GardenRant Interview: Brent Heath


Q:  "What’s new from B&B in 2007?"
A:  Combos!  Bulbs with compatible plants like violas, larkspur, bachelor’s buttons, cabbage.  Brent’s assignment: to photograph the hundreds of combos emerging at their Gloucester, Virginia nursery for display on their website.  In other news, sales to organizations like the Chicago Botanic Garden are growing; the bulbs are then resold as fundraisers.  And from March through fall they’re selling boxes of cut flowers for overnight delivery.  Naturally I recommended he read Flower Confidential.  

Q:  "What’s all this about global warming potentially threatening the growing of tulips?"
A: "That’s a crock".  Brent’s been getting those press calls lately but says we should all just relax about that because tulips coming up early is not a problem and after all, they easily grow through Zone 9.  Customers in Zone 10 simply precool them first or buy them precooled.  Potted immediately, they’ll bloom in 2-3 weeks. 

Q:  "Is there a secret to growing great tulips?" 
A:  Drainage is key. Brent grows his elevated, in compost with mulch on top.  No fertilizer is needed, only compost, and his favorite is Kricket Krap.  It’s composed of granite sand, rock phosphate, and chicken crap.

Q:  "What bulbs are best for naturalizing?"
A:   Species crocus, chinodoxa, and hyacinthoides (Spanish bluebells), but patience is needed.  It’s a 5 to 7-year wait from seed to bloom.

Q:  "I’m always promoting tulips as annuals; am I crazy?Thai_beauty
A: Hell, no.  For only $6 for 10 or $25 for 50 you get a nice large display of blooms for two to three weeks.  Considering what people spend for a concert or one meal in a restaurant, bulbs are "helluva bargain".

Q:  "Been anywhere lately?"
A:  Does a recent trip to China count?  Brent was there for the planting of 10,000 bulbs that were donated to a small town by Des Moines, their sister city.  It’s a river of crocus and chinodoxa and let’s hope Brent will be posting photos soon.  Next, he stopped in Thailand where he discovered some unique caladiums, like the electric pink ‘Thai Beauty’ he’s now importing – they’re the "hottest thing going".  Also hot are the "greatly underutilized" gingers, hardy through Zone 7.

Q:  "What was it like growing up in the bulb biz?"
A:  "Hard, hot, dirty work".  After studying business admin ("useless"), Brent helped his mom run theBb business, ran a nature camp for four years, then in 1972 up and bought the family biz.  Before too long he’d married the "perfect woman" for him – the lovely Becky, who possesses both business aptitude and a fine singing voice.  Lucky Brent – with Becky running the show at home (the business and the four kids), he’s able to lecture far and wide, make regular visits to Holland, grow trials and photograph everything in sight.

(There was a pause while the green goddess of jealousy threatened to undermine the interviewer’s concentration.)

Q:  "Brent, how about a quick quote?"
A: "Plant bulbs and harvest smiles – that’s our motto".  Good one!

Full disclosure: Although my memories of this are vague, I’m told that Brent’s family and mine vacationed in nearby cabins at Nags Head, NC in the ’60s.  He and my sister hung out in the same pubescent bunch, which stayed in touch for years.  Readers, Nags Head is still awesome.  Maybe I’ll go there this summer and photograph it for you.  No, wait.  In the SPRING I’ll visit B&B in Virginia and just keep going south ’til I hit the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Good plan.  


  1. I hadn’t thought about the value of planting tulips as annuals (it’s very difficult to grow them as perennials in Austin). I didn’t realized they bloomed for so long either. Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that.

  2. Pam – I understand a deal-breaker for some would be the work involved in planting the things, so having an easy planting bed is helpful (mine’s in pure compost.) After blooming, I just pop those babies out of the compost and then don’t have to look at their foliage, which is the least attractive of all bulbs.

  3. What a delight, Susan, this conversation with Brent Heath! I LOVE Brent & Becky’s. My favorite supplier of plant material in the world! The lilies they send, in particular, are just unbelievably big and juicy compared to everyone else’s.

    Tulips as annuals, absolutely! The tulips sold as “perennial” are all Darwin Hybrids. Nice, and I did once have a patch of Fringed Elegance that came back for four years–but as a group, a little dull. The really thrilling ones–the doubles, parrots, lily-flowered, etc.–never seem to return, whether you intend them to or not. So I just fork over the money each year and enjoy the show. And like Susan, I yank them out when the leaves start looking ugly.

    Tulips handled this way are EASY to plant. Just dig a hole shovel-deep, pop 5 in at a time, and forget about fertilizer. Works perfectly.

  4. In deepest Zone 10/Sunset 23, we do 1000-2000 bulbs per year. All get prechilled in a garage refrigerator, planted in plastic pots and put in Ugly Plant Land. When they come up, we move them out to the patio/lanai/backyard and have a party. The lily-flowering tulips are always the winners. Kentia palms and Queen of the Night tulips are a great combination.

    After the 3-4 weeks we have them up, we compost them and move onto summer plants. Our cost is between 25 and 67 cents per bulb. Containers are used year after year.

    The big challenges are early heat waves, proper drainage in pots and staggering the bloom times.

    Locally, Descanso Gardens- -has a great tulip festival every year in April. Decanso is a bit cooler than I and they plant in the ground.

    Decomposing in Granite,


  5. Wonderful interview…I generally grow my tulips as annuals, too. They just don’t reliably return each year around here.

    And Nags Head, NC? It is a great place to vacation, no doubt!

  6. I know gardeners who claim their tulips have been coming back for over ten years. Either they’re ly–I mean exaggerating or they are always adding new bulbs and aren’t keeping track. Who wants to see the same old tulips every year, anyway?

    But the species cultivars–now there’s a different story. Perfect for rock gardens and in ground cover and they do come back reliably.

    I have noticed that my tulips are getting brighter every year. Subtlety is overrated.

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