SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower

Your problems, possible solutions
Mel shares some questions from a recent conference and her answers

By Melanie DeVault

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.



I’ll be happy to anwer them!

E-mail me at devault@fast.net and let me know who you are an where you're growing.

March 4, 2004: A number of growers who attended the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference in early February -- 1,400 from 31 states and three countries! -- asked questions after a flower presentation by myself and Linda Essert-Kuchar, or e-mailed. You NewFarm.org readers have also been e-mailing a lot lately. Must be spring fever. Others may have the same questions, so here are a few of the biggies:

Problem: Zinnia dilemma -- still, already

We’ve mentioned this before, but several people have written recently to say they’ve had a terrible time with zinnias and want to do better this year. Others approached at PASA. “Zinnias are supposed to be easy,” they say. “And mine just don’t last! What am I doing wrong???” One grower has had a problem with stems that bend over or break. Others have not been able to sustain vase life beyond a couple days. So what goes?

I wracked my brain on this one, because I haven’t had a problem with zinnias. (But hey, I can’t grow Gypsophila -- Baby’s Breath -- so nobody’s perfect.)

Possible Zinnia Solutions

1. Make sure you cut zinnias early in the day or in the evening and get them in water in the field, and then to shade as soon as possible.

2. When picking and stripping the leaves, make sure you (or your picker) don’t hold the stem too tightly. It takes a gentle touch, and grabbing too tightly will crush the stem and cause it to bend over later, if not sooner.

3. Remember that zinnias don’t like it hot once they’re cut . If you cut them and leave them in the sun they will surely fizzle. They also don’t like it cold. I keep them in air conditioning, or in the cooler when mixed bouquets are made the night before a market. But our cooler is not cold -- 45 degrees, and that’s about the coldest they’ll stand.

4. Lynn Byczynski, author of The Flower Farmer and editor of Growing for Market (www.growingformarket.com) offered another thought: “People also may be picking too early or too late. You have to see pollen to get the best vase life. People really need to be observant with zinnias,” she said. “Watch those first ones to see the stages they go through every day to learn when they are open enough but not too open. It happens quickly.”

5. Lynn also feels that floral preservative is important for zinnias, which will give them six or seven days vase life. But beware: if you are selling your flowers as *certified organic*, you can’t use preservative, according to our certifier. If you aren’t selling certified organic flowers, experiment to see what works best for you. We have good well water, so I haven’t had a problem with just using plain water.

Remember, preservative can be tricky, however. A report on research on post-harvest handling which included zinnias was included in The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers quarterly magazine last year. The research by Frankie Fanelli, John Dole, Beth Harden, Bill Fonteno and Sylvia Blankenship from North Carolina State University showed that use of a hydrator and holding solution were actually detrimental on Zinnia elegans ‘Sun Cherry’, ‘Sun Gold’ and Benary’s ‘Giant Lime’’. Use of a holding solution only was also detrimental to the ‘Sun Cherry’ and ‘Sun Gold’, with no effect on the ‘Giant Lime’. The hydrator only was found to have no significant effect on all three. The ‘Giant Lime’ did best with water only (the study cautioned that deionized water was used. If you have poor quality tap water with a high pH and soluble salt level, vase life will not be as long). Again -- see what works best for you!

Problem: To Market, To Market -- With Problem Vendors

It’s the age-old question. A flower grower asked after the PASA talk, “What do I do about the vegetable grower at market who brings in terrible bouquets? I work so hard at doing it right, and they hurt us.”

Fellow flower grower at my local farmers’ market, Paul Shumaker, put it well. “Those who dabble and sell cheap flowers that don’t last kill my business because my reputation is only as good as the worst grower.” A customer buys that cheap bouquet, with leaves down to the bottom of a dirty bucket of water with varieties that will last a day or maybe two, and thinks nobody’s flowers will last past next week’s market. Ouch!

Possible Bad Grower Solutions

1. Educate your customer. Put up a nice sign telling your customers how you treat your flowers. Let them know you know what you are doing and that YOUR flowers will LAST. We display a sign that says we are members of The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, that we baby our flowers from seed to proper post-harvest care. Varieties are selected for longevity, etc.

2. Keep educating your customer. If someone points to a beautiful flower, strike up a conversation and tell them, “That’s a lisianthus. Aren’t they pretty? They’re difficult to start and pretty fussy, but they last a long time. They look a lot like a rose, don’t they?”

3. And keep educating your customer. As you ring up your sale, tell the customer to change the water and pick off any spent blooms to keep the bouquet nice and happy all week. Offer packets of preservative, for those who don’t have time to change the water at least every other day, or give them a card telling them they can make their own homegrown
preservative: One teaspoon of vinegar, one tablespoon of sugar and one aspirin tablet to 24 ounces of water. (Almost always, regular customers will perk up and tell new customers that your flowers will last. Quality does matter!!)

4. Show your customers. We save a bouquet from week to week, taking real good care of it. Then we display *last week’s bouquet* at the stand, to show customers that with proper care, their bouquet will last well for them.

5. And keep showing your customers. When the first rush of the morning is over, we take some buckets of flowers and start arranging at the stand. People are charmed, because, realize it or not, not everyone can arrange flowers. Often, they want flowers from one of those extra buckets in their arrangement. This also keeps people at your stand longer, and people are drawn to other people. What’s the fuss? They must be good, because there are a lot of people buying from them!

6. Think of a way to get customers to come to you every week. Pamela and Frank Arnosky broached this very problem in a summer column of Growing for Market. (They had good competition from flower-growing vegetable growers.) These awesome large Texas growers did a buyers card, offering a gourmet “Dinner in the Flower Fields” for customers who spent a certain amount over the season. It worked like a charm, as did their fall dinner. Be innovative!

Problem: Not-so-sunny sunflowers

A new grower asks, “What is the proper time to cut sunflowers? I’ve had a problem with holes in the petals. And should I use preservative?”

Sunflower solutions

1. Conventional wisdom says sunflowers can be cut as soon as the petals begin unfurling. Many growers go with 45 degrees as a good measure. We cut sunflowers every day, or at least every other day, as they are beginning to unfurl and keep them in the cooler for market days (in plain water).

Leaving the flower in the field to open fully means chances are pretty good some hungry cucumber beetle or other insect will find them most attractive. Customers get fussy about chewed sunflower petals and upper leaves. We find by doing cutting in stages, we have nice, fully open flowers with no insect damage ready for bouquets or to sell individually, and we can also include a less open flower or two that will then open later for the customer. (VALUE-ADDED TIP: We strip most leaves, leaving a couple at the top if they are nice. Customers seem to like some leaves, because the long-distance cousins don’t have them. The leaves don’t travel well, which is to the local grower’s benefit.)

2. As with zinnias, if you are prone to use preservatives, experiment to see what works best for you. Most research I’ve seen finds that most types of sunflowers do well in plain water. The research mentioned above found “no effect” -- meaning the treatment was neither beneficial nor detrimental -- for use of a hydrator only or use of a holding solution only for Helianthus ‘Lemon Eclair’ and ‘Stella Gold’. Use of both was found to have no effect for ‘Lemon Eclair’ and to be detrimental for ‘Stella Gold.’ Water for both was okay. In their book “We’re Gonna Be Rich!” the Arnosky’s said they pick into water with a hydrator in their intense Texas heat, and transfer into a floral preservative solution.

Happy growing!