Producer of the Month: Mark Eves - Tulips
When you think of tulips, chances are that clogs, windmills and all things Dutch spring to mind. So it’s no wonder Mark Eves is very proud that nearly all his flowers are 100% British. ‘We’re the only big tulip grower in the UK who produces their own bulbs and grows flowers from these, making our tulips truly British,’ he tells me, standing in the middle of a patch of bright green that stretches as far as I can see. ‘We occasionally bring in Dutch bulbs when we start growing new varieties, but that’s all. By growing our own bulbs, we can be sure of the best quality flowers.’ Mark is a director at Belmont Nurseries, part of the company he runs alongside his family. After meeting wife Susanne in 1992, he joined the business run by Susanne’s parents and brother. Today, they all live on the same land as the flowers they grow, working side by side to produce beautiful blooms for Co-op that are ideal for Easter. ‘There are downsides to working with your family, of course,’ Mark smiles. ‘But mainly, I just love it.’
Over the last 20 years, Mark has seen the business grow from 60 acres to 550 — and in that time he’s watched millions of tulips grow too. ‘I’m passionate about our flowers, and if you really care about something, you tend to do it well,’ he says, gently plucking a tulip from one of the trays and checking its petals. ‘I’m a Norfolk boy born and bred, so getting to work in the open air is great too. I don’t even mind the cold — I prefer it to working indoors.’ Outside, row upon row of tulip bulbs are planted. After two years, they’re harvested and graded, before being exposed to temperatures that give them a false summer and winter. Then, they’re ready to bloom at just the right time to hit Co-op stores. In the eight acres of glasshouses (which smell lovely) the bulbs will bloom into tulips of all colours — pinks, reds, purples and yellows, some with pretty coloured tints. The flowers are watched closely for around two weeks until they’re at exactly the right stage of bloom, when a team of staff will carefully pick its way through the trays, choosing the tulips that are ready to be packed and sent to Co-op stores. It’s a peaceful business: as each flower is examined, you can almost hear the squeak of leaves pushing their way through the bulbs and into the air.
I’m passionate about our flowers, and if you really care about something, you tend to do it well’ Mark Eves
As I get to know more about Mark’s flowers, it’s clear that a mix of hard work and passion, a commitment to the environment, and the latest technology all go into making Co-op tulips so stunning. As well as being passionate about British produce, Mark is very keen to make sure his flowers are grown as sustainably as possible. And as he reels off all the ways the family has made the business greener, I’m seriously impressed. ‘The glasshouses are kept warm using water heated by our biomass boiler,’ he tells me, leading me to a huge tank and opening a hatch. Peeking in, I’m hit by a blast of heat, as the furnace burns through recycled wood brought in from the local area. ‘Ninety cubic metres of wood burn down to just 1 cubic metre of ash,’ Mark says. ‘And even that’s not wasted — we use it to fertilise the land where our bulbs are planted.’ The best of the tulip bulbs are replanted outside ready to grow again, and any that don’t make the grade are used as fertiliser too. The huge amount of rainwater that runs off the roofs of the glasshouses is stored and supplied to other growers. ‘We’re close to the sea, so the local standing water is too salty to use,’ Mark explains. ‘There’s also a shortage of peat, which means using it can cause environmental issues. We do our bit by using hydroponics — growing plants in water,’ he adds. ‘The bulbs are planted on spikes, and bloom quite happily out of the ground.’
From the glasshouses, the tulips are transported into a packing area, where the flowers are checked to make sure they’re the best possible quality, and will last for at least five days after Co-op customers take them home to enjoy. Modern machinery checks things like colour and maturity, while a team hand-checks each flower and bunches them together. The colours chosen depend on the season — Easter is all about the bright yellows. At the end of the day, I’m allowed to pick a bunch of tulips to take home, and over a week later they still look lovely. Every time I look at them, I’m reminded of Mark’s passionate commitment to quality. ‘Because Co-op’s a local shop, I can pop in and see my flowers on sale,’ he says. ‘Seeing someone holding a bunch of British tulips I’ve helped to grow is the best feeling in the world. It means I know I’ve done a good job — and that’s what really matters.’