Karel Smith, co-owner of the Satsop Bulb Farm stands solo in her shed-like shop on 40 acres in Satsop.
During most days of their fall season, geese gather outside in the cool brisk air, taking refuge in the area’s no-hunting zone. Inside, it is peaceful and nearly empty, aside from the baskets of varied fall planting bulbs that line the walls.
“See, we can go to all these different places,” says Smith of the name cards above each pile of bulbs. They spell out bright and cheerful destinations such as “Tahiti,” “California,” and “Hollywood” daffodils — likely named in such a way as to add a bit of cheer to the monotonous task ahead.
Fall bulb planting offers no real prize for one’s efforts until the snow melts away and you finally see the show of colors.
“Flower season is the best time, you never see an unhappy person, everything is so beautiful. But bulb planting, it’s work,” said Smith..
The shop is open in the fall for buying the bulbs from Sept. 15 through Friday, Nov. 1, seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Smith thoroughly enjoys every stage of her work at the farm. She and her sister, Kris Edem, are fourth generation owners of the shop, having taken it over from their grandmother — who opened the operation in the late ‘40s — when she fell ill with cancer.
The operation moved to Grays Harbor from the Sumner/Puyallup area in 1972, as did the co-owners who were young and somewhat incredulous about their move westward.
“We were teens when we moved here, this place was Timbuktu to us,” Smith laughed.
She and her siblings all chased different career paths before returning back to the flower operations they grew up around.
Smith worked at the nearby nuclear plant, and Edem had just started at college when she asked to come and help run the farm.
“We all had other plans, all wanted to get back to the city. We all had different ideas,” said Smith.
But the two agreed to take over the business and have grown to thoroughly embrace what they do.
Their brother, Kurt Lubbee, runs another flower operation out of Satsop, Lubbee farms, where he is a wholesale flower-broker of King Alfred Daffodils and distributes them to stores in Seattle like Trader Joe’s.
Kings Alfreds are, by far, the most popular variety, according to Smith, of the flower that is one of the most reliable spring flowering bulbs.
They often will pop up again each year, even spreading in size. Animals don’t find them tasty, and they do not need summer watering — pretty much thriving no matter what, once a coherent planting job is finished.
“We’re more the novelty variety end of daffodils,” said Smith, adding that they also have King Alfred bulbs but, as they have this season, they sell out fast. The Tahiti is another favorite at the Satsop shop.
“It makes you think of tropical and warm, it’s actually a very beautiful flower,” said Smith. The bulbs offer no previews, but after a quick Google search it’s easy to see how they were named — each four-inch bloom exotically beautiful sunburst yellow with double weaves of orange.
They sell many other fall bulbs including, crocus, hyacinth (“very fragrant”) and tulips, which you may want to ask about before a large purchase. For best results, you may want to plant these in a second-story planter.
“Tulips are a whole different ball game, because they’re edible,” said Smith. “Deer come in and take everything off them before they even bloom. I think people are learning.”
The farm sells them at different prices, which Smith says range from 100 mixed daffodils for $24.99 to 10 for $5, depending on the variety. Smith recommends grouping multiple bulbs together for the best outcome.
“People will plant a few and come back and say… ‘Well, that really wasn’t what I expected,’ ” she said, adding for a “show” of color it is best to dig a 6 to 8-inch-deep hole and put a bunch in one spot. “Throw in 15 or so, that way they hold each other up and withstand rain and the elements. Even if you buy a bag of five, I’d do that.”
She adds that while 6 to 8 inches deep is great for our area, she often advises customers who live out East, where there is more snow, to dig their holes up to 12 inches.
“It all has to do with freezing temperatures,” she said. “We have it pretty easy over here.”
While it is not necessary for fall bulb planting, Smith does recommend using fertilizer.
“It’s great at the time of planting and then again as they are fading, setting up for next year,” she said, adding the nutrients are helpful for regrowth, and that some who choose not to use fertilizer end up complaining they only see foliage come spring. “Food is helpful. If we stopped eating we’d starve to death too.”
The Satsop Bulb Farm is also open for the “flower season” beginning March 1 through Mother’s Day.
But Smith said her job hardly ends when the shop closes its doors to the public.
“I go to bed and I wake up in March,” she joked, adding she mostly does potting, making sure anything that is leftover gets planted in a pot for springtime. “…Or I go back to the fields and start planting again.”
She said they would open for the winter holiday season, but that people just do not come.
“We thought it’s something we should be doing, but the weather conditions are so awful and nobody comes out.”
But the farm has little reason to worry, with little competition throughout the Grays Harbor area.
“We’ve had people come and take big quantities and try to do it (open a similar operation), but they just end up saying, ‘that’s too much work,’ ” she said.
Many have tried the organic method, she added, but have not been able to survive because of problems that exist like fungus and rot, and have had too great of a loss of bulbs.
The Satsop farm has decided to remain a non-organic operation for those reasons, she added.
In addition to fall bulbs, the farm’s shop also has grown flowers for sale from outside retailers.
“This is a way to expand our business,” said Smith, adding many like to buy them along with their bulbs, so they have something to look at right away.
The farm employs mostly young people to help plant and harvest the flowers, many from Elma High School and Grays Harbor College.
“We try to be helpful to the local economy,” she said, adding they often wait until kids are out of school so they can start most of their work in the spring.
Until then, Smith says the prize lays ahead.
“The best part? The outcome of spring,” she said.
Tips for fall bulb planting
• Plump and firm are some qualities of the bulbs you’ll want to pick. Avoid soft or moldy. And go for the big ones—-they have the better chance of blooming compared to their smaller counterparts.
• Plant in a place where the sun directly hits at least 6 hours out of the day. And, in most instances, your hole should be about two to three times as tall as the bulb itself.
• The bulb is right side up when the pointy side is up and the roots are down.
• For the most awe-inspiring color show, plant smaller species — such as crocus — over bigger bulbs like daffodils or tulips.
• Don’t want weeds? Mulch. Weeds can ruin your bulbs chances by attracting disease and insects or stealing their nutrients. Mulch can also be used to hide bulb holes from squirrels.
• Water your bulbs after you plant. This makes them plant roots quicker, and will eliminate air pocks that may cause them to dry up.
• Containers work but make sure you sink them in the ground so they get cold. A cold enclosed place, like a storage shed, works a well.
•Don’t worry. Tulips and other spring- flowering bulbs are tough. If you get a short freeze, it will not do lasting damage to the shoots and buds. Even a warm spell most likely won’t result in damage, though it my cause some bulbs to bloom earlier than anticipated.