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 firstname.lastname@example.org
and include your name and general location.
Posted January 7, 2005: Experience is the best
teacher, they say -- and our experience has screamed “build
another high tunnel just for flowers!” Flowers, especially
the higher value varieties like lisianthus, campanula and dahlia,
have done extremely well for us in limited beds under cover.
High tunnels, with little or no supplemental heat, can give
you a much wider window for earlier and later sales with everything
from stunning celosia and dianthus to out-of-season sunflowers,
of which, thus far, our customers never seem to tire. (Alleluia!)
“But I’m a beginner!” you say. If you’re
a serious beginner, and have had some practice with growing
outdoors, a high tunnel or even a modest hoophouse will pay
for itself in no time (and, hey, then pay YOU). Perhaps the
biggest benefits we local growers have over cheap imported
flowers are fragrance and freshness. In a word, real QUALITY.
You’ll be surprised how much more you can make by
growing flowers under cover that tend to bruise or flatten
easily in the wind and rain, like lisianthus. Lissies also
like the heat, and we had four flushes in our beds under cover
from mid- summer to late fall. Of course, we worried customers
wouldn’t want pastel flowers into October. But they
just can’t get enough of lisianthus once you get them
hooked no matter the shade! Sweet peas, dianthus and other
fragrant flowers can also be real moneymakers in winter or
early spring. Florists loved our early dianthus from the high
tunnel, which we planted in fall and overwintered.
So, we’re listening to experience and husband George
has been out sawing and fitting away under the watchful eyes
of our guinea hens, through cold and rain, mud and snow flurries,
because once the plastic is on, work under cover isn’t
nearly so much like work. Working pretty much alone, George
had the frame up in a few part-time days. The finish work
on the frame and doors has taken longer than usual because
he’s fussing, but we’ll have the plastic on this
week with the help of a few friends.
The style we’re putting up is a 21- by 96-foot gothic
arch with 5-foot roll-up sides. George took down our first,
narrow (14- by 96-foot) hoophouse to use the prime real estate
for the new structure. The soil is good and the ground ready
for growing. But the best thing about this site is it’s
about 50 feet from the back door, already has electric, has
an easily accessible water supply, and is close to our seeding
greenhouse. Cost of the new greenhouse frame (2,070 pounds)
from Ledgewood Farm (Ed Person, e-mail is email@example.com)
was $2,375; roll-up sides an extra $364, so it cost us $2,739
plus freight, $392.40. Plastic, 6 mil infared, which holds
heat in at night and reduces condensation, weighed in at 108
pounds (Klerk’s K50 IARC 36-foot by 100-foot) and cost
$277.99 from a nearby greenhouse supply company. Baseboard
and hip-board (roll-up side) lumber was another couple hundred
dollars. George used leftover polycarbonate panels to make
double doors. Barring any major temper tantrums from Mother
Nature, we should easily make back the cost in one season.
(For more general greenhouse how-to, please see our
greenhouse columns on this website).
My flower partern, Linda Essert-Kuchar, and I will be working
over winter readying the beds for early spring planting, incorporating
compost in the top 2 inches of soil and designing the beds
to get maximum benefit. Experience (mistakes) over the past
two years has taught us space in a high tunnel is precious.
Major crops for us next year will be sweet
lisianthus, campanula, and sunflowers. We have fall-planted
in another high tunnel, but we will do another planting in
the new greenhouse. And, we’ll experiment with other
At an October workshop on high tunnel production for commercial
cut flower growers at Dave Dowling’s Farmhouse Flowers
& Plants in Brookeville, MD, Dave offered specific tips
on a number of flowers. The workshop was sponsored by the
University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, the Maryland
Greenhouse Growers Association and the Association of Specialty
Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG).
Dowling has two 30- by 80-foot double poly high tunnels constructed
with skids and a track, which he can move with a tractor.
This type of system, which Eliot Coleman has successfully
used for vegetables/greens for years in coastal Maine, can
protect one planting area in spring and another in fall, Dave
says. For tulips,
this system is perfect, he adds. Dave planted 2,000 tulips
in raised beds late October, 3 inches on center in the uncovered
“track” area. To stagger bloom time, half were
planted 6 inches deep and half 8 inches deep. He watered them
once. In spring, the high tunnel was moved back over the tulips
March 1. They were up in a week and bloomed in three to four
weeks. “They were 18 to 20 inches tall (pulled). We
got $1 a stem at market, 80 cents to florists.” Because
early and late varieties were planted, Dave was able to harvest
for five weeks, including the Easter holiday!
He planted sunflowers, stock and delphinium
in high tunnels on March 1. Lisianthus was planted in April.
This past spring, he also planted lilac
to see if they would produce earlier than field plants.
Other crops Dave has had success with in high tunnels include:
-- Produced a week before field-grown plants, and while
stem length was the same, flower quality was better, probably,
he says because they didn’t get the excessive rain
that the field flowers did.
button -- Taller and better quality flower
than those grown in the field. They bloomed 10 days earlier,
-- Coronation Gold and Moonshine, 2-year-old plants and
plugs planted in August. Both varieties bloomed three weeks
earlier than field plants. Stem length was 36 inches, with
10-12 stems per plant.
-- Bloomed same time as field grown, but on taller stems
(30 inches compared to 20 in field -- very important if
you sell to florists or wholesale).
-- Sunbright Supreme transplants planted third week of March
and again second week of April (plugs started in greenhouse
and ready to transplant in 10 days). They bloomed in 8-10
weeks. (This was the only crop that had a problem with insects,
so watch them carefully. We had a problem with aphids in
fall on this crop. Think ladybugs!).
-- Planted mid-April and harvested beganing mid-June. “I
feel the only place to grow Lisianthus is in some kind of
high tunnel or greenhouse,” Dave says. Quality is
exceptional. (We whole-heartedly agree. Our time frame was
the same in Pennsylvania.)
(or Mexican bush sage) -- A short-day salvia that starts
blooming in late September and is a good candidate for high
tunnels because an early frost can kill it just as production
is at its peak. “Last fall we had Salvia Leucantha
up until Thanksgiving,” Dave says.
-- Since this isn’t harvested until late summer when
leaves start to turn leathery, it benefits from the extra
warmth of a high tunnel in fall. It will continue to branch.
Pinch the top.
-- Protection from rain helps and they like it hot. Even
a light frost will kill them, so added protection of row
cover can extend production.
are other good fall crops if protected from frost. (The dahlias
we did under cover in Pennsylvania succumbed to an unexpected
19-degree night. Row cover and low heat would have saved them,
we believe. We were caught unaware.)
As Lynn Byczynski explains in her Hoophouse Handbook, “the
most successful flower growers are those who can match day
length requirements to their temperatures in the hoophouse.”
This varies widely by location, so there can be no exact formula.
But as she says, any flower that is a short day plant or day
length neutral is a good candidate for a minimally heated
house. (Byczynski's handbook is available at www.growingformarket.com;
phone 800-307-8949. Another website with information on growing
in high tunnels is www.hightunnels.org
which includes research information. )
Other good candidates for unheated hoophouses that we have
not menthioned, Lynn says, include: Anemone
High Tunnel Tips
Just a few high tunnel growing tips:
- Dave uses a loop system
on his drip irrigation in the high tunnel
instead of cutting each strip. Seems like a good idea which
we will try next year! Just loop the drip around at the
end of the bed and come back down. Be sure to use enough
drip lines per bed to cover all flowers.
- In spring, you need to worry about the houses getting
too hot. Keep them well ventillated.
In fall, it’s better to have them too hot than too
cold, Dave says.
- Watch your placement
of flower crops in the high tunnel. Dave says he’ll
do eucalyptus and blue horizon ageratum on the sides, instead
of down the center. (We had placement mistakes, also. If
you do sweet peas in the greenhouse, think center, with
two horizontal layers of netting placed vertically, one
on top of the other. They’ll get very tall. Don’t
forget to support flowers with Hortonova netting in the
greenhouse because crops like snapdragons will also get
Bryan Butler, a University of Maryland Extension educator,
Carroll County, offered some tips on low cost-structures and
economical ideas at the workshop, including:
- The gothic design
is a durable design. It lived through the 2002 snows with
single layer poly, while others fell down. Even a 2 to 3
percent slope helps on a structure.
- Greenhouse patch tape
or even wrapping any rough spots in duct tape before putting
on plastic can save you wear -- and tear.
- Gravel (an
in-between size) around the structure can be a good deterrent
- Irrigation line on top of
landscape fabric soaks in yet allows you
to easily find and repair holes in the line.
“I believe this is the future of agriculture in Maryland,
what you’re looking at right here,” Butler said,
pointing to Dave’s high tunnels at the workshop. “The
quality, what you can produce.” We second that for Pennsylvania.
And just about anywhere.