SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower

After the bloom is ON . . .
Column 5: Thinking ahead to summer--it won't be long--some general and specific advice for cutting, handling, storing and transporting flowers.

By Melanie DeVault, Pheasant Hill Farm


READER QUESTION:

Pricing Perils

Dear Mrs. DeVault:

I ran across your column on the internet a few weeks ago. It was exactly what I was looking for. The one I read was titled “Becoming a Flower Lady.” Well, I have been working at becoming the flower lady for several years now in my hometown! I love to garden, and have been looking for a way to turn my favorite pastime into a small business. My husband actually offered me half of his vegetable garden in order to plant zinnias!

So I have begun (I’m scared of failing, but excited, too). I would like to start at our local farmers’ market. Could you please tell me a little about pricing bouquets? I have read anywhere between five and eight dollars depending on size but I have only found this information on one website.

Thank you,
Laurie

MEL'S ANSWER:

Wow Laurie,

You’ve just asked the question of the century! Pricing is difficult, and a lot depends upon your location and the location of your farmers’ market. Check prices in your local flower shops and supermarkets, and see what other growers in area farmers’ markets are getting. Check wholesale price lists (on other websites and eventually on this one, we hope) for a general idea, but realize that is a low price.

Never undercut competition, or sell yourself short. From what I’ve seen, $7 to $10 is average for a nice-size bouquet. That’s what I charge. Many growers (me
included) also make mini-bouquets for $3 or $4, or simpler bouquets with just zinnia and cinnamon basil for $5 or $6. Bouquets with more unusual flowers, such as lisianthus, can bring more.

Remember to include sales tax when you do your figuring. And don’t cut prices at the end of the market! If you have a few bouquets left at the end of market, enjoy them yourself, give them to a friend or nursing home. If you discount at the end of the day, cheap people will wait for the cheap stuff. And your hard work will be worth nothing.

Cheers,
Mel

 

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.

 

 

 

Next Column:
Farmers' Market-ing

  • Selling
  • Selling
  • and selling!
Blooms for breakfast? Melanie brings her flowers inside after harvesting to keep them cool and fresh.

Posted MAY 23, 2003: Most of my perennials have grown a foot, even in the seemingly sun-less sky of early May in Pennsylvania. The greenhouse is brimming with seedlings stretching for my attention, and a place in the garden. Early annuals are perking up. Others are under row cover (that is fighting the wind, sometimes unsuccessfully. Sound familiar?) -- and questions are coming my way already about selling bouquets, selling at Farmers’ Markets, pricing and what flower goes with what. Everyone, it seems, is thinking summer. All right!

Think ahead, because how you maintain, cut and care for your specialty cut flowers IS EVERYTHING. Have you seen vendors trying to make a quick buck by adding buckets of flowers to their vegetable stand -- flowers they quickly cut and throw in a bucket with leaves on the stem to the bottom, some with powdery mildew? (Cringe here). Half of the flowers are well past their prime. (Cringe again). They’ll last for the unsuspecting customer about three and a half minutes, and the customer will think all flower growers are hucksters. Sigh.

Proper post-harvest handling of flowers is crucial. There are some great reference books (Lynn Byczynski’s “The Flower Farmer” and Frank and Pamela Arnosky’s “We’re Gonna Be Rich!” are two of my favorites) with basic post-harvest information. The standard varieties deserve a spot in the brain. But with so many song lyrics clogging that same brain, who has time to remember specifics on every variety when you can easily look up the information??? Both Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog and Germania have harvest information. Also, The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers’ quarterly magazine offers the latest research that includes flower longevity info.

The research is pretty technical stuff that obviously helps the big grower. You can glean some tips, particularly if you use floral preservative. But don’t let the fancy wording and chemical treatments and temperature restrictions scare you.

Since we at Pheasant Hill Farm are certified organic, we follow through with organic standards for flowers, too. That means no preservative, according to our certification director at NOFA-NJ. Many experts say you can’t be a cut flower grower without preservative. When I told one such expert grower I did just fine with water, she commented, “You must have good water!” (Hard, or alkaline water doesn’t move up the flower stem easily, so if you have a problem in your area with wilting flowers in tap water, a preservative may be necessary.) We have well water which we get tested every year. Many of our certified organic friends also grow flowers using plain tap water -- in different states -- and have no problem.

Cutting class : Standard sunflower varieties are best cut when petals just begin to lift from the centers.

Our customers at the farmers’ markets we’ve sold at nearly always tell us, “Most of my flowers from last week are still nice, but I have to have some more...” If you choose long-lasting varieties, and tell your customers to keep their vase as clean as their coffee cup, changing the water every or every other day, the flowers last very well. Our customers are happy to have their bouquets last a week. They say they pull out the statice and strawflowers and such and keep them in smaller vases for two or three weeks. Quite honestly, we WANT them to buy a fresh bouquet every week at the farmers’ market. (Selling to florists or wholesale is a different ballgame). So we don’t need to add hydrating solution or floral preservative to possibly add two or three days of shelf life.

Rules of the road for . . .

Maintaining flower beds -- Keep your flower beds weeded from the beginning and then, with a quick hoe, they won’t be overrun by weeds. Give them enough water, especially at critical, early stages. Drip irrigation is much better for many varieties, especially zinnias, which attract powdery mildew like a magnet. Fabric netting should be checked to make sure it’s keeping stems erect.

Cutting flowers -- As a general rule, cut just when blooms begin to open. Germania’s catalog has good specific harvest information, but you quickly learn what works. (Harvest information for the specific varieties we’ve been highlighting are listed below).

Stripping foliage -- Strip any foliage that will be under water in a vase. Remove the bottom leaves from the flower stem quickly, in one fast sweeping motion. I’ve had helpers who try to pull off one leaf at a time, and it’s just not practical -- or cost effective. Practice. Don’t hold the stem too tightly, just grasp firmly and pull down on the stem gently but quickly with the other hand. Lynn Byczynski recommends cutting the fingers off a pair of rubber household gloves and covering the fingers that get all the friction. I keep meaning to try that, but I have to admit I have a hard time using gloves (which is why my index finger and thumb are a mess from May to October).

Harvesting -- Cut flowers in the morning or evening, not in the heat of the day. Cut, strip the foliage from lower part of stem, and get the flower into a CLEAN bucket of room temperature water. Woody stemmed plants, like Buddleia and plants that ooze sap, like Asclepias, should be cut and placed in hot water. I just let the plants sit in the hot tap water until it comes to room temperature, and place in our cooler. Most importantly, when a bucket or two are filled in the field, move them to a shady spot out of the sunlight.

Cleaning -- Water is the name of the game. If it has been raining and soil has splashed up on the stem and leaves and the water bucket from the field is filled with dirty water, put the flowers in clean water when you move them to the shade. Dirty water increases bacteria which will make the flowers wilt.

Keeping ‘em cool! -- Even cutting flowers in mid morning, you need to get the field heat out! Setting the flowers in a shaded shed or porch, or basement, will usually keep them fine for a short amount of time. An air conditioned house is even better. As your business grows, a refrigerator that can cool to 34°F (best temp for most flowers) or a cooler can enable you to store flowers a little longer. (Be aware that some flowers, like zinnias, do not like to be cooled.) If I cut flowers in the morning, they all get set in the garage or shed for an hour or so. I put sunflowers and some others in our vegetable cooler. All the books will tell you not to do that because of ethylene sensitivity. I haven’t had a problem. But several varieties of flowers, including Achillea, Antirrhinum (snapdragon), Campanula, Celosia, Gypsophila and a few others are very ethylene-sensitive.

Transport -- We take our flowers to market in the back of my station wagon or my husband’s pickup, with a cover. They won’t transport well in the back of an open pickup. The wind will do them in. We made the mistake of buying a used van for our veggie operation years ago. The extra cost for insurance and a zillion repairs did not prove wise for us, as small growers.

HARVESTING

Continuing our favorites, here are our harvesting instructions for some top picks:

SUNFLOWERS (Helianthus annuus)
Standard varieties are best cut when petals just begin to lift from the centers. Not only do they last a long time this way, the bugs won’t eat the petals. Double varieties should be cut when several layers begin to lift from the centers. Sunflowers last one to two weeks and do well in preservative.

ZINNIA (Zinnia elegans)
Harvest when flowers are fully opened. If you like floral preservative, use it. They do not like to be put in the cooler! We keep zinnias, and bouquets with zinnias in them, in the air conditioning. They should last a week.

BLUE HORIZON AGERATUM, Floss Flower (Ageratum houstonianum)
Harvest when flowers are just opening to fully open . Vase life, 7-10 days. Dries nicely.

STATICE (Limonium sinuata)
Cut when most of the individual flowers on a stem are opening and showing color. (Perennial statice should be cut when at least 75 percent of flowers on a stem are open.) These are great in bouquets, because customers will tell you “some of the flowers are STILL looking good, and it’s been 3 weeks!” They love it, and it makes you look good. Dries well.

CELOSIA (Celosia plumosa feathery types and Celosia cristata crested types)
Harvest when flowers are 90 to 100 percent developed -- but before the little florets at the base look old and straw-like. Crested celosia will start to bend and bleach out if left too long. I let a nice stand of Flamingo Feather go too long one year, and lost the whole patch. Lasts up to 3 weeks and likes preservative.

CINNAMON BASIL
Harvest from the time stems begin to flower and half blooms on that spike are open, to fully flowered stems.