We Asked Albany’s City Gardener: Will The Tulips Still Bloom?

This spring is shaping up to be a doozy for Capital Region residents—and the world at large. With offices, schools and businesses closed, and major, long-scheduled events (see: Coachella and the Kentucky Derby) either cancelled or postponed, this season certainly isn’t providing warm weather wishers with much by way of joy and excitement.
Popping up amid all the doom and gloom? Tulips.

Even with the 72nd Annual Albany Tulip Festival in Washington Park having been postponed, we still wanted to know how Washington Park’s most famous blooms get planted—and if they’d actually bloom. So, Capital Region Living caught up with one of the people most instrumental in making the Mother’s Day weekend event a success: Jessica Morgan, the Albany City Gardener. The best news? Morgan informed us that, indeed, the flowers will still bloom—as well as letting us in on her best green-thumb secrets. If a tulip blooms in a park and no one is around to see it, is it still beautiful? Yes. Unequivocally, yes.

Explain what you do as Albany City Gardener.
I’m responsible for the care and maintenance of more than 200 gardens; a staff of 2 full-time, year-round employees; a city-owned and -operated greenhouse; and the planning and planting of more than 187,000 spring bulbs and 200,000 annual summer flowers; as well as the care of perennials, tropical plants and 300 hanging baskets.

What’s the status of Albany’s 72nd Annual Tulip Fest, now that many events in the Capital Region have been either cancelled or postponed?
Currently, everything is in limbo. Tulip Fest is still on but will be re-evaluated due to the state of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“All 90,000 [tulips] in Washington Park were planted between mid-October and late November the previous year,” says Albany City Gardener Jessica Morgan. (Laurie Knapp)
When do you start preparing for Albany Tulip Festival?
This will sound strange, I guess, but I start planning for the next year’s Tulip Festival while the current one is going on. I pay careful attention to which tulips are getting attention from festivalgoers. I’ll walk the grounds and make decisions on which varieties to bring back the following year, then research what’s new in the market and choose a few new varieties. When giving my tulip tours each spring I usually say, “Tulips are like fashion: One day you’re in and the next you’re out.” Often, a certain variety that’s been in the market for years as a staple can have a bad growing year and will be limited. That usually opens up new opportunities for us to try new bulbs.

Where do the Tulip Fest tulips come from?
The City of Albany gets its tulip bulbs straight from the Netherlands. Each October, all the bulbs are shipped by boat to ports in New York City or New Jersey, and then are shipped by truck up to us. We take about a week to sort them, label them, plan a bit and finally start planting. All of the bulbs that festival goers see each year—all 90,000 in Washington Park—were planted between mid-October and late November the previous year. There are roughly 40,000 muscari in the park and 90,000 tulips, plus a smattering of daffodils, hyacinths, species tulips, allium and fritillaria. None of the tulips in bloom are grown off site and transplanted for the festival. If a particular bed passes its prime, the stems are pruned, the leaves are left on, and we move on. We have several ways of planting this many bulbs, including, when beds are in need of soil, laying out the 1500-2500 bulbs per bed and covering them with new soil. We can use up to 40 yards of topsoil a year.

What’s the hardest part about making Tulip Fest happen?
Honestly, the stress in the spring. I mean, planting is hard work, and we’re under pressure to get the bulbs in the ground in a certain amount of time, but that’s a known factor and part of the job. But the spring is when I really stress and start to worry about the weather and the spring thaw, as well as any damage that might’ve occurred over the winter or from the temperatures rising too quickly and pushing the tulips to grow and bloom earlier than normal.

Are there any surprises coming to the festival this year?
This year, if Tulip Fest happens, we have a few small surprises in store, including a garden where you can walk in and sit down in a chair, so that you can take a photo among the tulips, as well as some new varieties that are sure to catch the eye. We also have plans in store for the 75th anniversary, which is approaching quickly…it may involve an additional 50,000 tulips!

The original version of this feature originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Capital Region Living.

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