SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower

Planning for next season
Column 9: Looking back, looking ahead … and PLUG-ging along.

By Melanie DeVault

Melanie sorting seeds ... what else are dining room tables meant for???

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.

 

QUESTIONS?

I’ll be happy to anwer them! E-mail me at devault@fast.net

Or contact The New Farm Team.


"one of our biggest successes ... 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 for you!)"

 

"Attend a flower workshop or conference and get REALLY excited about the coming season ... And don’t forget to take a real vacation in the off season. Burnout is a real hazard in any type of farming!"

"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."

 

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 mine).

Statice gets 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 stay.

Lisianthus 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 very well.

Sunflowers did well but need expansion, especially into fall. Strawflowers 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 for you!)

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 next summer.

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 (www.ascfg.org) has regional meetings at various times throughout the year if the annual conference in Vancouver this month was out of the question.

And don’t forget to take a real vacation in the off season. Burnout is a real hazard in any type of farming!

Plugging away

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 Sell (www.gro-n-sell.com), 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 (www.fredgloeckner.com) 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 decide:

I can 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.

1) 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.

2) 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.

To start the seed myself:

1) I need to begin in December or January.

2) 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.

Please note

if you are or aspire to be certified organic, annual plugs must be certified organic, and they’ve been nearly impossible to find.

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.

Next: Flowers by season -- winter.