SPECIALTY CUT FLOWER CORNER: For the beginning grower

Questions, more questions...
On hoophouses--and more
Regarding Lisianthus
One pinch, two pinch

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 let me know who you are an where you're growing.

February 22, 2005: Winter is a time for planning and searching for answers (and repairing all that broken stuff, but we won’t get into that). Seems like specialty cut flowers are definitely on your lists from the e-mails we’ve been receiving at New Farm. Here are some of the great questions (and some interesting shared information) we’ve been getting that may have a wider audience!

On hoophouses and more

Cheryl from Nova Scotia writes:
“I just saw the picture of your gothic arch style hoophouse and am very impressed. I am in the beginning stages of a cut flower business here in Nova Scotia. I am doing field grown cuts, annuals and perennials and last year was the trial to see what would grow best. I was encouraged by the way things grew and will be growing more this year so I can hopefully get a subscription business going. I love the idea of growing some flowers in a greenhouse to get a jumpstart on or extend the season...I’ve been very impressed with your operation and it seems you grow many of the same flowers I do.

“I am trying to get as many perennials established as I can to help cut down on some of the annuals that have to go in. I planted 700 tulips in the fall to try and get my season started a little earlier, and learned a lot by trial and error the first year. I absolutely did not have enough flowers the first year, so I didn’t try to start the subscription business for fear I wouldn’t be able to keep up with it. I am near a touristy town and want to sell to the motels, B & Bs, restaurants, etc.

“I have about 15 acres of pasture land and right now have just taken a portion of the field and plowed 200-300 foot long rows to plant in. They are 5 feet wide, but I plant in 3-1/2 to 4 feet of that. I mow in between the rows to keep it neat and easy to walk down. My planting time is usually the first of June, but the last two years we’ve had cold springs, so it had to wait until the middle of June to be safe. The first frost can occur anytime in September...”

Her questions:

  1. What zone are you, and how much do you heat your hoophouse and with what kind of heat?
  2. Is your ground rocky? How is the hoophouse anchored down? Is it cemented in the ground?
  3. Do you have a separate well for your greenhouse?
  4. Is there anything on the side of the greenhouse after you roll up the plastic, like screening?


Wow, Cheryl. Sounds like you have a great thing going and will make a success of it. B & Bs have been wonderful customers for our flowers, especially lilies and lisianthus. High tunnels could add a lot of breathing room to your operation.

Our farm in Emmaus, PA is in Zone 6 so we have more of a break on the last and first frosts than you do in Zone 5. Usually we’re safe from mid-May to mid-October, though I still remember running out to cover sunflowers, ageratum and tomatoes the last week in May a few years ago when a frost hit us hard. Our new 21 by 96-foot gothic-arch style flower greenhouse is not heated. It’s single poly with roll-up sides. We will plant snapdragons and lisianthus plugs, and other flowers that can take cooler temps, in March and April here, and we provide extra cover inside the high tunnel with Reemay over wire hoops (little tunnels inside big tunnels) when it’s cold at night. We use this system well into fall.

Our bigger high tunnel has propane heat, and we’ve grown winter greens (all winter) and some flowers in this greenhouse very successfully with minimal heat (kept just above freezing). Not only can high tunnels extend the season in both directions, they also can enhance the quality of many flowers, protecting campanula, for example, from wind and rain damage.

Mel's answers:

  1. Yes, our ground is rocky. We’ve been picking rocks for years and sometimes it seems like we grow them. (An English visitor who took pictures of our farm to show to gardening groups there told us everyone was impressed by the crops and shocked by the rocks in between the
    rows!) See our greenhouse columns on this website for more specifics, but the high tunnels are anchored by metal pipes/posts that are pounded in the ground and the bows fit into the posts. Then 2 by 4s are fastened to the base. No cement.
  2. We do not have a separate well for the greenhouses. We use regular garden hose attached to the house line and we can hand water, or hook the hose up to a very simple drip irrigation system. In our seeding greenhouse, a 30 by 40-foot double poly structure with a propane heater, we have a line off the house line which goes into the structure with a freezeless hydrant or self-draining attachment. It’s a great setup, and we hope to add one of these to our bigger high tunnels when time and money allow. And no, they aren’t terribly expensive.
  3. We actually put screening on the rollup sides of our biggest greenhouse. Our son (who has a good back) stapled strips in neatly a few years ago. We thought it would help keep bugs and critters out. Is it necessary? Eh, not really. We’ve had great successes in this greenhouse
    -- and the bees get in just fine through the big doors at each end, but we’ve had equally good crops from the other high tunnels which don’t have anything across the rollup sides, and we haven’t had a problem with anything other than voles -- which are a problem everywhere, and which
    we battle with mouse traps.

Regarding Lisianthus

Several readers had questions about lisianthus. Here are a few:

Q: Do you mind me asking what kind of money lizzies sell for in your area?

A: We sold lisiantus bouquets for $8 plus tax which included 3-5 lisianthus stems, depending on size, and 3 filler flowers. We sold straight bunches of 3 (full stems) for $4.50. Some areas (like Washington D.C.) can do considerably better. Florists paid above wholesale price (which varies, but is always good). We always sold out. But perhaps, most importantly, one or two lisianthus added to our mixed bouquets always added to the ooh and aah factor. Our regular mixed bouquets sold for $7 plus tax, with larger variations up to $20.

Q: What is the best way to start lisianthus?

A: Buy plugs. Lisianthus are a pain to start. The seed is like dust. They are slow to germinate (10-20 days) and, once they do, they grow ever so slowly over two or three months. If you have the gift of patience -- heck, even if you don’t, you can be successful with the temperamental beauties because, well, we have. Here’s how: Sow the seed on the soil surface and don’t cover. We dust with a little vermiculite (key word is little). The flats are kept moist. When they germinate, we sprinkle a little milled spaghnum moss in betwee the rows, fertilize with a little fish fertilizer and wait.

During the long wait, it’s important not to overwater or overfertilize, and to keep the air circulating around the seed flats (we use a table fan). Bump up the seedlings to a larger cell, the experts say, when the first root touches the bottom of the cell. This is the critical part, because letting the lissies get rootbound will give you stunted plants. (I’ve made this mistake before, of course.) The lissies can go another month to six weeks in the larger cells or until they start to fill out the cell. At this stage, cool temperatures are needed. If the greenhouse gets above 70 degrees for an extended period the plants will give you fits later. Trust me -- made this mistake, too. We had a heat wave and wound up with a batch of stunted plants which is a heartbreaker after months of care.

Q: Do you use support for your lisianthus?

A: Only if they make money. Sorry -- yes. In the greenhouse, they grow nice and tall and we use a single layer of Hortonova and move the Hortonova up as they get taller. Some growers use two layers. Outside, they need the support against the fits of Mother Nature.

One pinch, two pinch

Chris from Michigan writes:
Can you tell me which flowers you pinch?

We’re constantly learning on this one. Pinching, basically a pruning method where the tender growing tips are ‘pinched off’, is designed to encourage side shoots or a stockier plant. We pinch the Karma dalhias twice and boy what a difference it makes in the number of flowers! As super grower Dave Dowling has advised, we also pinch half the crop pf snapdragons; the un-pinched snaps produce nice long single stems while the pinched snaps produce 4-5 stems about a week or two later. Cockscomb, pinched at a foot back to five sets of leaves, will give you 8-10 stems per plant. Other flowers that are often pinched are cosmos, marigold, verbena, ageratum (all annuals) and delphinium and phlox (perennials).

Happy growing!


Have a question? Ask Melanie at devault@fast.net.