SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower

PLANTING: Gotta go, gotta go... ah, relax; there’s still time
Column 4: Overcoming her anxiety about an overly long winter, Melanie dispenses timely early-season wisdom about planting, transplanting and growing flowers. BONUS: More planting specifics for sunflowers, zinnias, ageratum, statice, celosia, gomphrena and cinnamon basil.

By Melanie DeVault, Pheasant Hill Farm

Keeping 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.




Next Column:
Handling with Care

  • Maintaining
  • Cutting
  • 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 rows. "



























"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.

Planting 101

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):

BUMPING 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 way.

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!)

Low-tech 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.
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.

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 the field.

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.

DIRECT SEEDING: 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 basil.

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.

SUPPORT NETTING: 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 shipping charges.)

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.


Continuing our favorites, here are our planting, transplanting and direct seeding instructions for some top picks:

SUNFLOWERS (Helianthus annuus)
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.

ZINNIA (Zinnia elegans)
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.

GOMPHRENA, Globe 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.

STATICE (Limonium sinuata)
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.

CELOSIA (Celosia plumosa feathery types and Celosia cristata crested types)
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!