November 6, 2003: Fall is here, the season
is over. Time to kick back, eat bonbons and tube out, or sit
by the woodstove and read, read, read, right? Hmmmm, sounds
pretty good. Nah. Gotta make some money, remember?
But it’s amazing how many of our farmers’ market
and farm customers think flower growers, and farmers in general,
do just that -- take the winter completely off. (Nobody would
be foolish enough to think we make a ton of money, of course.)
“Now you can relax, get some rest until next summer,”
enthused one acquaintance at our last market. “Wish
I had the winter off,” said another, watching her son
delight in feeding our chickens and taking a whiff of the
fragrant bouquet in her hands. “You do deserve it,”
she hastened to add.
Okay, in October I took a week’s vacation with the
girls, then went back to Ohio to help family after a medical
crisis. Then ... we got new perennials in, and seeds to overwinter;
mowed all the beds after removing support netting hopelessly
tangled from remaining plants and the weeds that ate Columbus
during this incredibly wet spring and summer in the Northeast.
Plastic was pulled up and unstuck from the mud before it freezes
and can’t be removed, thus leaving a breeding zone for
our favorite attack pests. Drip tape had to be rolled, along
with the rest of the irrigation, electric fences stored.
Not anywhere NEAR done yet. Machinery needs fixing -- the
drive belt dropped off the mower an hour ago, rendering it
useless. Tools need sharpening or replacing; hoophouses need
repair. Perennials need more attention, seeds need to be stored
safely and fall planting attended to so spring happens once
again. There is inventory to be taken, orders to be made.
Of course, if you have hoophouses, the season needn’t
be over at all. And some flower farmers do like Eliot Coleman
does with vegetables, and farm the back side of the calendar.
As flower grower extraordinaire Mimo Davis of Wild Thang Farm
in Ashland, MO, pointed out at a conference earlier this year,
the major holidays that call for flowers -- Christmas, Valentine’s
Day, Mother’s Day -- are in the winter. Light bulb.
Mimo and partner now have a successful winter business and
like all of us, are learning as they grow. Other flower farmers
sell lilies into the winter holidays with hoophouses with
minimal heat. Our friend Paul Shumaker (see Lilies
Make Everyone Smile story) is still making wreaths and
selling his beautifully dried flower bunches and arrangements.
I teamed with a grower of many years this past summer, Linda
Essert-Kuchar, to do a new farmer’s market together.
We called ourselves “The Flower Ladies,” cut flowers
from our respective areas on Friday and Saturday, made bouquets
together Saturday afternoon and sold them at the new market
Sunday morning. The partner thing worked well for us, and
we’re already busy planning for new and better things
-- and a longer season -- for next year.
Time to plan, Stan
For all flower growers, the most important part of fall is
planning. So here’s my list and reasons, that may offer
some food for thought:
Take inventory now.
List leftover seed, and store leftover seed and saved seed
in mouse-proof containers (trust me. I learned the hard way)
in a cool place.
Review last year’s list
and decide what needs to be expanded, and what needs to be
thrown off the charts. Now is the time. Memories fade (especially
four stars on my list of re-order musts. I didn’t
have enough last year and I need more succession plantings
next season. I had nearly given up on snapdragons,
but in this wet year, they were my salvation. Snaps will
remain on the charts. Campanula
did poorly, but I’ll chalk it up to the year. They
did fantastically well. More will go in the hoophouses,
and a second layer of netting will be added in a timely
fashion. One layer wasn’t enough in the hoophouse
where nice, long stems prevail.
Feverfew (Matricaria) will be expanded.
Linda and I paired this dainty perennial, both single and
doubles, with lisianthus for a simple bouquet that sold
did well but need expansion, especially into fall.
were great in our wet year, for some reason and celosia
bombed. I’ll plant more of both next year anyway.
Linda and I had one of our biggest successes with Purple
Majesty (Pennisetum glaucum), mixing the
deep purple foliage, stems and spikes with large sunflowers
in big-stem bunches. They flew out the door. The Arnoskys,
according to their flower column in Growing for Market,
didn’t have a similar experience. (In other words,
everyone is different, so experiment and go with what sells
Finish cleaning up flower beds
now. Remove the old debris and plastic to
keep disease and insects from calling your place Home Sweet
Home. Write down what is planted where. Just as with vegetables,
some flowers like to be rotated to keep the bugs at bay. Chart
where Pampas Plume celosia was because it will magically reappear
Pour through the catalogs,
visit a fellow flower grower or a new farmers’ market
and try some new varieties! When I asked a friend years ago
about asters, she said they’re just trouble. “Aster
yellows will get ‘em. Don’t bother.” Talk
about China asters at a winter conference got me excited to
bother, on a test basis. From seeding to transplanting and
growing on, I babied a few plants, keeping them safe with
a light row cover fabric to help prevent leafhoppers from
spreading disease. They were show-stoppers, with a vase life
of more than two weeks. More will be added next year.
A fellow flower grower’s Korean mint was so incredible,
that will be a trial for the coming year. Same with Silky
Series Asclepias (Butterfly weed). I had started seed last
summer and put out some transplants last fall, and they bit
the dust with our harsh winter. Next year, thanks to the fellow
grower’s advice, they’ll get started in late spring,
and put out five weeks later, in early July for fall.
Attend a flower workshop or
conference and get REALLY excited about the
coming season. Flower growers are wonderfully good about sharing
information. The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers
has regional meetings at various times throughout the year
if the annual conference in Vancouver this month was out of
And don’t forget to take
a real vacation in the off season. Burnout
is a real hazard in any type of farming!
Another way to really get the beginning flower business cranked
up is with purchased plugs. In exchanges with readers via
e-mail, the honest question pops up now and again: “What
are plugs?” Plugs are EASY and NOW is the time to think
about ordering them.
Plugs are trays of healthy (hopefully) seedlings started
by specialists in greenhouses. (I’ve only had a problem
with one perennial flat, and received full credit with no
trouble whatsoever). There are a number of large suppliers
with dreamy catalogs, or you can check around for a local,
small greenhouse to start a few trays for you. Bear in mind
that most large suppliers have minimum order requirements
-- some are very reasonable (3 to 6 flats, depending on size,
and some have an additional handling charge for a less than
minimum order). Some suppliers have large quantity minimums
and it may be worthwhile to go in with other area growers
for an order.
Plugs come in a whole slew of sizes and prices. Gro ‘n
for example, offers Big Burly plugs, 2-5/8” square by
3-1/2” deep, 32 pots per flat; 50 cell flats; 210 plugs,
a standard 1-inch plug size, and cold treated 125s, which
actually give you 128 1-1/8-inch plugs sown in summer, grown
in early flall and given a minimum cold treatment of 10 weeks.
In other words, it saves you lots of time.
There are a number of distributors, including Germania (www.germaniaseed.com)
that has a plant catalog that will make your head spin as
you drool. There are so many different size options you can
have your pick for both annuals and perennials. Gloeckner
is another favorite distributor. The web has an endless number
of fine suppliers. Ask your neighbors for their favorite local
sources. But start now, because those who order early get
what they want.
How about cost? Are plugs expensive? Yep. And no. If the
seed -- like lisianthus or snapdragon -- is tiny and temperamental,
the time, worry and wonder about whether they will EVER germinate
may make the cost factor a non-issue. Here's an example. You
order three flats of plugs from Gro ‘n Sell:
- Lisianthus, Echo Series mix, 210 1-inch plugs, $39.92
- Snapdragons, Rocket Series, 210 count, $28.56
- Campanula, Champion Series, Blue, 210, $42.11.
That gives me 630 or so plugs, which means a sufficiency of
individual stems to make bouquets stunning, for $110.59, plus
a $5 per box packing charge. If a distributor is near me,
I can pick up the order and save.
I tell them when I need them. Many of those plugs I would
get in early spring, transplant to larger cells and keep in
my greenhouse for a few weeks, but some, like snaps, would
go right outside, under row cover, or in a hoophouse.
start the seed myself:
I need to begin in December or January.
Lisianthus seed is like dust. It needs about three months
of coddling before it looks like it’s thinking of becoming
a seedling. Snapdragon seed is also tiny. And Campanula is
just plain fussy.
if you are or aspire to be certified organic, annual plugs
must be certified organic, and they’ve been nearly impossible
Regular perennial plugs are okay, if you don’t cut
the flowers from the plant the first year, and in most cases
the flowers don’t appear the first year anyway. This
has been a major dilemma for many growers who have called
themselves organic for years. If you’re unclear, talk
to your certifying administrator.
Flowers by season -- winter.