Jeannette DeGoede can remember the first time she invited strangers onto her property to walk among the glorious tulips.
She was out picking in the fields to fill a cut-flower order at her family’s Skagit Valley Bulb Farm when a group of tourists parked by the side of the road and asked if they could walk on her land.
Sure, DeGoede said, pointing out an old wooden plank they could use to reach the field.
“I wasn’t paying too much attention,” DeGoede said. “All of the sudden, I looked up at the end of the road and there were about 20 cars.”
Soon DeGoede found herself selling bouquets for 70 cents from an old strawberry stand.
Every year after that, Skagit County’s tulip tourists increased, prompting the Mount Vernon Chamber of Commerce to throw a weekend-long festival one April.
This year the festival — now a monthlong agritourism extravaganza that draws about 350,000 people — will celebrate its 25th anniversary along with the DeGoedes, whose operation has exploded into a full-service retail venture and tourist destination called Tulip Town, selling art, food and gifts in addition to flowers and taking orders for bulbs.
Roozengaarde, the retail arm of the much bigger Washington Bulb Co., will celebrate the festival too, featuring field upon field of flowers, a specialized 3-acre display garden and a gift shop.
Though now isn’t the time to plant bulbs in home gardens, tourists can buy a variety of cut flowers or order bulbs for fall planting.
This festival, of course, isn’t just about the flowers.
All kinds of activities run in conjunction with the big bloom, including a parade, a fun run, a “tulip pedal” for cyclists, fundraisers, art shows, children’s activities and even helicopter rides.
Visitors can plan their tours with a detailed brochure or an official guide, both available at www.tulipfestival.org.
“There are over 40 different events and activities going on throughout the festival,” said Cindy Verge, executive director of the festival. “It’s just amazing.”
That includes the Tour de Fleur on April 5, when chartered bus tours will take visitors to the fields and other select destinations to benefit Meals on Wheels.
The Early Day Gas Engine and Tractor Association, meanwhile, will host a national show April 11-13 at the Skagit County Fairgrounds in Mount Vernon in conjunction with the festival.
And the Kiwanis Club will present its 20th annual salmon barbecue, served daily starting Saturday and running through April 20 in Mount Vernon.
Though the festival is officially happening April 1-30, both Tulip Town and RoozenGaarde will be open this Saturday and Sunday for early birds who want to see the daffodil fields already in full bloom.
Tulips, meanwhile, are set to pop right on time in early April with at least some in bloom by Tuesday for the official start of the festival.
“They’re actually absolutely gorgeous because the cold, wet rainy weather is exactly what they like,” DeGoede said. “They’re stretching beautifully. They’re coming.”
Because the farmers rotate crops, fields change every year and bloom times vary, too. Visitors who want to make sure the flowers are at their peak can check the festival Web site for a field-by-field bloom map updated daily.
People who want to avoid traffic and crowds might set their alarms for dawn.
“If you want to come up on the weekends, try and plan your visit so you arrive early in the morning,” Verge said. “Most people come up here between 11 and 2.”
Visitors who don’t have that much ambition, however, can flower gaze any time, Verge said, adding: “If you drive by a tulip field and stop to look at it, you’re part of the festival.”