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.
- Some great first flowers.
- 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?
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 email@example.com.
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
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
zinnias. They work for just about everyone.)
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
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!
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*
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
you’re willing to take less money, but usually for larger
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.
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
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
- Germania Seed Company, Chicago, IL. (www.germaniaseed.com
- Park Seed, Greenwood, SC (www.parkwholesale.com
- The Cook’s Garden, Londonderry, VT (800-457-9703,
offers small quantities)
- Gloeckner’s of Harrison, NY (800-345-3787).