Terrific Tulips

It’s hard to resist a field of colorful blooming tulips, such as this one owned by the Balints.

Nothing says spring quite like a field of daffodils and tulips, a truly welcome sight in the Willamette Valley as the cold grey days of winter are left behind.

However, say Demetri and Viesia Balint, owners of Greengable Gardens, it’s actually those cold winters, along with the hot, dry summers that make the area ideal for growing these colorful spring flowers.

The Balints and their crew produce more than seven million blooms annually. They grow several varieties of daffodils and more than 80 varieties of tulips in their fields along Highway 34, on their farm in Philomath and in their greenhouses.

The well-drained, sandy soil, deposited by the Willamette River during its many eons of flooding, have helped create the perfect spring flower environment.

“I call it my happy crop,” Demetri Balint says. “People buy flowers for all kinds of occasions and they love doing it. There are very few grumpy people buying flowers.”

The flowers are sold at local stores and flower stands, including Market of Choice, Trader Joe's, New Seasons, Kroger, Cappella, and the Corvallis Farmers Market. They also have a flower stand at the farm, and fill orders online through their floral shop.

Balint grew up in the Eugene area, where his mother and grandmother, avid gardeners, instilled in him an appreciation for plants at a young age. He earned a degree in agronomy from Oregon State University in 1979, and worked at Cenex in Tangent, as manager of the agronomy department.

Agronomy, a term most of us would have to look up, covers a broad range of crop science that encompasses subjects such as plant genetics, crop rotation, soil fertility, ecology, economics and pest control -- pretty much everything a farmer would need to know.

At Cenex, Balint worked with farmers, and by 1988 became his own farmer – planting strawberries on leased land. Shortly after, he switched to planting flowers.

“Farming is asset-intense,” he says. “You need a lot of tractors and equipment. Flowers are a crop that requires less land and less equipment. Initially I planned to do a lot of the labor myself, and build it up gradually.” He leased land on White Oak Road for daffodils, purchasing equipment and bulbs from Bob Anderson; and leased land on Peoria Road for tulips, where he also had a flower stand.

During this time, he met his wife, Viesia, who owned a floral shop -- The Flower Garden -- in the Timberhill shopping center. Originally from Poland, she had earned a degree in horticulture from Oregon State University. The flower farmer and florist, the horticulturist and agronomist, proved to be a good match. The two married and purchased 28 acres in Philomath that had all the infrastructure they needed to set up greenhouses and establish what became Greengable Gardens.

The house on the property was originally built in the 1930s by the well-known local builder J. Thompson, who had installed a dam on Greasy Creek that ran through the farm and generated electricity.

In 1945 the house was purchased by the Shroyer family. Mrs. Shroyer, known for her love of gardening, established a 14-acre perennial garden around the house, with a still-thriving underground irrigation system that delights visitors with its plant varieties and landscaping.

After years of development, Greengable Gardens now has four greenhouses, several leased fields, and floral and gift shops. The Balints employ 15 year-round employees, as well as a crew of almost 100 during planting and harvesting.

“There's a lot of training that goes into it,” Balint says. “It takes some time to understand the plant, and to know when to pick it.” The tulips bloom over a four- to six-week period.

“We physically walk through the field four times to harvest,” he says, “since there are early-, middle-, and late-blooming varieties.” The daffodil harvest is more closely related to weather, and can be picked in as little as seven days, or over a 40-day period. Greenhouses enable the farm to expand the season year-round.

Crop rotation is necessary to prevent plant diseases. Tulips must be planted in a new field each year, and can only be planted in the same field every five years. For daffodils, the crop rotation cycle is only three years. In the off years, they plant pumpkins, potatoes or wheat.

Greenhouses enable the farm to produce tulips and daffodils year-round. Each greenhouse grows about 140,000 blooms. Bulbs are forced into early blooming by placing them into a cooler to simulate the cold snap of winter. Southern Hemisphere bulbs purchased from Chile and New Zealand produce flowers from July to December. Northern Hemisphere bulbs purchased from Holland bloom from January to June. The field harvests occur in March and April. The greenhouses also grow lilies, snapdragons and other flowers.

“We could put daffodils in the cooler the first of August, and they would be ready in December,” Balint says, “but people don't want yellow flowers in December. They want red or white, so we wait, and bloom them after Christmas. By January, people are ready for yellow flowers.” Mixed bouquets are made at the farm and sold throughout the local markets.

The Balints purchase most of their tulip bulbs each year from Holland.

“The Dutch have been growing tulips for over 400 years,” Balint says. “Tulips are native to the Persian Gulf, and as far back as the 14th century, the Dutch became enamored of the extensive tulip gardens of the Turks, and brought them back to Holland. They're masters of tulip bulb production.”

Tulips are unique, he says, because it takes 20 years to get from a seed to a plant and they can’t be genetically modified. “Any new varieties that you see on the market were started 20 years ago,” he says.

As the tulips start blooming around us, and appearing in shops and markets, we are tempted to bring a little of the spring flowers inside. A vase of bright pink or red tulips on a tabletop brightens our spirits and decorates our homes, with little hint of all that it takes to produce them.

But for the Balints, the results are worth it. Growing flowers is their life's work.

“It's a family-run business,” Balint says. “Nobody has an outside job, we make all our living from the dirt. Fall, winter and spring, we work six or seven days a week. By summer, we take a few days off.”

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