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Tulips transform a few acres into a festival

When the Iverson family tiptoed into the tulip business, they were the only non-Dutch growers on the West Coast. Quite an accomplishment, considering Americans still import more than 3 billion bulbs every year from Dutch growers.

And here come the Iversons, who just kind of fell into it.

Four of the six Iverson kids were in college and looking for a way to make money in the mid-'70s, when they happened to meet Dr. Clyde Holman of Indiana, who was looking for someone to grow tulips and ship them back East.

Several years later, the Iversons bought a few acres of bulbs that had been owned by Holman. In 1985 the family opened the field to a couple of dozen visitors for the first tulip festival. Eight-een years later, the Wooden Shoe Bulb Co. gets thousands of visitors in one day.

Bonnie Johnson of Wyoming is amazed by the changes.

'It's exploded in size and scope,' she says. 'I can't believe how it's blossomed, er, excuse the pun.'

The company now grows tulips on 50 acres.

Having been here several years before, Johnson couldn't wait to show off the tulips to her grown daughter, who lives in Northeast Portland, during a recent trip.

Johnson is 'intrigued by all the varieties. I mean, just look at all the different petals and shapes.'

One tulip is fringed enough to look like someone took a seam-ripper to the edges. Another has long, tapered petals resembling a lily, then its neighbor will have a double flower with enough petals to pass for a peony.

Individually or en masse, the tulips are overwhelming. Stephanie Kimbrell of Vancouver, Wash., brought her mother by the other day. Patricia Smith just shook her head, saying, 'Unbelievable É breathtaking.'

Karen Bever, a partner in Wooden Shoe and one of those Iverson kids, hears that praise a lot at tulip time. Bever says one of her favorite things to do is sneak off and work quietly in the fields. Visitors have no idea Bever is the head of the family business when she overhears their comments.

'I've heard 'beautiful' in so many different languages I can recognize it right away now,' she says.

The compliments keep the family going. There's a lot of work to be done with digging, sorting, shipping and planting the bulbs, then harvesting the flowers while 150,000 people stroll through at festival time, now through April 22.

After so many years, the Iversons and their relatives are virtual encyclopedias of tulip knowledge. For instance, how do we get a bouquet of cut tulips in water to last longer? It's all in the cutting.

Bever says we should pick the tulips while they are still young and in the bud stage. If you wait until they are already blooming, they won't last as long inside. Amazingly, the buds change color and grow 2 inches or more while still sitting in the vase on your kitchen table.

Then there's the question of what to do with those ugly leaves when the flowers are long gone.

In the garden, snap off the seed heads when the flowers are done, but do not pull off the leaves. The bulb needs the leaves to soak in the sun and make energy for next year.

The Iversons have one of the best solutions that I've ever heard for beautifying your bulb collection. Plant the bulbs in leftover plastic pots. Bulbs actually prefer that. Planting them with bark and a sandy mix gives them room to drain.

Tulips in our climate don't freeze; they rot. So if you plant the tulips in pots, sink the pots into the ground at soil level and then mulch over the top, you can pull the entire pot out when the flowers are gone and the leaves look puny. Simply plunk in a new summer bloomer in its place.

'Anne Jaeger's Gardening Tips' airs at 9:56 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays on KGW (8). Jaeger's Web site is www.gardengal.tv.

'Monte Carlo'

Double early tulip

Why I love this plant:

• It has so many petals, it resembles a peony.

• It smells good. A fragrant tulip, it's said to have a honey scent to it.

• Its clear, bright yellow color picks up any gray day.

• The bulb starts blooming when the plant is only inches tall and continues to grow and bloom until it's a foot tall.

• It is one of the earliest tulips up in the spring É

• É And one of the longest lasting.

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Tips for growing tulips:

• Bulbs need excellent drainage. Mix soil with bark and coarse sand, not compost.

• Bulbs will rot in clay or heavily compacted soil.

• Dig and replant the bulbs when you notice more leaves, but smaller flowers.

• Fertilize with a granular bulb fertilizer in the fall and the end of January.

• You can also give them boost with a liquid fertilizer (Miracle-Gro) at bloom time, but it's not necessary.

• If you see fuzzy mold growing, dig up the bulb and throw it out as soon as possible. These 'fireheads' are infected with botrytis, which will spread to other tulips.