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:
- Seeds did not germinate!
- Flowers, particularly celosia and sunflowers, were stunted!
- Everything got off to a slow start !
- 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!
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,
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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!
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
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.
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.