SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower

Tools of the trade
Practical ideas for the holidays.

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.

QUESTIONS?

I’ll be happy to anwer them!

E-mail me at devault@fast.net and include your name and general location.

November 23, 2004: It’s that time of year when friends and family are wracking their brains trying to find something to buy for the budding flower farmer--namely, you. Drop a few hints or you could end up with a cooling gizmo for your neck that you may or may not want. That happened to a friend last year--his wife thought it was pretty neat. As talk turned to holiday gifts this week, she got *the look*.

What are the best “tools of the trade” for flower farmers, or those aspiring to be? Think practical, most flower farmer friends responded.

I’ve found, too, that many impulse items purchased over the years are now dust catchers. Let's see, there was the fancy greenhouse tray seeder which is too complicated to describe much less use. Or how about the bucket with a padded seat and the fold-down knealing bench for weeding. Both were too much of a pain to keep moving down the row and wasps loved the cloth tool holder with pockets that wrapped around the bucket. I got stung more than once before letting the dust and spider webs have it.

My flower partner, Linda Essert-Kuchar, and I agree on two tools as must-haves for flower farmers: The stirrup or scuffle hoe and a good hedge trimmer or clipper. The narrow 3-1/4-inch scuffle hoe is our favorite for getting in between close flower rows or around drip tape, and the wider-width hoes (5- or 7-inch) take care of larger areas like around perennials or between flowers with wider spacing (such as those not-for-bouquet sunflowers).

The oscillating steel stirrup cuts weeds right below the soil surface as you gently push and pull. Replacement blades are available and inexpensive. Last year we got one for each high tunnel from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com) to cut down on search and retrieve time. Catalog price is $34 for the small to $38 for the 7-inch. Replacement blades are about $9. A good hedge trimmer (available at garden supply stores and in catalogs) saves the flower farmer hours and hours in cutting and clean-up chores. Ours were in use all season, including today with major greenhouse and perennial clean-up.

Linda and I differ on other favorites for flower farming. I love my medium-handled wire cultivator. This lets me reach across 3- or 4-foot beds and is easy for quick cultivating under support netting. It’s great for beds in the high tunnel. Most versions have the thicker and squared-off prongs so I had to search far and wide for the wire claw after my last one bit the dust. Longwood Gardens store had short and long versions of my favorite. Other upscale garden centers probably have them also. I suggest putting some florescent tape or paint or string somewhere on the handle so it doesn’t get swept up with the weeds and carted off. Yep, that happened to me a month ago. Linda raked the high tunnel weeds and debris and off to the compost pile she went -- with the tool I left lying beside the bed when I ran to take a phone call. I found it in my second search of the pile. The tool will get something bright by spring!

Another favorite of mine are needle nose shears (Johnny’s, $23.30) for cutting stems, deadheading, etc. My hands are small and these clippers don’t feel bulky. Plus, the shape means more accuracy with cutting (most times) when dealing with jumbles of gomphrena, bachelor’s button and the like. When the shears are new and real sharp, watch what you’re doing. It’s easy to cut a fingertip along with a flower stem.

Linda’s best tool is a medium-handled bulb planter. The sturdy spade-shaped tool is great for loosening the soil in landscape fabric or plastic planting holes, or in beds when planting bulbs, corms or plugs. They're especially useful when the soil has taken some abuse from Mother Nature and is a bit hard. The bulb planter breaks the soil up nicely and is much easier than trying to use a trowel.

“My very favorite tool,” says Kate Sparks of Doylestown, PA, “is the Valley Oak wheel hoe I purchased two years ago. I’m buying another next spring! I love the wheel hoe because it makes weeding so much faster than a regular hoe and I can get very close to the flowers. It’s also good to use early in the spring instead of heavier equipment which compacts wet spring soil.”

Kate says the Valley Oak hoe (www.valleyoaktool.com) comes with three interchangeable blades of different sizes “and I use them all depending on row spacing.” She says she researched wheel hoes and likes the quality of the Valley Oak hoe, along with its reasonable price.

Janet Bachmann, agriculture specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Fayetteville, AR, says she has several favorites for flower farming -- all from A.M. Leonard (www.amlgardener.com), which, she adds, “was referred to me by someone in the horticulture department at ISU back in the early 80s, and I have been pleased with the high quality and fair price of their tools since.

Felco #2 Original Pruners are what I reach for when heading out to cut flowers,” she says. “Sturdy, sharp and feel good in my hand. Replacement parts are also available. When I lost a spring, it was easy and quick to get a new one. Price is $33.49 for Felco #2.” (NOTE: Felco has right and left-handed versions of many pruners). For hand weeding, Janet likes Leonard’s Handy Weeder/Cultivator at $6.49. It has a really sharp blade so you have to be careful with it when it’s new, she cautions. She also likes their Hot Bed Weeder at $17.99 which has a convenient narrow blade for tight spots. The Spading Fork is also good and sturdy.

Janet finds another good source for tools (and all BCS tractors and implements) is Earth Tools (www.earthtoolsbcs.com). “Of course, now I am drooling over all the tools and equipment I just looked at,” she e-mailed. “But won’t buy anything today. Tomorrow is my last farmers’ market for this year.”

Big wheel keep on turn'en: The wheel hoe is light and quick--perfect for spring weeding--and makes for a close shave any time of the year.

With regard to pruners, Paul Shumaker of Bangor, PA, says much depends upon the size of your hand, but Felcos are hard to beat. He likes Felco #8 and says he has always had good luck with Lee Valley Tools (www.leevalley.com or phone 800-871-8158. Felco #8s are $38.50). He is also a big fan of the wheel hoe; for hand weeding he likes a collinear hoe, with a thin blade. The thin blade makes for sharp edges which cut small weeds just below the surface. (Johnny’s Selected Seeds has two collinear hoe designs, one with replaceable blade, $34-$36.)

A good pair of garden gloves help save fingernails, and make stem stripping quicker. Linda and I like the rubber palm gloves (sold in garden stores and catalogs, various brands) for stripping leaves from stems. Since I’m left handed and she’s a righty, we share a pair as we find it’s easier to wear one glove when removing leaves.

Everyone I asked named the same most helpful flower books: Lynn Byczynski’s The Flower Farmer (www.growingformarket.com) and Allan Armitage’s Specialty Cut Flowers (available through a number of catalogs and websites). Kate also likes Michael Olson’s MetroFarm: The Guide to Growing for Big Profit on a Small Parcel of Land. While it’s mostly a marketing book, she says, it also has good advice on land and crop selection.

Several flower farmers said the gift they’d most like is more time. Or a clone. (But I'll bet they’d be happy with a gift certificate for their favorite seed supplier.) Husband, George (who’s into veggies, but learning his flowers) suggests a Carhartt vest. I guess that’s a hint. Happy hunting.