SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower
Good Beginnings . . .
Column II: How about starting with annuals? Here are Melanie’s suggestions.

By Melanie DeVault

Amazing annuals: (from left to right) Zinnias, Gomphrena, Tohoku Yae Sunflowers

 

 

Her Suburban Garden Blooms:
A successful cut flower business on a fraction of an acre

Tell Linda Essert-Kuchar you need 100 or 20 or even one acre of cut flowers to start a cut flower business, and she’ll laugh -- and cringe -- at the same time.

Laugh, because she successfully runs a specialty cut flower business with flowers grown in two gardens in her suburban backyard near Emmaus, PA -- gardens totaling just 2,200 square feet!

Cringe, because she knows the “get big too quickly” pitfall. Start with a few acres of cut flowers? Nah. “You’ve gotta have a whole routine down before you get going. I’ve been doing this for four years and I’m still working the bugs out!” Anyway, to her way of thinking, small is good. The profits go in your pocket, not just those of your employees.

“Besides, my husband won’t let me till up the whole yard,” she laughs. But that’s fine. She sells cut flowers at two Allentown area farmers’ markets from July to the end of September, and to one upscale florist. She also does garden maintenance and renovation of existing small gardens for customers through her business, “My Garden Blooms.” She has time to take classes that interest her and attend flower workshops in the winter. And she works at the upscale florist, to whom she sells flowers, during holiday crunch times.

Linda says she was always interested in flowers. “I studied floraculture/ horticulture at Lehigh County Vo-Tech as a kid. Then I worked at a florist for three years. The money wasn’t there, so I went back to school, Allentown Business School, and into corporate America. After a few years I knew it was time to leave. I saw an ad for a garden helper four years ago,” she says, and the rest is history. That ad led to a partnership with another flower grower, and a year later, both women struck out on their own.

The gardens behind Linda’s home are carefully managed to utilize every inch of space. “I start my seedlings in the basement -- I made a light stand out of PVC pipe for $240, a lot cheaper than the catalogs -- and that holds 12 seed flats.” She fashioned a heat table from old dime store three-inch deep storage bins, which she lined with a shower curtain, sand and vermiculite and a heat cable. “I start 25 to 30 flats of flowers, beginning in March, and do some succession planting. And I do some direct seeding.”

The hardest part of starting in the flower business, Linda says, “is working out your timing. With minimal room, I have to keep good records on starting times, germination, etc., so I have enough room on the heating table. Last year, I didn’t do my timing as well as I should have.”

As for numbers, Linda says she makes up a dozen or so bouquets for each farmers’ market, separate colors, hot colors, a bucket of mixed, and then I make them as needed at the market. “I also do sell loose flowers, and have a make-your-own bouquet.” The florist takes individual flowers -- including all the zinnias she can spare.

One of Linda’s gardens is filled with perennials, which, she says, always add interest to her bouquets. “Being small, I can plant just a couple plants of something and have enough.” Some of her favorite perennials include: Achillea (Moonwalker), lobelia, alchemilla and tritoma.

Favorite annuals include: Sunflowers, zinnias, salvias, euphorbia and ornamental grasses.

What will she do differently this year? “I’ll grow my sunflowers closer together for smaller blooms and organize more carefully. I had a lot of wasted space last year. And I’ll try to stick to my schedule!”

Linda is most anxious to try the Jade sunflower this year. What’s off the list for the coming season? “Godetia. Japanese Beetles loved it. And gaura -- aphids loved it. I’m not going to grow snapdragons this year, rather I’ll grow more zinnias. I’ve had bad luck with baby’s breath and envy (zinnia).”

All in all, she says, she’s anxious for Spring. There’s something special about the start of the growing season, nurturing those flower seedlings. “I could never go back to working for someone else,” she says.

 

 

Coming in March:

  • Seed starting
  • Seeding schedules
  • And some killer perennials.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

February 20, 2003:
Hey, enthusiasm is wonderful! But ...

After I spoke about growing specialty cut flowers at a Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) NJ program recently (our organic certifier), one small fruit grower told my husband that his wife now wanted THREE ACRES to grow cut flowers! Another woman wanted to know where she could beg, borrow or steal a couple of acres to start growing flowers. Then the e-mails started coming from the first column...

It’s exciting to see lots of people entertaining the idea of growing cut flowers. Just remember -- it’s a GOOD THING to start out SMALL. (See the sidebar about a successful flower grower whose “flower farm” is part of a suburban yard!). To ensure “Good Beginnings,” experiment, and see what flowers grow best for YOU. Add as you go. Find your markets, as we talked about in the last column. You know the old saying, “Good things come to those who -- plan.” Or something like that.

At a January cut flower conference, one of the presenters, Bob Wollam, president of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, explained how he began in the flower business. Bob, whose first life was in the corporate world, told us he decided in 1991 that he wanted to do something he enjoyed doing. A long-time gardener, he now wanted to “grow things for real.”

“I started with no business plan because in the corporate world we did that all the time. I started growing perennials in pots...but the prices were coming down. So one day I cut some and took the nice flowers in to a florists. He said, this is great. How much more do you have?” I said, “Well, you’re looking at it.” The florist told Bob he would buy what Bob would grow. “So I switched to growing cut flowers.” He now has a thriving business called Wollam Gardens in Jeffersonton, VA, selling to that same Washington D.C. florist and several others, along with two farmers’ markets. (Visit him at www.wollamgardens.com.)

READER QUESTION:

What ARE those gorgeous flowers?

Hello!

Can someone please tell me about the flowers in your website photo? They are gorgeous! With the sunflowers, are the purple flowers capanula? If so, which variety, please? And, what is the pink flower? They are gorgeous! And do you always use sleeves?

Thank you,
Nancy Hanmer

Where To Focus: The Oohs and Aahs
It never fails. Get two people holding up bouquets, trying to finalize their selection at our farmers’ market stand, and there’s a run on flowers. “Ooh, look at this one,” and “Aah, isn’t that pretty. I can’t make up my mind!”

The good old “Ooh and Aah Factor.” Suddenly everyone within earshot has to see what all the fuss is about. One customer takes two bouquets because she can’t decide between the two she is holding (and someone else is in the wings and might take the rejected one). Another person passing by hears the oohing and stops.

MEL'S ANSWER:

Here are the answers to your questions, Nancy:

Flower varieties (available from both Johnny's and Germania):
Sunflowers -- Sunbright -- I plant them close for smaller bouquet blooms.
Campanula -- Champion Blue -- need Hortnova netting, cut back and they will come again! Campanula are for my earlier bouquets.
Sweet pea -- I think the pink you're referring to is the Old Spice Sweet Pea. They don't last a long time, but they smell terrific. Other pink in there is snapdragon (rocket mix)
Lisianthus work great in mid to late summer. They are fantastic, but very fussy.

Sleeves:
Yes, I uses sleeves with labels because 1) it makes them more professional, and 2) it tells people who I am! Many of my friends consider the cost too high and use plastic bags. Your call!

Cheers,
Mel

Good beginnings for the specialty cut flower grower mean always striving for the oohs and aahs. Whether you intend to sell bouquets at a roadside stand or at a farmers’ market, or to restaurants or retail stores, or whether you want to sell individual flower varieties by the bucketful to florists, the ooh and aah factor reigns!

That means having a quality product, first of all. Like with veggies, you only sell the best of what is in the field. And paying attention to color selection from the beginning of your seed ordering to your selection of cuts in the field; making the colors complement one another or having a full mix of bright colors; having a variety of shapes and textures, if mixed bouquets are your target. It’s a process that becomes second nature if you love flowers, and goes quickly (because if you’re one of those people who takes 25 minutes oohing and aahing over flower placement in one bouquet, you won’t make any money, honey!).

You, the flower lady or gent, of course can add to the oohs and aahs because you’ve done your homework and have added the “in” flower. “Did you see Martha Stewart Living just featured sweet peas?” Or by keeping eyes open while you browse, let your customers know what’s really hot in the swanky shops. Urge customers to smell your flowers. “Did you know flowers tend to lose their smell the further they travel? These didn’t travel 1,200 miles. They traveled 12. They were cut last evening, or maybe even this morning. They’re your neighbors!” We’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit, but before you make your flower seed selection or start seeding, the above does need to be considered!

Recommended Good Beginnings: Annuals
Everyone has his or her favorite annuals. Every book or catalog has recommendations for easy beginning flowers. Lynn Byczynski’s book The Flower Farmer (www.growingformarket.com or call 1-800-307-8949) has wonderful beginning recommendations from several flower growers. Here are some of my personal favorites (in the next column I’ll cover seeding/planting specifics for these varieties):

SUNFLOWERS (Helianthus annuus) There was worry a couple years ago that the bubble would burst on sunflowers; that people would tire of them and wouldn’t want them any more. Okay, growers still worry. But, hey, they still bring smiles to our customers’ faces. Kids love ‘em. And a good variety selection adds to the staying factor.

I’ve tried most of the popular varieties. I like both single stem and multi-branching varieties, but favor pollenless types -- catalogs will tell you which is which -- because I’ve ruined many a tablecloth from pollen. My personal favorites are Sunbright and Sunrich series, Tohoku Yae, Moulin Rouge and Starburst series. I grow some of the multi-branching varieties, like Sundance Kid (has almost no pollen drop), and Autumn Beauty and Ring of Fire, for Fall sales. The Fall colors don’t sell as well in the heat of summer. That’s people.

ZINNIA (Zinnia elegans) I don’t think anything beats Benary’s Giant Series. Try a mix, and see what colors you like best. I do three plantings of this series -- 25 feet of each of several different colors that I prefer. The purple/lilac shades blend so beautifully with the pink/coral/rose shades, and they’re complemented well by yellows and whites. Florists love them. The stems get nice and long. I’ve heard good things about Benary’s soon-to-be-out Giant Lime, which many people who have trialed it liked better than Envy, which I’ve found to be temperamental, especially in hot, dry times like last summer. I like to mix a smaller variety of zinnia with the giants -- Oklahoma Mix is my favorite. It’s less susceptible to powdery mildew. Carousel, new last year, worked well for me, too. Some of the color mixes were incredible! The Giant Cactus was pretty in the field, but it looked old before its time, and most times I ended up taking them out of bouquets. (One of my friends loved it).

AGERATUM -- Floss Flower (Ageratum houstonianum) More and more growers are recognizing Blue Horizon Ageratum as a great cut flower. (Be sure to get this tall variety, not the short, bedding plant variety!) There was a shortage of seed last year that had many of us frantic. I make at least three plantings. When the flowers start to deteriorate, I cut the planting back short and it comes again. I’ve tried the red (Red Top or Red Sea) and white (White Bouquet) versions of cutting ageratum for three years, and personally just didn’t have luck with them (many whimpy stems).

STATICE (Limonium sinuata) I don’t know how my husband does it, but he saves everything -- and then manages to find what he needs. He pulled out a 1985 typewritten letter from our late friend, Ward Sinclair, last week extolling the virtures of statice! “Those we don’t sell at market will be returned to the drying shed for use in wreaths,” Ward had said. “We’re thinking about doing a half acre next season!”

Would you believe that’s what inspired me to start the stuff? And statice is such a great cut. It’s great by itself, it fills out bouquets beautifully and, it keeps forever in fresh bouquets and dries easily for Fall sales. I like the Pacific Strain series (Johnny’s) and Excellent series (early) and QIS (both Germania).

CELOSIA -- Cockscomb (Celosia plumosa and Celosia cristata) Talk about adding some bulk to bouquets, Celosia fills the bill. I’ve grown all of the popular varieties and for some strange reason, I like Pampas Plume (Johnny’s, Germania). The feathery plumes on multi-branching plants just keep coming! I think most growers like the showy varieties. The Chief series and Bombay series (Celosia cristata) area also great. Chief are single stems that took last summer’s heat like champs, and Bombay are the neat singles with a triangular comb (Germania). Ralph Cramer has some different varieties we’ve had success with also, like Cramers’ Amazon and Flamingo Feather. (www.cramersposiepatch.com or call 1-877-CRAMERS.)

GOMPHRENA -- Globe Amaranth (Gomphrena globosa and haageana) After hearing Frank Arnosky complain about gomphrena, and then recommend the QIS series in the Growing for Market newsletter
(www.growingformarket.com) years ago, I just couldn’t resist. It was always such a pain to pick, but it has proven to be a real gem for late Summer/Fall bouquets. In drought years, it will save your life. Of course it dries great for those value added products in Fall. Strawberry Fields, the first true red gomphrena, has also done well for us.

CINNAMON BASIL Okay, so it’s an herb. It’s one of my favorite bouquet fillers, too. It has a nice, cinnamon smell, violet stems and flower bracts with lavender blooms (Johnny’s). I do several small plantings of this, but I had a patch in one of our hoophouses last summer that just kept coming. Great stuff. Nice just mixed with zinnias for simple bouquets.

Some other recommended easy annuals: Ammi, Bells of Ireland, bupleurum, coreopsis, marigold (Gold Coin), larkspur, mignonette, salvia and strawflower.