It's tulip time

<p>Kris Elem — pictured here with Counsler, a late classic yellow daffodil, and New Europe, white with a yellow center edged in orange — and her sister, Karel Smith co-own Satsop Bulb Farm outside of Elma.</p><p></p>

The tulip and the butterfly

Appear in gayer coats than I:

Let me be dress'd fine as I will,

Flies, worms, and flowers exceed me still.

     — Isaac Watt

    

    First the glorious days of sun, then the glorious full moon this past week have left me feeling like a new person. I suppose this is what Mother Nature had in mind when she created spring.

    Thus, after a lazy and too-long winter running into a too cold spring, all of a sudden one must wake up and get busy: mowers to repair and lawns to mow, weeding to do, gardens to plant, and, all that junk that got tossed in the garage over the winter? — out, out damn stuff!

    Such are the joys of the season. And, surely, one of our local treasures this time of year is the Satsop Bulb Farm in neighboring Grays Harbor county on Highway 12 just past Elma (930 Monte Elma Road, 360-482-5566).

    

Satsop Bulb Farm

    Proprietors and sisters, Kris Elem and Karel Smith, are carrying on the family tradition of four generations in the bulb business. I stopped by on my way home from Seattle last week and got part of the story.

    “Our great-grandparents, Leroy and Laura Merritt, started it all in the Puyallup Valley in the 1940s. There were some daffodil growers that got settled into the valley there and my great-grandfather worked for one of them. He ended up wanting to sell a few bulbs on the side, so they set up a roadside stand. It was a little patch of bulbs in the backyard kind of thing,” said Kris. “Eventually they ended up with some farm land and they bought some novelty varieties of tulips, 100 or so, from Holland. Their daughter, Lucille, my grandmother, helped.

    “First it was just the flowers and as time went on they opened up a little shop at the farm and built up the stock. Lucille’s son was my dad, Charles Lubbe. She and my dad collaborated — they shared machinery and equipment.

    “So the family was up in the Sumner Valley growing bulbs, but the taxes were climbing and development wanted our land something terrible and grandmother and father started searching for other land that would be as suitable and not as costly — we ended in Satsop.

    “And come to find out right in this exact area in the 1940s and ‘50s, there had been another bulb farm. Ironically, they had moved up into the Puyallup valley, but they said ‘this soil is pure gold, not a rock on the place.’ The freeway had just been completed and it wasn’t a big hassle to get here and get back up to that area — dad still had flowers to deliver — so it made for an easy drive.”

    “Then grandmother went into the bulb business on her own and chose instead of novelties the standard King Alfred [generally an early, large, yellow daffodil] and that’s how it’s pretty much stayed.”

    Kris might also mention that they sell bulbs (tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, crocus, iris) hanging baskets, a range of cut flowers, as well as potatoes, blueberries, tomatoes, herbs, lilac, lavender, seeds and perennials for the garden.

    

Grandma’s business partners

    “As grandma got older and we came along as kids, we worked both for her and my dad most summers and spring, so we got into it too,” Kris continued. “At one point grandma was told — in her 70s — that she had cancer and she’d better get her affairs in order.

    “That’s when she offered Karel and I to go into business with her. We thought, well, if we don’t like it, we can get rid of it in a few years — walk away from it if we want. Her only stipulation was as long as she was living she would work with us, so we said, ‘Sure thing.’

    “Grandma worked every day right up until she died — 13 years later.

    “When you grow up doing farm work as a kid, it’s just a job and it’s a hard job, that’s all you know. As a kid you think, ‘Who in their right mind would want to do this?’ But Karel and I are in this together now and we keep doing the same old thing that grandma did.

    “We picked it up and rolled with it.”

    Whether anyone will pick up the business in the next generation is still up in the air. Both Kris and Karel have two kids each but none yet has shown an interest in the farm. “Even my father in his generation had to leave the farm and try other things and come back to it just as we did. It’s your choice, it’s got to be what you’ve chosen to do.

    “I went to University of Washington for a year thinking I wanted to get into a photographic career. Then I worked at Seatac airport for a year as a screener — there were still metal detectors. That’s when I got the call from grandma. When you’re given the reins of ownership it gives you a whole different insight.”

    

Daffs and tulips

    I’m an inexperienced flower grower, but it’s hard not to be inspired by Satsop Farm’s row after row of spectacular blooms just when you think the doldrums of winter have you, inside and out, just about as cold and grey as the skies. The fields give you aspirations to plunge those fat little bulbs into the ground just to see what will happen.

    Forgotten all winter (in fact they need that cool, wet sleep because they’re resting up and building their strength), they’re the harbingers of spring. “It’s that first bit of color after a long, dark, rainy winter — it brings the sunshine indoors for people,” said Kris.

    “Generally we have daffodils the whole month of March; the month of April is tulips. This year because of the cold weather that came on about February, our season started two and a half weeks late. So we’ve just finished up with the daffs, which is unheard of, and we’ll probably have tulips through next week. It’s rare that we have tulips for Mother’s Day as late as it is this year.

    “We’re at the mercy of nature. Field growing means whatever the weather throws at us is what we have to work with.”

•••

For story suggestions or comments:

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