SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower

Terminology 101
Our cut flower guru answers the question, “What do you mean when you say…?”

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 include your name and general location.

Posted January 27, 2005: It started simply enough: "Hello there," the email read. "You’ll probably think you are dealing with a rank amateur flower grower (hopefully a flower grower)...Well, you are. Could you explain what you mean by the terms 'break' and 'nodes'? Also, I'm not sure what you mean when you say 'pinch.' Can you recommend some required reading?"

Other emailers have asked similar, basic flower questions. While I don’t hold a degree in horticulture, I’ve been growing flowers for market for quite a few years (and as a former newspaper reporter, I’ve already asked most of the stupid questions…but I’ll keep right on asking). So here’s my attempt at very basic (and totally unscholarly) ‘Terminology 101’ (and some flower lingo—and slang—to boot). We all had the same questions when we started this insanity, unless, of course, you have the memory of Jeopardy star Ken Jennings and remember all that stuff from Botany 101. I never took that, come to think of it. “Why would I ever need it?” I thought.

When you stop to think of the miracle called seeds--those things that make our beautiful flowers-- it’s mind-boggling. Within the seed is everything needed to carry it through dormancy into support of the plant; enzymes needed to convert stored food into a form its tissue can use and information within its cells to direct what it will be. So check out a basic botany book or one of Nancy Bubel’s Seed Starters Handbooks. My husband and I are also big fans of older gardening and farming books.

Grower terminology:

AMENDMENTS (to soil) —Those great and wonderful things a cut flower grower can add to help various needs of individual flower varieties. (Certified organic growers need to check the OMRI listings for specific brands). Flowers need a balanced fertility plan. Soil testing (see below) can help you figure out what you need.

  • Bat guano is a fast-acting source of nitrogen and good source of phosphorous.
  • Blood meal is a slow acting source of nitrogen.
  • Bone meal is a good source of phosphorous and calcium. It can raise soil pH.
  • Compost is the organic grower’s lifeline. It helps maintain and boost organic matter in your soil. It helps keep it alive and thriving to keep plants healthy to fend off disease. It supplies most of the micronutrients you need.
  • Cottonseed meal can lower soil pH and is a good source of nitrogen and other nutrients.
  • Feather meal is a good source of nitrogen.

ANNUAL—Annual flowers bloom the first season and die. Most annuals do not tolerate frost. Sunflowers and zinnias are examples. HARDY ANNUALS can take a light frost, so they can be planted a few weeks before the frost-free date, and often last into fall. Examples of hardy annuals: Safflower, strawflower, godetia. Many annuals will reseed themselves, so they try to fool you into thinking they’re a perennial (like cleome).

BIENNIAL—Biennials flower the second season and die. But many will reseed themselves and keep right on kickin’, like hesperis (sweet rocket). Other examples: digitalis (foxglove) in Zones 4-7, and dianthus in Zones 3-7.

BLOSSOM—That’s the flower. (See FLOWER for more information)

BREAK —When you pinch or cut back a stem like dahlia leaving 2 to 3 sets of leaves, this will generate about three ‘breaks’ or new growing shoots or stems. These greatly increase your number of stems, hence your yield.

CLOCHE—Something used to protect a plant from cold weather, whether plastic, fabric or glass, or an old milk carton.

CORM—A solid underground part of a stem that most times looks like a small bulb. It has no scales but nourishes the plant and bears roots at the base. Gladiolus and crocosmia are good examples of corms.

COTYLEDON—The seed leaves or first leaves that emerge from a germinated seed and these are different from “true leaves”. Why do you need to know this? Because the experts who write the books will use this term, so don’t disappoint them.

COVER CROP—A crop such as winter wheat, rye, clover, buckwheat, or hairy vetch grown to prevent erosion and to help maintain the health of the soil after and in between main garden crops. Winter wheat or rye sown in fall protects the soil and, turned under in spring, adds green manure. Legumes are known for their nitrogen-fixing ability. Buckwheat can be used to help shade and protect dormant perennials or bulbs.

DIRECT SEEDING—You know this, right? Planting the seed right in the field, or hoop house. A push seeder works great for many flower seeds, like zinnia.

ETHYLENE—A natural ripening hormone…or a gas that flowers naturally produce as they age. Ethylene can come from ripening fruits, car exhaust or cigarette smoke. You’ll often hear, “don’t store your flowers in a cooler with vegetables.” Ethylene is why. (That said, I haven’t had any problem, but we don’t have huge quantities of ethylene-producing veggies in our cooler with the flowers). Some flowers are more sensitive to ethylene and will drop petals or wilt quickly. Some common ethylene-sensitive flowers include: achillea, antirrhinum (snapdragons), asclepias, campanula, celosia, centaurea (bachelor’s button), consolida (larkspur), delphinium, dianthus, gypsophila, lathyrus (sweet pea) and lilium (lily).

FLORAL PRESERVATIVE—Something added to water into which cut flowers are placed to extend their vase life. Generally, floral preservative does three things: lowers the pH of water because alkaline water isn’t easily taken up by stems; contains a bactericide to inhibit growth of bacteria on the cut stem, and provides a food source (sucrose) for the flowers. Many, many studies have been done on individual flower varieties and the effect of various preservatives. Some preservatives extend the life of a particular flower, and others actually shorten it.

The most popular, and those most often talked about in various articles, include: Floralife Hydraflor, one commercial hydrating solution that increases the ability of the flower stem to absorb water so it can put wilting in check or pull a wilting flower back to life; Chrysal OVB is a treatment for more delicate flowers (like delphiniums); STS is silver thiosulfate, a treatment that blocks the action of ethylene…and there are safety concerns surrounding silver compounds. Certified organic growers, according to NOFA-N.J., can’t use those preservatives and sell flowers as certified organic. Check with your certifier to see if a Vita Flora product (www.vitaproducts.com) you may wish to use is allowed (some products are compliant). Or try a standard homemade floral preservative: 1 teaspoon vinegar, 1 tablespoon sugar and one crushed aspirin tablet to 24 ounces of water. The best approach is to see what works best for you. Sometimes plain, good-quality tap water works best.

FLOWER—The flower is the blossom of the plant. The petal-like green things that protect the flower bud and rise from the stem are the SEPALS. Altogether, those green things are called the CALYX. The PETALS are inside this calyx, and you may have many or they may appear united in a single cup. The sepals and petals together are called the COROLLA. The flower’s reproductive organs lie inside the petals. The PISTIL is the flower’s female reproductive organ and consists of the OVARY, STYLE and STIGMA. (It’s at the center of the flower.) When the ovules in the hollow ovary are fertilized by pollen, they become seed. The stigma receives the pollen. Surrounding the pistil are the STAMENS or male organs. (Check out a lily). Each stamen consists of a slender, stubby stalk or filament topped by an oblong or oval enlarged part called an ANTHER. When the pollen is ripe, it fertilizes the ovules. The wind, insects (bees) or other animals can carry the pollen. Some of the parts can be absent on a flowers. Then they’re called INCOMPLETE. Flowers are called PERFECT if they have both stamens and pistils and are capable of self-fertilization. (There will be a quiz!)

FROST-FREE DATE—That’s the approximate date in spring when no more killing or hard frosts for the season are expected in your area. If you don’t know yours, contact your local Extension office. But beware, it is an approximate date and Mother Nature can be a bear.

GERMINATION—When the seed breaks its dormancy and begins to grow. It’s generally a combination of water, warmth and air that makes this take place. Usually the term is used in conjunction with seeing seedlings first appear at the surface of the soil (even though it actually happens when the first tiny root and first tiny shoot begin to grow).

HARDENING OFF—Exposing young plants gradually to the outdoor stresses (light, wind, etc.) so they don’t die of shock.

HARVEST STAGE—The best stage at which to cut your flower. Many reference books will tell you this (see post-harvest handling). Campanula, for example, are best harvested when one to two flowers on the stem are open; dianthus when about one-fourth of the blossoms are open; sunflowers, when petals are beginning to unfurl.

HYDRATE—The process of filling the cells of a flower stem with water and flower food.

LINERS—Rooted cuttings.

NODES—The swollen part of a stem from which the leaf arises.

PERENNIAL—Plants that come back every year from their roots, depending on hardiness. There are tender perennials like Dahlias that are grown from tubers and need to be dug and stored. Many cut flower growers treat perennials as annuals and plant them every year. Why? Because it’s more cost effective. Echinacea, liatris and Shasta daisy are examples of perennials.

PINCH—What you do to a plant to make them stockier. I used the term in the dahlia column, saying “you pinch, leaving three or four sets of leaves.” Pinching is just that—taking your thumb and forefinger and pinching the stem off, or cutting thicker stems. But, aha, there’s more to it than just a simple pinch. There’s a soft pinch, where you remove just the growing point, and a hard pinch, where you remove at least an inch of the tip or top of the stem. This hard pinch sort of shocks the plant and makes older buds near the base of the plant grow, giving you a stockier, fuller plant. It’s great for dahlias and for snapdragons. You get lots more flowers. (We forgot one row of dahlias as we pinched, and the difference was dramatic! Not nearly as many quality stems.)

pH—The pH of a soil is a measure of its acidity or alkalinity. Some plants like a more acidic soil and vice versa. Why is it important? Because extremes in either direction can mess up the plant (in other words, an extreme pH level will affect the plants ability to get nutrients).

PLUG—Little, established seedlings which you can purchase from a number of suppliers, such as Germania, Gloeckner, Gro n Sell (and often small greenhouses in your area) who generally offer a wide assortment of tray sizes. The advantage: For hard-to-start, pokey flowers like lisianthus, buying plugs is much easier, quicker and more reliable. Disadvantage: It’s more expensive than starting from seed. Certified organic growers have restrictions. Ask your certifier. Many bigger dealers have minimum orders (so go together with a grower friend or three).

POST-HARVEST HANDLING—How you care for your flowers after you pick them. This is the most critical stage for the cut flower grower. Bottom line: Use clean buckets, get flowers into water and out of the sun ASAP, keep foliage out of water, and read up on specific variety needs before you cut. Asclepias (butterfly weed) for example should be placed in hot water for one minute to stop bleeding of the milky sap. There are a number of books that offer information on post-harvest handling, including Lynn Byczynski’s The Flower Farmer; The Arnosky’s We’re Gonna Be Rich!; Dr. Allan Armitage’s Specialty Cut Flowers; and Postharvest Handling and Storage of Cut Flowers, Florist Greens and Potted Plants by Joanna Nowak and Ryszard Rudnicki.

RECEPTACLE—The swollen point where the flower and stem join.

SCARIFYING—This is scratching or notching the seat coat to speed germination on some hard seeds. Catalogs will usually tell you when this is helpful.

SOIL TEST—Contact your local Extension office for soil test kit information, or check with a private lab. Sometimes garden centers will have kits. You simply scoop up some soil samples (complete directions are included), send in the bags and get an analysis that will let you know just where your soil may be nutrient deficient so you can correct any problems.

TRANSPLANT—A seed you have started under grow lights or in the greenhouse that is a little seedling you will plant outdoors, after hardening off.


Florist terminology:

CONSUMER BUNCH (aka 'split and wraps')—A bunch smaller than a grower bunch, good for a customer, with sleeve. ‘Split and wrap’ is the term used in the northwest.

GROWER BUNCH—The size bunch delivered from your farm.

FRESH TO DRY BOUQUET—Bouquets sold as fresh, but have elements (such as strawflower or statice) that also dry well.

MIXED BOUQUET—Bouquet with different flower types and colors.

MONOCHROMATIC BOUQUET—Bouquet with a color mix comprised of different shades of one color group.

RAINBOW BUNCH—A bunch comprised of one kind of product but with stems of different colors (like all zinnia or all statice in different shades).

SLEEVE—Plastic sleeve to hold bouquets for consumer sales. (Cuts down on flower breakage from manhandling customers at farmers’ markets and provides a professional look). Sleeves can be purchased from specialty dealers like A-Roo.


Delivery terminology:

WET PACK—Delivering flowers already in water.

DRY PACK—Flowers are sleeved and packed in boxes according to bunch count per box.

PROCONA—Special wet-pack used in California.

HAMPERS—Upright boxes sometimes including a bucket.

CLEATS/STAKES—The wooden sticks used to secure flowers to keep them from shifting in a box.


So now that you’re an expert, get growing!