SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower

Five time savers for flower growers
Weed management help, watering aids, smart tool use and more.

By Melanie DeVault

Your questions answered

Mel takes a stab at a few more of your questions this month in A flowering of questions.

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 include your name and general location.

June 2, 2004: The season is upon us in full fury -- and we’re not quite sure how it got here so fast! Here in Pennsylvania, we went from winter to mid-summer in early May. Temperatures have been in the 80s and 90s for weeks and the Weather Channel had the good old rain/thunderstorm warning out just about every day. For two weeks, we got only one boomer, and have been watering like nuts. Then we got hail. (We’ve had frost the last week in May before, so this is just really strange.)

Our flowers are coming in super early, and our farmers’ market doesn’t start until mid-June, so my flower partner, Linda Essert-Kuchar and I are selling to local florists and health food stores, while my husband stares in wonder as buckets of dianthus and sunflowers (from the hoop house) fill the cooler. This is usually our heavy planting time, so we’ve had to employ every time saving measure we can think of to try to get everything done.

Since time is of the essence, thought that very topic -- TIME -- might be best served now, too. So here are some of our best time savers for flower growers, in case you need a few extra minutes in the day:

1. Landscape fabric

We started quite a few new perennials this year, and all of them went into landscape fabric. So did many annuals and flowers treated as annuals, like snapdragons, lisianthus, campanula -- even cinnamon basil. We put landscape fabric in between rows of raised beds that are or will be direct seeded. We’re still rolling out the fabric as we plant.

A time saver, you say? You bet. That one rain we got made the weeds grow a foot and the flowers would have been buried, the pathways a jungle. It takes little time to roll out the fabric and ‘staple’ it down with ground or garden staples (you can bend wire, but the staples aren’t that expensive and we reuse them). The ground stays more moist under the fabric, too. The fabric, a heavy duty weed barrier, allows water and air to flow to plants and has a long UV life. (See numbers 2 and 3 for related tips).

We bought the fabric in 4-foot by 200-foot rolls at a discount store (Sam’s Club -- which actually had a special with 20 extra feet free) and a greenhouse supplier (Griffin). Check a couple places, because pricing really can differ on this item. (One discount chain jacked the price up nearly three-fold.) The fabric will be left in place in our perennial beds. We take the fabric up in aisle-ways in the fall and often reuse it the next year.

2. Watering help

We put drip tape down first, both in beds that will have landscape fabric, and in regular raised beds that are not covered, and in the field. This helps in two big ways: It ensures that you will get the water source in place right away (and not, oops, after the plants die) and it also helps you space the flowers well on both sides of the tape to get the water to the roots. (If you’re just starting out and are intimidated by a drip irrigation system, don’t be. Anyone can install a simple system that hooks up to the garden hose. It’s not expensive, most parts can be reused, and the time saved makes it worth every penny.) We like DripWorks, 800-522-3747. Many greenhouse/garden suppliers have drip irrigation equipment). We have a rotating sprinkler hooked up in the main flower gardens for those really hot, dry spells. Watering everything by hand takes way too much precious time.

3. Propane burner/torch

Speakers at three Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers meetings we attended in recent years raved about hole-cutting in landscape fabric and plastic with small propane torches. Linda finally bought one and it sat in the box. As we slowly started cutting holes in landscape fabric with scissors for perennials a few weeks ago, our fingers aching, she said, “This is ridiculous. This would take forever! I’m going to go get the propane burner and we’ll figure it out.”

A job that would have taken two hours with scissors took less than 20 minutes. We’re believers. The beauty of the torch is it burns through the fabric or plastic and doesn’t hurt the drip tape (unless you hold the flame directly on the tape for too long). If you turn the water on and let the tape fill up, you can easily see where the tape is run and the cold water makes it even harder to burn a hole in the drip tape. (Took us a few trys to figure that one

The hole is burned quickly, to the size you need, and it’s so easy! Keep a water spray bottle on hand in case some dry material, or the plastic, starts to burn. You can find the burner/torch in just about any discount or garden supply center. It’s a small cylinder of compressed gas. You need the hose kit with it, which runs about $30, and a striker or igniter is nice, too.

4. Taking time to put away our ‘toys’

It’s so easy when you’re tired to just leave the scissors, twine and trowel in the row you’re working. You’ll be back there bright and early tomorrow, right? And the needle point clippers are tossed on the dryer as you go inside, dog tired. So the next day, bright eyed and bushy tailed and totally forgetful, you spend 40 minutes looking for everything. We decided we didn’t have enough time NOT to spend time getting organized, and then put things back where they belong. So we put up a peg board in the seeding greenhouse and tools get put back at the end of the work day, no matter how tired we are. And flower buckets get washed and stored when we’re finished with them. This is saving a lot of time most days --(but, alas, today I couldn’t find the twine for Hortonova repair, and Linda couldn’t find her good pruners. So nobody’s perfect.)

5. Making proper use of tools

Backs tend to get sore at this time of year. At the end of many days, my back was not altogether with me. Neither was Linda's. So we decided we would make better use of handled tools. The long-handled wire weeder (from Johnny’s Selected Seeds) is great for weeding carrot seedlings, so we figured it would be great for flower seedlings, too. It allows us to get all those little weeds coming up around flower plugs and plants, even in landscape fabric. (Though pulling a few weeds around plants in small holes in fabric is a lot easier than weeding the whole row. The narrow stirrup or scuffle hoe lets us cultivate quickly in between direct seeded rows, saving our backs, and lots of time.

We’re also trying to make a list each day -- and stick to it. Anyone with a farm knows how easy it is to find 15 things to do on the way to do one, right? So we’re fighting the urge, and sticking to the most critical. It’s helping, but this is not perfected yet either.

Remembering to take an extra pail for leaves from stripped flowers, along with the bucket for cut flowers, has saved clean up time. And carrying a pair of garden gloves in a pocket (our hands are small, and we found the kids gloves, instead of small womens, fit great) saves a lot of running -- and pricked fingers.