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Blooming soon in Preston: tulips of almost every color

Preston — Call it a 21st century Tulipmania.

The legendary event of the mid-1600s, when the rarest tulip bulbs in Holland traded for exorbitant amounts, creating one of the most famous market bubbles and crashes of all time, well, that’s in the history books.

But this is Jeroen and Keriann Koeman’s “tulipmania,” an extravaganza of hundreds of thousands of brightly colored blooms that people flock to see, pick, photograph and buy each spring.

Since 2015, Wicked Tulips has made its home in Rhode Island, and it will continue there at its Exeter location where 500,000 flowers will bloom in late April to early May.

Now, the Koemans have added a second farm — in Preston. They’ve leased space at the Gasparino family’s Chuck Hill Farm off Route 164 and will be showcasing another 300,000 boldly colored, beautifully shaped tulips there. The late-blooming varieties are anticipated to emerge in their full riot of color around Mother’s Day.

Some visitors to the Rhode Island Wicked Tulips have wept, said Jeroen Koeman, the Dutch-born and -schooled tulip grower who hails from a family of renowned growers in his native land. (His name is pronounced like "your room," only with an "n" on the end instead of an "m.")

“People just get excited,” he said. “Tulips are the first spring flower and they are a colorful display in any garden.”

Imagine a few hundred thousand bulbs with names like Apricot Parrot, Blushing Lady, Pretty Princess, Big Smile and Queensland, all erupting out of the earth at once.

“They come up big and bold and it boggles the mind how beautiful they are,” said Jeroen’s wife, Keriann.

“At our farm our passion and purpose is to introduce tulips that people don’t normally see — different varieties with fringe, or parrot-like, or double petals that look like peonies," she said. “It’s like a candy store.”

Tulips bloom in every imaginable color with the exception of blue and true black, Jeroen Koeman said. But from a distance, and to the untrained eye, Queen of the Night, a velvety maroon variety, makes some visitors think they are seeing black blooms, he said.

Don’t visit either farm unless you make an appointment beforehand. Both Preston and Exeter will be open for socially distanced pick-your-own or curbside bouquet pick-up this year, but by appointment only. All the details are on their website, wickedtulips.com, and you cannot book your appointment until a few days before they open. Exactly when, well, that depends on Mother Nature.

Cooler weather, rocky soil

The couple started their business in 2009 as EcoTulips LLC in central Virginia, selling Dutch-imported bulbs to customers. That first year Jeroen was overzealous in his ordering and planted the surplus as a pick-your-own farm, unearthing the couple’s passion. In 2015, they moved to Rhode Island to be closer to family and start their own, welcoming son Kees, now 3.

By 2018, they’d morphed the business into Wicked Tulips Flower Farm, continuing to sell their bulbs and operate their tulip farm.

That first year in Virginia they hand-planted 60,000 bulbs, but now, with a special tulip-planting tractor that they’ve imported from Holland, they put in 800,000 bulbs between the two locations last fall. And by planting the late varieties in Preston, they’ve slightly staggered their growing seasons, with the Rhode Island location anticipated to bloom first and the Preston site about two weeks later. Locals know the Preston location as Chuck Hill Farm, a former dairy operation where the Gasparino family now makes hay.

Jeroen said the cooler New England weather is better suited to growing tulips, although the rocky soil has slowed the couple's efforts to create their own growing stock. For now, they import all of their bulbs from Holland, close to a million arriving in a 40-foot climate-controlled cargo container.

Jeroen’s father is one of 13 siblings, including eight sons, and six of them are tulip farmers. Two of Jeroen’s brothers still run the family tulip farm in Zwaagdijk-Oost, Holland, and a third, inspired by Jeroen, has his own pick-your-own tulip farm in Milan, Italy.

As a teen, Jeroen said he had no interest in the tulip business, having spent his young life living it. So, he got an engineering degree in international technology management and studied and worked in Finland, Germany and Argentina, before taking a position in Washington state working for a large-scale wholesale tulip grower. It was there, he said, that he realized he did want to be a tulip farmer.

When he met and married Keriann, who describes herself as “a green girl,” they placed an emphasis on eco-friendly practices in their business, something they take great pride in.

Today, they are walking, talking tulip-growing experts. Tulips, they explained, are annuals with perennial traits and some will not come back a second year, or if they do, they’re not as big and bold. That’s why they replant their entire fields with new stock each year.

They’ll tell a layman to plant in the fall before the ground is frozen, so the roots have time to grow deep and develop. Tulips need a cold season, but Jeroen said they do not go dormant. And they like to grow in a soil with neutral pH and good drainage.

“They do not like to have wet feet,” he said.

The couple are excited that this year they will be able to resume pick-your-own appointments, which didn’t happen in 2020 because of COVID-19. And they want Connecticut visitors to the Rhode Island farm to know they’re just down the road now, at a different location. Growing tulips requires field rotation, with the same field being planted only every third or fourth year.

All the information to visit is on their website and if you subscribe to their newsletter, you will receive regular updates. They also have a Facebook page, facebook.com/wickedtulips. The couple emphasizes that visitors must not show up on a whim, or they will be disappointed when they are turned away.

"Make sure to tell them they have to make an appointment," Jeroen said.

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