annuals: (from left to right) Zinnias, Gomphrena,
Tohoku Yae Sunflowers
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
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.
- 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.)
ARE those gorgeous flowers?
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?
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.
are the answers to your questions, Nancy:
varieties (available from both
Johnny's and Germania):
-- Sunbright -- I plant them close for smaller
-- Champion Blue -- need Hortnova netting, cut
back and they will come again! Campanula are for
my earlier bouquets.
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)
work great in mid to late summer. They are fantastic,
but very fussy.
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!
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
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.