Behind the Scenes at the Bulb Show

  • Post published:03/15/2010
  • Post comments:4 Comments
Lyman Conservatory at Smith College

The Smith College Annual Bulb Show, always spectacular, is one of the ways some of us flower starved gardeners manage to get through the last bit of winter as we wait to get out hands back in the soil. The show opens today, March 6 and runs through Sunday, March 21, when spring will have officially arrived.

This year’s Turkish garden and will feature many species tulips from Turkey. Robert Nicholson, Lyman Conservatory manager, who has been busy for the past three months preparing for the show, says there is a different theme every year. This makes it more interesting and educational for the visitors, “And it makes me learn something new,” Nicholson said.

Although the Lyman Conservatory staff, including two Smith work study students, began potting up bulbs three months ago, Nicholson said preparation for the next bulb show begins in the early summer, after the new theme has been chosen and when bulb orders have to be sent in.  “It is really a perpetual process, from preparation to show,” he said.

Those of us who have feared for our daffodils when they come up early in a sheltered spot, only to be doused by spring snow or flood, can begin to appreciation the calculation and management that go into bringing 5000 varied bulbs, crocus, tulip, daffodil, hyacinth, scilla and more, into bloom all at the same moment.

Nicholson explained that he and the staff  pot up the bulbs three months before the show, and put them in cold storage where temperatures are kept between 41 and 45 degrees.

The staff knows how long it takes each type of bulb to come into bloom. They remove the bulbs from storage on a reverse staggered schedule. First come the bulbs that need the longest amount of time, and finally the bulbs that bloom more quickly like crocus. There are three production greenhouses, each kept at a different temperature.

The development of the potted bulbs is monitored so they can be moved back and forth between the three greenhouses to bring them into full bloom on time for the show.  This is tricky because it is not only temperature that determines how quickly they come into bloom, but sunlight as well.

“This year has been challenging,” Nicholson said. “The weather has consistently been overcast. There have been very few sunny days.  We can’t force the bulbs with temperature alone too hard, because the plants will get leggy and floppy. This year the bulbs will probably be at their peak the second week of the show.”

Annual Smith Bulb Show

The week before the show is full of activity.  The ornamental elements of the show are put in place on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday the potted bulbs are arranged. Friday is for fine tuning and preparation for the opening in the evening after a free lecture. This year noted public garden designer Lynden B. Miller (Smith ’60) spoke about her new book, Parks, Plants and People: Beautifying the Urban Landscape.

“We ask for a donation, but the Bulb Show and fall Chrysanthemum show are two of the best gifts that Smith gives the community. It a wonderful and inexpensive outing for the whole family.” Nicholson said.

Temperatures in the Lyman Plant House are kept in the low to mid-50s during the show. Other rooms in the conservatory will be kept at their  usual temperatures; visitors can enjoy all the regular delights of the tropical gardens including a lush collection of orchids.

In addition to the spectacular floral display, the Church Gallery at the Lyman Conservatory is hosting an exhibit, The Inner Beauty of Plants. This collaboration between the Botanic Garden of Smith  College, retired radiologist Dr. Merrill Raikes and University of Massachusetts physics professor Robert Hallock is an exploration of light, vision, x-rays and flowers, providing a unique way of seeing plants. This exhibit will run until September 30.

A garden appeals to every sense. This year an audio installation has been added.  What Every Gardener Knows, music composed Susan Hiller (Smith ‘61), will be heard in the Lyman Conservatory’s Palm House, one of Hiller’s favorite parts of campus when she was a student. This installation will be in place until March 30.

The Smith College Bulb Show is the beginning of my gardening season.  I am also looking  forward to the Master Gardeners Spring Symposium on Saturday, March 20, the first day of spring. There will be sessions on everything from designing a permaculture garden, Integrated Pest Management, and wild spring edibles to yoga for gardeners and photographing your garden, as well as a keynote speech by Kerry Mendez on Tips for Low Maintenance, High Impact Perennial Gardens. Logon to for full information.

Then comes the Boston Flower and Garden Show from Wednesday, March 24 to Sunday March 28 at the Seaport World Trade Center. It is wonderful that after a hiatus the Flower Show is back with a theme of A Feast for the Senses. There are 30 gardens to enjoy, gardening demonstrations, lectures, floral design and  growing demonstrations and even cooking demonstrations. One of the special displays this year is The Garden of Cakes. I can’t wait for that. Both my passions in one, baking and gardening.  You might even win a weekend in Boothbay Maine with free tickets to the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden. For full information logon to

Show runs til March 21

Spring is almost here!  There is still time to sign up for the Master Gardeners Spring Symposium at Frontier High School on Saturday March 20 from 9 am to 2 pm.  logon to the website or call Bridget Heller at 413-665-8662.  You can also still sign up for  the Trillum Cutting Garden Workshop in Ashfield 1-4 pm on Sunday, March 21. Full info on the website.

Between the Rows   March 6, 2010

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Gretchen

    Someone had the good sense to combine baking and gardening? I’ve died and gone to heaven.

  2. Janice Sorensen

    I am on the edge of my seat here in Holland too, waiting for the tulips and a trip to the Keukenhof!

    I am so so glad you posted this because in going to to the website so that I could share the link with you I have just now seen that tomorrow is the official opening:

    The official opening of Keukenhof 2010 will be carried out by Mrs Svetlana Medvedeva, wife of the President of the Russian Federation, in the presence of Her Royal Highness Princess Máxima of the Netherlands.

    Soon, very soon!! -janice

  3. Christine B.

    Even though I’m not remotely in your area, I think a sign of spring is all the conferences and shows, so your list brought a smile to my face. And they fab bulb pics didn’t hurt either. Hope you enjoy your events.

    Christine in Alaska

  4. Pat

    Janice – I am so jealous that you will see those wonderful gardens. Take lots of pix.
    Christine – This will be a wonderful weekend – espcially since the sun promises to shine all week and I think the weekend. We need to melt this snow!

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