SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower
Becoming a “flower lady” (or gent)
First in an ongoing series: Melanie Devault talks about the ins and outs of starting and building a cut flower business ... without going into debt.

By Melanie DeVault

Prepping for market:
Melanie's daughter Ruth
doing pre-market quality inspection.







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.





Coming next:
Good beginnings.

  • Some great first flowers.
  • Ordering.
  • What you’ll need to
    get started -- with lots of little tips you’ll be glad to have.









"To equal the money
I made with fresh market bouquets from a little more than one-seventh of an acre
last summer, we
figure we would have needed more than 20 acres of corn or beans. And we didn’t need expensive harvesting equipment."

JANUARY 17, 2003: From the time I was about two, I think my mom knew I’d do something with flowers when I grew up. Instead of smelling the pansies, tulips and daisies, I’d pick them, and study them, she said -- and then try to eat them. When I was in grade school, I did a lousy job of digging up a patch of my dad’s prized lawn to make my own flower garden. An engineer and total perfectionist who tolerated neither dandelions nor clover, he REALLY prized his lawn. Suffice it to say he wasn’t pleased.

My love of flowers never ebbed. Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve snuck in as many flowers as possible. And since my husband, George, and I were longtime, wannabe vegetable growers -- and since George called every flower known to man a tulip -- it wasn’t always an easy task. If only... Could I make a living doing what I really love to do?

Looking forward . . .

In this monthly column, Melanie will talk about how to find your niche; where to find some of the best flower seeds, plugs, plants, etc.; and where to look for the best information. She’ll talk about seeding schedules; transplanting; harvest tips; post harvest handling; how we-who-do-it deal with insects, weeds, diseases; specifics on great cut flower varieties; perennials; growing under cover and, of course, what’s hot. She'll also answer your questions: Should I use floral preservative? What are the pluses and drawbacks of growing "certified organic" flowers?

Send your questions directly to Melanie at devault@fast.net.

Anything sound familiar?

Have an itch to escape to the country and grow all things beautiful as a JOB? Already in the country and anxious to grow all things beautiful as a JOB? Read on.

As our Pheasant Hill Farm slowly became a reality, so did my dream of becoming one of those cool flower ladies. (You know, every farmers’ market has one: “Where did you get those gorgeous flowers?” “Down there, at the ‘flower lady’s’ stand.” OK, there are lots of GREAT flower guys, too, so don’t call me sexist, please.)

I started planting a few perennials and annuals every year on our little farm outside of Emmaus, PA, even before the first big crop, a house, was a reality. When the house appeared, I filled it with bunches of flowers. Friends remarked how pretty they were, so they went home with bouquets, too.

The first year we started a subscription service or modified CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for our vegetables, we occasionally had a week of slim pickings. In one panic attack, we thought we’d never have enough veggies to fill that week’s bag so, hey, how about giving subscribers a bouquet? Thus began my road to flower ladydom.

The flowers were a hit, and George finally, grudgingly acknowledged that maybe we could sell these unvegetable “tulips.” I was ready. I had been reading everything I could get my hands on, picked the brain of friend and mentor Cass Peterson, devoured Lynn Byczynski’s “The Flower Farmer” and Pamela and Frank Arnosky’s columns in Growing For Market, along with the information in seed catalogs. I had even attended a few cut flower workshops.

My bouquets were getting more complex and lasting longer. Then I joined the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers and went to the national convention in Austin, TX, three years ago. I was hooked beyond hope.

This January I attended a three-day cut flower workshop sponsored by the Regional Farm & Food Project, in Ballston Spa, NY., where 70-some growers like me gathered to learn more. There is always more to learn, and like vegetable growers, flower growers are the salt of the earth, always willing to share what they know.

After all, flowers -- the right flowers for cutting -- can do much more than soothe the psyche. They can provide some cold, hard cash and shore up that bottom line. I’ve added thousands of dollars to our small farm operation with specialty cut flowers. We’ve sold at three farmers’ markets over the past six years, from Philadelphia’s South Street to suburban Telford, PA.

At each market the buckets of colorful bouquets draw customers like magnets. (Then they see the heirloom tomatoes, salad mixes and unusual, funky veggies, too!) Since our farm is certified organic, our flower niche came also through health food stores and whole food co-op groups. We always keep our eyes open for new marketing possibilities.

To equal the money I made with fresh market bouquets from a little more than one-seventh of an acre last summer -- the WORST year ever bestowed upon us by Mother Nature and circumstance -- we figure we would have needed more than 20 acres of field corn or soybeans. And we didn’t need expensive harvesting equipment.

Ah, but don’t quit your day job just yet. It’s not a get-rich-quick proposition. It takes planning, that old killer “market research,” some basic, solid flower knowledge, and lots of hard work to succeed even on a small scale. Like many others, I don’t see how you can succeed without a genuine love of flowers. And, of course, you need a willingness to experiment. Find what works for YOU! A flower variety for which I sing praises may not do well for a farmer a few miles away with different soil type, much less hundreds of miles and zone differences in another part of the country. (The exceptions seem to be sunflowers and
zinnias. They work for just about everyone.)

Dispelling dad's anti-flower bias: Melanie teaches her children early on that not all flowers are tulips, contrary to what her husband George says.

But here’s the real shocker: It is possible, real possible, to start out as a “flower farmer” without signing your life away. And that’s what this column is all about. Practical flower growing information on a scale that suits you, not the bank or the experts -- for the serious wannabe, a market gardener who has thought about adding flowers, or even a flower grower who knows more than I, but wants a different perspective.

When I first began digging for information on cut flowers years ago, I was euphoric to find a two-day cut flower seminar a few hours away.

Excited participants were mostly larger scale farmers or market vegetable gardeners such as myself who wanted practical, small-scale tips and information. How could we add some great, fresh bouquets to the farm stand? We got some of that. But our heads were soon swooning from corporate agriculture statistics as our teachers told how to plant acres of this flower, and how to go about borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars for big, new machinery. Fuggetaboutit!

What’s comin’

In this monthly column, I’ll talk about how to find your niche; where to find some of the best flower seeds, plugs, plants, etc.; and where to look for the best information. Also, a big also -- what the real experts (being the growers) have to say. Since our farm is certified organic, the emphasis will be organic/sustainable.

We’ll talk about seeding schedules; transplanting; harvest tips; post harvest handling; how we-who-do-it deal with insects, weeds, diseases; specifics on great cut flower varieties; perennials; growing under cover and, of course, what’s hot. Should you use floral preservative, and what are the pluses and drawbacks of growing *certified organic* flowers.

Where to begin: finding your niche

Whether you’re at the wannabe stage, or an experienced vegetable farmer wanting to branch off into flowers, start thinking about where you want to SELL your flowers. Then find out if it’s practical. Ask questions. Find your market before you plow up the back 40 (or the side yard).

Do flowers sell well in your area? Ask questions at the local florist or grocery store. Ask your neighbors. Do they buy flowers? Would they PAY for them -- because you can’t give them away for $3 for a big bunch. It’s not fair to other flower farmers, and it’s certainly not economical for you. Is there room in the local landscape for more flowers, or is the market saturated? (New York City has a flower stand on every corner. Your town, or the next big town from you, may have a need for them.)

If you’re a people person, check out the farmers’ markets in your area. The local Extension office is a good place to start. Do any current markets need a flower grower? If there aren’t any farmers’ markets, would one work in your area?

Do florists in your area buy local flowers? If they do mostly FTD or have shops filled with silk arrangements, keep looking. If they do special events, they may be your cup of tea. If you want to sell to florists, you’ll need to adhere to their standards for stem length, etc., but first you need to know whether it’s an option.

Selling to retail stores or selling wholesale is another option, if
you’re willing to take less money, but usually for larger quantities.

Caterers in your area may have a need for fresh cut flowers. Or country clubs, or restaurants. The options may be as available as your mettle.

Start reading

Once you know where you can sell your flowers, it’s time to start
preparing. Flowers need the same basic considerations your vegetables do: A healthy, well-drained soil, enough sunshine and water to keep them happy, enough care to keep weeds from taking over the world, and protection from all things wild and hungry.

Any flower book will cover the basics, but for the serious wannabe, Lynn Byczynski’s “The Flower Farmer” is a must (Visit her online store at www.growingformarket.com or call 1-800-307-8949).

Read all you can, and start thinking about a site for your first cutting flower area. You probably have perennials on your property already. If you’re a vegetable farmer, some crops you already grow would be great bouquet additions. (That’s another chapter). Catalogs provide some dynamite information on good varieties.

Everyone has favorite suppliers. If you aren’t already mezmerized by the flow of catalogs into your home, check the web for a slew of alternatives. My personal favorites are:

  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Albion, ME (www.johnnyseeds.com or 800-854-2580)
  • Germania Seed Company, Chicago, IL. (www.germaniaseed.com or 800-380-4721)
  • Park Seed, Greenwood, SC (www.parkwholesale.com or 800-845-3366)
  • The Cook’s Garden, Londonderry, VT (800-457-9703, offers small quantities)
  • Gloeckner’s of Harrison, NY (800-345-3787).