SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower

Getting through summer
Column 7: The summer sweat is on, and the weeds are looking better than your flowers. If you're seriously considering putting the weeds up for sale, don't stress. Mel tells you how to handle burnt-out blooms, disheveled beds and those"oh no, I'm running out of flowers" moments.

By Melanie DeVault

Summer's no time to smell the roses: Keeping up with cutting and going to market is more than enough to worry about. Planning ahead can prevent other problems from taking up your valuable time. Oh, so now you tell us, Mel!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

"...in this busy season, just keeping up with the cutting and the markets is all-consuming . . . Keeping a half-acre or two or three acres of flowers perfectly manicured would put labor costs far into the red and you in the mad house. So we live with the weeds. "

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"When the cutting ageratum flowers begin to fade and burn, I cut the crop back and get another rush later in the summer or fall. Flowers that won’t come back, like single stem sunflowers, get pulled up, the area rejuvenated and replanted."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

". . . the biggest mistake a beginning grower can make is to plant once and expect to harvest all season long"

August 1, 2003: Ah, summer. It finally has arrived in all of its -- humidity, intense sun and heat -- full force. After two months of no sun in the Northeast this spring, we don’t know quite how to take it. Getting through summer for the specialty cut flower grower -- it’s all about “maintaining,” succession planting . . . and planning ahead. Already yet!

We’ll delve right in. But first, a word about This Year. Not that there ever is a normal year for those of us who grow things for a living, but we’ve had quite a few e-mails from really frustrated new flower growers that:

  1. Seeds did not germinate!
  2. Flowers, particularly celosia and sunflowers, were stunted!
  3. Everything got off to a slow start !
  4. Many things were lost!

Yep to all of the above. Here in Pennsylvania, we really only had two days of full sunshine this spring. I guess New York was pretty much the same, because that’s where many of the e-mails have come from.

Fear not -- ALL the flower growers in the Northeast have been complaining. EVERYONE has had problems. Plants need sunshine to grow, and Mother Nature just didn’t cooperate. (We’re not alone, though. Other parts of the country have had flooding, drought and grasshoppers!)

The problems in the Northeast were confirmed at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers July 29 in Maryland where everyone I spoke with had a weather-related tale.

A grower in St. Michaels, MD, got a new mulch layer -- but couldn’t use it to get his plugs in because of the rain. He finally got them in late, in dirt, not the neat plastic the slick new machine lays. A grower from Upstate New York said that everyone there is still reeling from the wet spring. Zinnias were slow -- everything is slow. Same for a grower in Northern Pennsylvania.

And the field tour through Dave Dowling’s Farmhouse Flowers & Plants in Brookeville, MD, showed stunted celosia, another planting ready to go in to replace those, and other flowers that were a third the size they should be.

We’re a good two weeks behind this year in Pennsylvania. But just like vegetable growers, flower growers who have a diverse selection are coming out of it OK -- grasshoppers not included. We found that once the sun finally arrived, many of our plants shot up.

My stunted sunflowers were fine in bouquets. The Blue Horizon Ageratum (that I thought was a loss) is now full and beautiful. The Achillea (yarrow) continues to fill out bouquets nicely, and the snapdragons have been the best we’ve ever had. The strawflowers and statices -- especially my perennial German statice -- have been fantastic. The campanula, which has been a great focal flower in the past, was pretty much a loss, as was my first planting of celosia. So goes. We still were able to handle bouquets for a garden wedding on June 27, and two farmers’ markets!

Maintaining

It was a relief to tour Dave Dowling’s flower farm and see weeds getting ahead of some of the flower beds. All of the 120 visitors, from wannabes to experienced growers, could relate. But in this busy season, just keeping up with the cutting and the markets is all-consuming.

A week of rain made the flowers grow tall -- and the weeds grow taller. Keeping a half-acre or two or three acres of flowers perfectly manicured would put labor costs far into the red and you in the mad house. So we live with the weeds. If you, as a beginning grower, have been fretting about it, it’s NORMAL!

Nothing beets the beet plate: Use the beet plate on the Earthway seeder to plant your summer flowers quickly and easily.

What is important is cultivating enough to keep the flowers from getting smothered. If we weed when the flowers are coming up, and hoe every few days in the beginning, most flowers get a good enough start to fight future temporary neglect (except lack of water in a drought year).

I plant 20- to 30-foot sections of several crops in a general flower area, and replace them when the flowers are spent -- unless the crop will come again -- like with Blue Horizon Ageratum. When the cutting ageratum flowers begin to fade and burn, I cut the crop back and get another rush later in the summer or fall. Same with some perennials like Monarda (bee balm). Flowers that won’t come back, like single stem sunflowers, get pulled up, the area rejuvenated and replanted.

Some of my favorites, like lisianthus, get so prolific the second year under the cover of a hoop house, it’s hard to keep up with them. So we go through and cut them back pretty hard (they keep right on coming). Lissies also like cool soil, it was pointed out at the ASCFG regional meeting. So plant them in white plastic. (We always learn something great at the meetings. For more information on ASCFG, write to acfg@oberlin.net or call the association at 440-774-2887.)

We do several plantings of zinnias during the summer in small patches and in long rows. (Lynn Byczynski’s tip works beautifully -- we used the Earthway seeder this year with the beet seed plate). We have found that the first planting will keep right on producing, even with powdery mildew, when we’re cutting the second or third planting. The leaves are stripped anyway, so a light infestation doesn’t hurt.

Succession Planting

When I started growing flowers more seriously several years ago, I remember reading in Lynn Byczynski’s book, “The Flower Farmer” -- half way through the season, of course -- something like the biggest mistake a beginning grower can make is to plant once and expect to harvest all season long. I hadn’t planted nearly enough that year to keep me going well. It just takes one year to learn!

Sunflowers save the day: If you haven't done any succession planting and your blooms aren't going to make it into fall, put in some day neutral sunflowers.

Every year I have a frantic friend call about this time and say, “I don’t have enough for fall. What can I plant quickly?” If you have a hoop house, there are several choices. (We’ll deal with hoops in a later column.) If you’re stuck and have a hoop, get some day neutral sunflowers in!

Other flowers with a quick seed to plant life may be fine in areas that don’t get an early frost. Here in Pennsylvania, we always try a late planting of 8-10 week flowers (some zinnias, sunflowers, etc.) and sometimes we make it! You can cover flowers with floating row covers if a frost is expected to sometimes give you an extra week or two.

The best advice, however, is to plan ahead and do succession planting to assure a steady crop.

Plants that we now plant in succession, mostly in small patches to ensure a nice variety in bouquets, include: (Blue Horizon) Ageratum; Centaurea cyanus (bachelor’s button); Cosmos; Euphorbia (snow-on-the-mountain), a big hit with farmers’ market crowds; Helianthus (sunflowers); Helichrysum (strawflower), which, for some reason, loved this lousy growing season; Limonium sinuatum (statice); Nigella (love-in-a-mist); Scabiosa (pincushion flower); and, of course, Zinnia.

Agrostemma, Ammi, Consolida (larkspur), and Gomphrena can also be succession planted. That means we start seeding early and getting the plants as their frost tolerance will bear. We seed some crops every two or three weeks until mid summer.

Planting different types of the same variety of flower, with different sow to bloom dates, will also extend your season. Teddy Bear sunflower has a sow to bloom of 12 to 16 weeks; Moulin Rouge and Starburst Series, 9 to 11 weeks; and Sunrich and Sun Series 9 to 10 weeks.

Next: We’ll talk about Planning Ahead, and the value of purchasing “plugs,” perennial and annual. In future columns, we’ll devote one column each to spring, summer, fall and winter plants and planting, and the value of hoop houses for flowers.

Happy growing!