SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower

Summer madness, and mistakes
Fresh from the Mid-Atlantic meeting of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, Mel and ASCFG president Bob Wollam share mistakes they made this summer and Mel details what it takes to have a continuous flower supply for a 25-week farmers' market season.

By Melanie DeVault

Your questions answered

Mel takes a stab at a few more of your questions this month in Questions, 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.


For more information

Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, Inc., call Judy Laushman at (440) 774-2887 or e-mail at ascfg@oberlin.net.

Posted August 3, 2004: Last week the latest Cut Flower Quarterly -- the magazine of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers -- arrived, and I laughed at President Bob Wollam’s column detailing mistakes he’s made this year already. The laughing, of course, was mostly at myself for not doing some of the same things Bob (one of my true flower grower heroes) didn’t do, and for a lot more mistakes of my own. My flower partner, Linda, and I already had a slew of things listed we’ll do differently next year.

Then I attended the Association’s Mid Atlantic Regional Meeting this week in Maryland and started kicking myself. Wowie, why didn’t I pinch those zinnias and celosia and have them looking like meeting host Dave Lines’? Why didn’t I get more netting up? You know what they always say about hindsight...

My husband, George, always tells me to look at the things I’ve done right--all of the happy farmers’ market customers Linda and I, “The Flower Ladies,” have. But it's hard for even him to look at the veggies, weeds popping up with gusto after the latest deluge from Mother Nature, and give it a positive spin. Of course, this morning he easily pointed out those weeds mean JOB SECURITY--what an optimist.

So on with some of our mistake list, which hopefully will help you avoid such things, followed by some excellent advice from ASCFG speaker Dave Lines on crop manipulation. It’s not too late in the season to benefit from this!

Mistakes We’ve Made:

Skimped on the support netting. Number One for us was not putting up enough support netting. If you’ve just checked in to this column, take a peek at previous columns talking about Hortonova horizontal netting, to help keep many flowers straight, or in windy areas to keep them from falling over.

Our most costly mistake was not getting support netting on a 50-foot bed of Rocket Series snapdragons in our biggest high tunnel. The snaps were early, stong-stemmed and about three feet tall. Or they would have been, had we not been too busy to get them netted. They flopped into the aisles and snaked around the beds into one another. Our large, independent florist would have taken every one of them. Ouch. We were able to cut a few for bouquets, but the bed was a big loss, and we had to pull it. There went hundreds of dollar signs.

On the plus side, the Dianthus in a nearby bed that we planted in fall and promptly netted, brought in lots of early dollar signs, and strong, beautiful stems. (Neon duo and Electron varieties were a big hit; the quarter bed of white, however, was hard to sell. Florists we deal with don't like white).

Planted too much of some too early. Our Number Two mistake is no stranger to the vegetable grower: Going gangbusters on seed starting, too early. We planted way too much Statice, Stocks and Helichrysum (strawflower). WAY too much. They got too big too fast and we had no place to put them all. And it killed us to dump them in the compost pile. (You know the drill?) Yes, we gave away some seedlings to friends, but I’m not kidding -- we planted WAY too many!!

Not enough beds. Number Three -- and this was Bob Wollam’s number one -- we didn’t have enough new beds ready (or old beds ready). We should have hit on more of those perfect days in fall and winter, but they were used to cut firewood (that we didn’t get to in late summer/early fall. So when we had really nice days in early spring, we couldn’t get enough plants out early under landscape fabric.

Wasted hoop space. Number Four -- We were so eager to get started early in our high tunnel, we put in beds of Ammi (False Queen Anne’s Lace), Centaurea (Bachelor’s Button) and Verbena Bonariensis. Once they started growing taller, they kept right on growing. And shedding. Not good for the hoop and a waste of prime real estate.

Burned up young plants. Number Five -- We laid landscape fabric between the rows, and in the perennial beds which is great to keep the weeds down, and to walk and kneel on. But we had extremely hot weather early, and some of the tender plants suffered from the intense heat with the dark fabric. We will also mulch with straw close to those plants next year to cut down on the heat buildup. (Well, this year, if we can find some good, clean straw). Next year we will use more white plastic.

To be fair, and to take a page from George's book, I’ll talk about our successes, and some real gems we’ve discovered, because there have been many more positives than the above failures.

‘Crop Manipulation’

At this week’s Mid Atlantic regional meeting of ASCFG at Dave and Ann Lines’ farm in La Plata, MD, the theme centered around what it takes to grow a continuous supply of cut flowers for a 25-week farmers’ market season.

Along with succession planting, Dave talked about what he terms ‘crop manipulation.’

“My definition: doing something to cut flower plants while growing in order to modify their growth habit, size of blossom, stem length, number of stems and/or time of harvest for the benefit of the grower,” he explains. Dave says by purposely changing the normal growth of a cut flower plant, by thinking outside the box, it’s possible to have a more continuous harvest for farmers markets from May through mid-October frost. Dave and Ann discovered how to extend the season for many favorite plants by trial and error manipulation.

Here are a few:

Celosia (Cockscomb) -- When it’s 10 to 12 inches high, pinch it back to 5 sets of leaves. Each set will send off side shoots so you’ll get 8 to 10 stems per plant. (This doesn’t work for the Bombay series).

Snapdragons -- To spread out the harvest and increase the number of stems per plant, pinch half the crop. The un-pinched snaps produce long single stems and the pinched snaps produce 4 or 5 stems that are about 18 inches long a couple weeks later.

Lemon scented basil, cinnamon basil -- Cut one-fifth of the crop hard, down to a few inches from the ground, each week by section. By the sixth week, the first cutting has re-grown and is ready to cut again! (We’ve been doing this for Blue Horizon Ageratum, too, and Monarda.)

Buddleia -- In late February to mid-March, cut off some plants near the ground. Cut off other plants at 30 inches in April. This spreads the bloom time, with the cut off plants blooming later.

Bells of Ireland -- Plant them near tall shrubs or plants that provide afternoon shade and the stems will be up to 10 inches longer than those planted in full sun.

Cosmos -- Direct seed at close spacing every week . Don’t fertilize the soil. The result is lots of 3 to 4-foot tall plants with flowers near the top about 8 weeks later. (He explained in the field walk that the top sections are simply cut off and bunched in the field. It’s quick for a one-cut harvest, and next week it’s on to the next section.)

Sunflowers -- Direct seed at close spacing with a seeder and provide enough water to prevent wilting. This gives you blooms that are uniform, about 3 inches across, and great for bouquets.