulips to choose from, and I’m learning about all of them. The biggest challenge is to find the sorts that bloom at the beginning and at the end of the season. I work with the suppliers of the bulbs to decide which ones to use.”
Some things are impossible to do with just tulips so the designer often uses other sorts of flowers. This coming year, for instance, the mosaic – a big picture and one of the showcases of the Keukenhof – will be a Delft Blue tile with a picture of a ship. The image will represent the golden age of exploration and trade in the Netherlands, as well as the time that growing tulips became a mania. “Blue tulips, like black tulips, don’t exist – the closest they come is purple – so we used muscari and white tulips,” Elling says.
Designs for the new season are made right after the Keukenhof closes in May, and have to be ready in July, Elling explains, as the suppliers of the bulbs need time to grow what is needed for the coming season. Apart from the blue and white mosaic, Elling’s designs will also feature rows of white tulips that curve up the hill around the garden lake and two-colored tulips, all mixed up, next to the entrance. There will also be a complete Delfts Blue garden and an ‘Amsterdam garden,’ which will show that people don’t need a huge plot of land, but can create the spring feeling in a simple small pot on their balcony as well.
Elling’s drawings have now been converted into Excel sheets, so the gardeners can see exactly which bulbs to plant in which place, until each plot has about 50-60 bulbs. Now that the bulbs are arriving by the truckload, the young designer spends his time adjusting his plans. “The suppliers don’t always have what I need. Bulbs are a product of nature, so all kinds of things can go wrong. Then the growers need to let me know what they do have and I have to check if it works in the design. We are making 3-D pictures, so it is not only a matter of color, but also of height and blooming period. ”
Ellings gets his inspiration in all kinds of places, he says, and tries to follows new trends. “I go to fairs, and see what is in fashion. I also watch house and gardening programs. A few years ago, pastel colors were very fashionable, but that is over now. Now, people are into mixing up colors and kinds of bulbs, so I made different combinations.”
Up To Nature
Whether all these plots come out the way Elling intended, is up to nature. “Some years the ground is frozen in spring, while this year it was 15 degrees. So you estimate the blooming period, but it doesn’t always work. Of course, I know how I intended a certain design. The visitors often don’t see if something went wrong. They just see a garden full of all kinds of flowers.”
Once the Keukenhof opens on March 24, Elling will be analyzing what worked and what didn’t. “I have meetings with the suppliers and we discuss how we could improve.” Ideas that will be used right after the Keukenhof closes on May 16, and Elling starts all over again with a new cycle. “Here at the Keukenhof, every year, we design a complete new garden. Even if something works well, we don’t keep it for another year. This year, for instance, we had a selfie garden, and it was a great success. But we are still taking it out now and next season there will be something new.”
Elling grew up in Breezand, a village in the north of the Netherlands which is famous for its tulip bulbs. “I used to work in the fields during my holidays and the weekends. Then I studied garden and landscaping design, and normally you end up working for an architect bureau. Working at the Keukenhof is very different. When you work for a bureau, you hand in your designs, but you rarely see the results. Here, from one day to the next, the garden turns into an amusement park and you see all these visitors enjoying your work. It is a very good feeling.”