them warm and cozy: Mel's tucking her Snapdragon
transplants in under row covers with hoops. Support netting
will be added when the row cover comes off.
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.
Handling with Care
- Post harvest handling
||"Transplanting seedlings into
garden beds does give you a leg up on direct seeding,
because you know what is a flower and what is a weed.
It’s sometimes really hard to tell in direct seeded
||"If you haven’t yet discovered
support netting, now is the time . . . I don’t know
how I ever grew flowers without support netting . . .
And the stuff is reusable, so don’t let the initial
cost scare you."
Posted APRIL 24, 2003: We just
attended a farming conference in New York State (okay, it
was about chickens, not flowers) but everyone was still complaining
about the same thing: the weather, of course. March and early
April were, simply put, cruel in the Northeast. (And the Midwest.
And poor Texas!)
In Pennsylvania, we flower types sat fuming and waiting,
waiting for the perfect weather to direct seed some early
spring flower seeds, just like the books tell you. Problem
is, “early Spring” brought hail. Hail! And then
the onion snow was forecast -- but you couldn’t even
call it that because the ground had been too wet for us to
plant the onions. The snow stuck around way too long and the
fields are soaked. Can’t plant when it’s wet.
Then as income tax day approached, forecasts hit the high
70s and we started worrying about the seedlings in the greenhouse.
Hey, this business isn’t so easy, is it? What’s
WITH Mother Nature anyway?
Welcome to the world of specialty cut flower growing. And
remember that grating, old song: Don’t worry, be . .
. you know. It will get done. There’s still time. But
remember this year, and nudge yourself or someone who’s
handy with a hammer to get a hoophouse up for next year. (See
son Don’s greenhouse
columns on this website for an introduction). A hoop,
even a simple structure fashioned with PVC pipe and UV plastic,
can give your flowers an earlier start, so you have some to
sell at the beginning of summer (see photo at top of article).
Perennials will also get you through this early period in
years to come, like Achillea (yarrow) and Monarda (bee balm).
Something I’m planting more of this year are hydrangea.
Customers love them. (More on them in a future column).
Seedlings should be growing well under your grow lights or
in the greenhouse, and they need time to develop a good root
system. Many don’t need to be started until late April
on into May.
At Pheasant Hill Farm now (mid-April) we have six greenhouse
benches overflowing with flowers -- Blue Horizon ageratum,
statice, celosias, gomphrena, cinnamon basil, campanula, lisianthus,
godetia, euphorbia, and many, many more. (I had Spring fever).
I have some sunflowers started, too, and others in the big
greenhouse (with available supplemental heat) already.
Most of the above you still have time to seed inside to set
out when it warms up more. Sunflowers don’t hold well
in growing cells more than three or four weeks, and you don’t
want to set them out too early anyway.
If you have raised beds, which tend to dry out more quickly,
it may be a help with Spring planting. I managed to get a
couple hundred Rocket snapdragons out in early April in a
raised bed close to the house. They’re well watered
and under floating row covers with wire hoops, all securely
fastened to take the wind we’ve been having. We’ve
had snaps take it down to the low teens under row cover with
no problem. They would all be thriving, had they not met Nellie,
our kangaroo-like dog, who ran through the middle of both
little covers today, flattening a few flowers. Time to set
up the support netting. Bachelor’s buttons are coming
up in that bed, too.
I’ve heard from several of you who haven’t started
seeds indoors before. As recommended before in an earlier
column, Nancy Bubel’s book “The Seed Starters
Handbook” really is a great tutor. Here’s what
I do (right, and sometimes wrong):
UP: When you start seeds in flats, it’s
time to transplant them to single cell flats when they get
their first true leaves. Again, the catalogs and seed packets
will tell you which seedlings don’t like to have roots
disturbed, which are best direct seeded -- and you can learn
which advice to take as you grow. Some flowers that aren’t
supposed to be started indoors have done fine for me that
To “bump up” those little seedlings from seed
flats to individual cells, I find three tools very helpful:
- a plastic fork with the outside prongs removed
- a plastic dough or icing scraper (a freebie from a bakery)
- and a marking pen, which does double duty. (Real high-techy
-- but they work!)
Fill the cell tray with potting mix and use the plastic dough
scraper to even off the potting mix in the tray quickly. Then
take the marking pen end and poke holes in the mix in each cell.
transplants : A 'modified' plastic fork,
a free icing scraper and a good 'ol finger are all
the tools you really need to bump up your seedlings.
Next, use the two-pronged fork to gently lift seedlings from
the seeding flat and place in the hole in the cell flat, and
poke it in firmly (see photos at right). The more you do,
the faster it goes. The little guys are generally pretty tough.
When the flat is full, I immediately apply some liquid fish
emulsion with a watering can, label the flat and water well.
HARDENING OFF AND TRANSPLANTING:
The seedlings can grow faster with more room, and will be
ready to ”harden off” in a few weeks. To do that,
I just set the cell flats outside my greenhouse, in a shady
spot, for a few hours a day, a week before transplanting to
Be sure to transplant to the field in the morning or evening,
not in direct sunlight. Keep the transplants watered well
daily for a few days, until they get their sea legs, then
water as needed. Many flower seedlings -- like sunflowers
-- can be transplanted into holes in black plastic if weeds
tend to get ahead of you.
Transplanting seedlings into garden beds does give you a
leg up on direct seeding, because you know what is a flower
and what is a weed. It’s sometimes really hard to tell
in direct seeded rows.
Some flowers do extremely well when direct seeded. I direct
seed bachelor’s buttons, bupleurum, bells of Ireland,
coreopsis, zinnias, some sunflowers and more. Be sure to watch
which flowers should not be put out before danger of frost
has ended -- like sunflowers, zinnias, celosia and cinnamon
To make direct seeding even easier, Lynn Byczynski, author
of “The Flower Farmer” and editor of Growing for
Market newsletter, says you can use a push seeder for any
seed that can be direct seeded. Just match the size of the
flower seed to the vegetable seed and use that seeding plate.
If you haven’t yet discovered support netting, now is
the time. The name of the product is Hortonova, and it’s
available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, www.johnnyseeds.com,
and a host of garden/greenhouse catalogs. At Johnny’s,
you’ll find it in the gardening accessories area under
“season extenders/twine and trellis.” Folks on
the west coast might want to consider Peaceful Valley Farm
Supply, at www.groworganic.com.
You’ll find it there in the “growing” product
category. (If you’re comparing prices, remember to consider
I don’t know how I ever grew flowers without support
netting. The lightweight polypropylene mesh stretches between
stakes, over your flowers that need support -- like snapdragons,
lisianthus, campanula, mignonette and many more. Set it up
as you transplant, or even lay it on the ground beforehand
to use as a planting guide. Then gently slide it up the posts
-- set posts every five feet apart or so on either side of
your bed -- and you have nice, straight flowers to cut. (It’s
much easier to have a buddy help you put the netting up).
Books say to add a second layer, and even a third, for tall
flowers. I’ve never needed to. And the stuff is reusable,
so don’t let the initial cost scare you.
TRANSPLANTING & DIRECT SEEDING
Continuing our favorites, here are our planting,
transplanting and direct seeding instructions
for some top picks:
Mid-April to the end of April
is the time we get serious about starting sunflowers
indoors for outside planting. As mentioned before,
we start a few in 200-cell Speedling trays, most
in 72 cells and 50 cells and transplant them out
in three to four weeks. In mid-May, (after hardening
off by setting them outside the greenhouse in
a shady spot for a couple hours a day for about
a week) I put them out under row cover with hoops.
I also direct seed some sunflowers in longer
rows. The big seeds are easy to seed. I generally
mark my row in nice soft soil and push them right
in. Sunflowers are heavy feeders, so we make sure
the beds get a lot of compost worked in. Plant
them two to four inches apart for small to medium
sized blooms for bouquets. I do some six to eight
inches apart for larger blooms, and big sunflowers
sold individually, are spaced 12 inches apart.
Remember, sunflowers like it warm, so warm temperatures
speed flower development. They’ll grow slow
when temperatures are in the 50s. Support netting
is recommended -- and I don’t net them,
and have had no problem. Your call. It’s
necessary to keep planting your main crop sunflowers,
like Sun Series and Sunrich Series every couple
of weeks through midsummer to keep a supply of
this staple (even if you just plant 25 or 50!)
I also drop a couple of sunflower seeds in vegetable
rows where a transplant has failed in black plastic.
The sunflowers bring the bees to the veggies,
and I usually get some nice flowers, too.
It’s nice to start some
zinnias indoors and set them out for a bit of
an earlier crop. But they are so easy to direct
seed and they definitely are the mid-to-late summer
staple for us (and most small growers!). On direct
seeding with a push seeder, Lynn Byczynski says
she uses the beet plate for zinnias. She doesn’t
thin them, rather cuts early bloomers to the ground,
essentially thinning and getting an early crop.
I’ve generally done small patches -- 20
feet of many colors of different varieties of
zinnia -- and just sprinkle them in. I’m
going to try using the seeder more this year.
Be sure to keep the rows watered well, especially
during germination. And get the weeds out early.
Otherwise you can wind up with a mess that needs
to be reseeded. We generally do three plantings
of zinnia, and we’re usually getting cuts
off the first planting along with the third, or
until powdery mildew gets bad. Then we pull them
and get them out of the garden. Lighter mildew
doesn’t hurt, because leaves are stripped
from the stem.
Amaranth (Gomphrena globosa and haageana)
Transplants go out in mid and
late May for us, earliest under cover, all spaced
9 inches apart (for both Gomphrena haageana and
globosa) because spaced too closely, they tangle
like crazy -- and they aren’t too much fun
to pick anyway. Then we will direct seed another
bed in early June. They don’t need a lot
of attention. These things love the heat, and
boy do they take off in the dog days of July/August.
A few mixed in a bouquet adds just the right touch.
BLUE HORIZON AGERATUM,
Floss Flower (Ageratum houstonianum)
Last year, I had two nice patches of this tall
ageratum, and boy did it get me through Summer
-- and Fall -- well! Ageratum doesn’t like
cold, so I let the seedlings get nice and healthy
in the greenhouse. I put some in the hoop in early
May, and set others out as it warms, planting
them 9 to 12 inches apart. As I said before, I
cut them back, low, after the flowers start to
get funky and get a good fall crop, too.
Some of my statice in the greenhouse is starting
to get bigger, and those biggies will go out under
row cover in early May. We plant transplants out
10 inches apart, and keep them weeded. Before
long, the plants get nice and big and cover the
ground, so very little weeding is necessary. I
love this plant -- until my back starts aching
in late summer.
plumosa feathery types and Celosia cristata
They can be fussy in the greenhouse, so make sure
they have enough room in their cells. We put them
out in late May, because a late frost will get
‘em. Most celosia for cut flowers they say
to plant 6 to 12 inches apart. I like to plant
Pampas Plume 12 inches because the plants get
huge, and you can easily get a dozen stems per
plant, in the North, anyway. Sparker series gets
4 inch spacing and net, and the stems are nice
and strong. This is another late season staple!
We always get volunteers, many of which we leave
to grow into strong plants. But they don’t
direct seed for beans. Go figure.
With its small green leaves, violet stems and
leaf veins and delicate flowers, Cinnamon basil
is a great addition to mixed bouquets, or just
mixed with zinnias. The slight sweet cinnamon
scent isn’t overwhelming, but is pleasantly
noticeable. We put our greenhouse transplants
out in mid-May in a hoophouse, and late May outdoors,
spaced 9 inches apart. They’ll get nice
and big, and the patch we had in a hoophouse just
kept coming the more we cut!