SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower

Winter Harvest: Making up for a rough summer
Column 10: Turning the “off-season” chill into a ringing till. Tips for winter long sales from a variety of cut flower gurus.

By Melanie DeVault

 

A little bit about Melanie

Melanie and husband George own a 19.2-acre certified organic farm in Emmaus, PA, where they, with son Don and daughter Ruth, have operated a modified CSA and members-only home market stand, sold at Farmers’ Markets, to health food stores and restaurants. Melanie specializes in specialty cut flowers. A former newspaper reporter, she also is a freelance garden writer. She is a member of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers.

 

QUESTIONS?

I’ll be happy to anwer them! E-mail me at devault@fast.net

Or contact The New Farm Team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Regular customers who would spend $30 a week for fresh flowers told me they could spend half as much this year, if that,” he says. It wasn’t just the cheap South American imports that were impacting prices either. The economy was hitting home, and these customers, worried about the future, were watching their wallets more carefully. Add to that a miserable, wet spring and summer in the Northeast, and bingo. The friend’s business was down over last year, too. Sound familiar?"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flower grower Paul Shumaker keeps his season on Never Should Have Started Farm (we’ve been there, too) near Bangor, Pa., going with dried flowers into Thanksgiving, followed closely by natural Christmas wreaths. The value-added products kept the bottom line happier in this difficult fresh-flower year. Paul likes the extra income, but “it can get pretty cold working with frozen greenery in December,” he admits.

 

December 17, 2003: Making the rounds this past month, the latest USDA Floriculture Crops Summary painted a bleak picture that wasn’t exactly a surprise to those of us in the cut-flower business. Domestic flower value had declined 5 percent since 1999, with the biggest drop coming in the last year. Snapdragons, carnations, larkspur, roses, lisianthus and several other common favorites all declined in value. Lissies’ (my personal pick) dropped by a whopping 25 percent. While lilies were up in number of stems sold, they, too, were down in dollar value, along with tulips, gladiolas and gerbera daisies.

A friend who sells flowers in an upscale Philadelphia market noticed the trend early this past summer. “Regular customers who would spend $30 a week for fresh flowers told me they could spend half as much this year, if that,” he says. It wasn’t just the cheap South American imports that were impacting prices either. The economy was hitting home, and these customers, worried about the future, were watching their wallets more carefully. Add to that a miserable, wet spring and summer in the Northeast, and bingo. The friend’s business was down over last year, too. Sound familiar?

‘Tis the Season to Extend

While my Philadelphia friend helped a sagging bottom line with an increased number of a certain value added floral product (natural Christmas wreaths) other growers are finding ways to keep cut-flower production rolling into the holidays (and to jumpstart it early, too).

My flower partner and I were able to sell all the bouquets we could make this summer. But we, too, saw more customers watching impulse purchases. So, beginning this winter, we’re concentrating on more hoophouse production to bolster spring and fall sales. We’ve got dianthus and larkspur in and plan more early hoophouse starts for sunflowers, snapdragons, lisianthus and possibly more (bearing in mind the power of winter conferences).

It’s certainly no secret that flower growers around the country are increasingly working with several hardy crops well suited for harvesting from November through March (examples below).

As growers all over the country are beginning to welcome winter more openly, farmers’ markets are extending their season to Thanksgiving and even into the Christmas season. Some are even going year-round. Our brand new market in Emmaus, Pa., which was to have ended at the end of October, ran to Thanksgiving this year. Another market we did in Telford, Pa., had a group of hearty souls who’d done likewise for the past two years.

At a regional meeting of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers last summer, cut flower guru Dave Dowling talked about the upside of winter production, a staple of his Farmhouse Flowers & Plants business in Brookeville, MD.

Dowling’s recommendations for winter production in colder regions: lilies, sunflowers, amaryllis, anemones and ranunculus. Other winter harvest crops that can keep the cash flow alive include field-grown shrubs like winter berry holly (berried branches harvested in late November and perfect for holiday decorating); red twig dogwood (branches are harvested in December); pussy willow, (stems are harvested in early March and forced indoors or in a greenhouse for sale, or dried for later use); and ‘Pee Gee’ hydrangea (great fresh, but dried flowers are fantastic for late-season wreath sales).

Dowling’s recommendations for greenhouse crops include freesias (bulb crops grown in ground beds or crates); Tulips (grown in ground beds or crates); Dutch Irises (grown in grounds beds or crates); Paperwhites (grown in pots or crates and sold as cut flower or potted plants); and Bleeding Heart (grown in pots for cutting for Valentine’s Day sales).

Dowling’s cool-weather growing tips

Lilies—Dowling grows lilies (Asiatic, Scented Oriental, and L.A. or Asi-Florum hybrids) with 20 bulbs per crate, scheduling according to the length of time it takes a particular variety to bloom, using Pro-Mix BX and liquid fertilizer. Crates are kept cool until sprouting. Extra lighting is needed during winter months, and plants need to have good air circulation. He likes Orientals ‘Deshima’ and ‘Siberia’ for Christmas; L.A./Asi-Florum ‘Royal Sunset’ for Thanksgiving.

Sunflowers—one of the best varieties for winter forcing, he says, is ‘Sunbright Supreme’, which can be planted 30 per crate or 4 inches apart in ground beds. (My flower partner and I found these great sizes for bouquets. We even trialed them in small pots on my seeding greenhouse tables, and the small flowers got rave reviews. They did need some support, so we put Hortonova trellis material over one of the benches. It’s all about experimenting to see what works best for you!)

Amaryllis—can be grown in any warm, bright area, even under grow lights. Water well when planting, says Dowling, and keep on the dry side until growth appears. Harvest flower stalks when the large bud has opened but before individual flowers do. Bulbs can be saved and regrown the following year. South African amaryllis are available in September and November; Dutch amaryllis in late October for flowering in late December, January and February.

Anemones and ranunculus—good in ground bed, pots or crates in a cool greenhouse. Nights in the 50s and days in the 60s are ideal. Plant ½- inch deep, with legs of ranunculus pointing down, and anemones with point down, like a carrot, Dowling says. If you aren’t sure which end is up (we’ve been there) plant it sideways. Keep damp, but not too wet until they’ve sprouted, then water as usual (but don’t overwater or they’ll rot). Harvest anemones when the flower is open fully; ranunculus when several blooms on a stem are open. Crop time is 8 to 12 weeks, depending on when they are planted. They are available for planting September through December.

More tips from the experts

Lynn Byczynski, author of The Flower Farmer and editor of the Growing For Market newsletter, recommends the following for winter production in a minimally heated house: anemone, delphinium, Dutch iris, freesia, lupine, ranunculus, snapdragons, stock and sweet peas. In her heated greenhouse, she says, lilies and sunflowers do well for November sales. For overwintering in an unheated house, she recommends delphinium, dianthus and larkspur. Her Hoophouse Handbook: Growing Produce and Flowers in Hoophouses and High Tunnels, available for $15 through www.growingformarket.com, gives all the specifics, and her editorials in the newsletter also give details on what works and what doesn’t on her farm in Lawrence, Kan.

Flower grower Paul Shumaker keeps his season on Never Should Have Started Farm (we’ve been there, too) near Bangor, Pa., going with dried flowers into Thanksgiving, followed closely by natural Christmas wreaths. The value-added products kept the bottom line happier in this difficult fresh-flower year. Paul likes the extra income, but “it can get pretty cold working with frozen greenery in December,” he admits.

What works best for wreaths? “Fir: concolor and Douglas fir, Frazier fir, white pine, all have good needle retention,” Shumaker says. “It’s better to stay away from spruces, unless it’s for outdoor wreaths.” Shumaker incorporates sprigs of various other greenery, such as arborvitae and boxwood, for contrast and decorates tastefully with twigs, chili pepper, dried oranges, winter berry, teasel, rose hips or “whatever floats your boat,” he quips. Dried flowers such as hydrangea are treated with a sealer (available from a floral supplier) before being incorporated into wreaths.

Shumaker uses an old-style wreath making machine and crimp frames from Kelco (www.kelcomaine.com). “I used to hand-wire, but this makes it go faster,” he says. He made about 50 large wreaths this season and says with the machine he could easily do 1,000. Mitchell Wreath Rings
(www.mitchellwreathrings.com) has clamp motifs for an assortment of themes and styles ranging from swags and rings to candy canes, bells and stars.

Next: Spring Harvest