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 email@example.com
and include your name and general location.
Posted March 17, 2005: First the bad news:
There are about a million different kinds of insects. Some articles,
experts and insect books could readily push you right over the
edge from fresh to (gasp) silk flowers. Ah, but the good news
is flowers, most kinds you want to grow for market anyway, are
relatively pest-free. “Relatively” means problems
do crop up. Some flowers are better avoided in some parts of
the country, and, of course, there are good years and there
are bad years for certain pests. But don't worry, you can usualy
deal with them sustainably.
That said, everyone has had their
heart broken. My fall silky Asclepias (Asclepias curassavica)
-- two nice, long rows that I had babied from seed and planted
out at the beginning of July for a great show at market on
those balmy, autumn Sundays in Emmaus, PA -- were my heartbreak.
With the usual craziness of fall produce and flower sales
and readying the high tunnels for winter, the Asclepias didn’t
get checked close enough or often enough. Pretty soon, a gooey
yellow scarf enveloped every stem so thickly they were a total
loss. Aphids. Thousands of aphids. So we gingerly pulled all
the plants -- and started more dried arrangements to make
up for the loss. Aside from aphids in the high tunnel on one
small row of sunflowers near the door (others in the same
high tunnel center were untouched and I was able to wash the
aphids off, dunking them in a bucket of water), we have had
no major insect problems on flowers. Ever. We had a few Japanese
beetles, a few cucumber beetles and a few inch worms that
entertain from the Ageratum. That’s it.
Diversity and good soil make a difference.
Lynn Byczynski, grower and author of The
Flower Farmer (www.growingformarket.com),
says grasshoppers are her number one problem in Kansas. “We’ve
found them to be unperturbed by anything we have unleashed
on them, including Nosema locustae and Beauveria bassiana.”
That's Latin for beneficials/biological controls which are
labeled for grasshoppers and are organically acceptable. “Grasshoppers
are highly attracted to certain species of plants including
dahlias, mums and marigolds, so we don’t even try to
grow those anymore.”
Then, like all growers, Byczynski adds, “This year,
we will try guineas on the advice of many Growing for
Market readers. But we won’t know for a while whether
our super-hoppers will be controlled by these voracious birds.”
We inherited a few pretty tame guineas at Pheasant Hill Farm
last year and they love working within eyesight of us. We’re
hoping they get all the ticks, Japanese beetles and other
insects that might bother our flowers. We intend to train
them with white millet this spring to go where the bugs might
go. (For more information on guineas, see Jeannette S. Ferguson’s
With Guineas or visit her website at www.guineafowl.com
where you can even hear them.) Guineas also eat a lot of weed
seed. Down side can be noise and their traveling habit, but,
supposedly, can be trained. We’ll see.
Besides grasshoppers, other insects, Byczynski says, are
really only a minor inconvenience on her cut flower crops.
“Part of that is because we have an ‘organic attitude’
about fitting our farming into the ecosystem. For example,
we grow dill, fennel and Asclepias for bouquets. But we are
happy to defer to the monarch and swallowtail butterflies
when their need for food arises. We just leave these plants
in the garden, let them get munched down by the caterpillars
and then enjoy the spectacle of metamorphosis.”
Steve Bogash, regional commercial horticulture educator in
Central Pennsylvania, says flowers generally ARE pretty easy
and low on insect problems. “The way you grow out flowers
as a small grower is so different from large monoculture,
you see different problems,” adds Bogash, Franklin County
Cooperative Extension agent and former grower. “Small
growers with diversified crops will have an incredible mix
of insects that will eat each other before there are problems.”
What’s Easiest To Grow with Insects
There are lots of good, easy ones, say Dr. Stanton Gill,
with Central Maryland Research and Education Center, Maryland
Cooperative Extension. He, and Bogash named some of my favorites:
Sunflowers, Zinnia, Karma dahlia, Celosia, tall Ageratum,
Statice, and Salvia leucantha.
-- Succession planted from March and going until frost (longer
if you have a high tunnel and extra protection), sunflowers
don’t have many insect problems. Gill notes that you
may see some adult striped or spotted cucumber beetle damage
as the season progresses -- they can do damage to the petals.
While they don’t destroy the plant, they do destroy
their value as a cut flower. The solution: Don’t grow
cucumber plants, or other veggies the pests love, in the area.
You can use Neem oil, a tropical-tree extract, that kills
many pests on contact, he says. (Certified organic growers
should check their latest catalog or www.omri.org
for current status of organically approved pesticides). At
Pheasant Hill Farm, we cut the sunflowers as the first rays
open, especially if there seems to be a problem with beetle
damage, and keep the sunflowers in the cooler. If you miss
a few flowers with a hole or two (not impossibly chewed flowers)
give the flowers away to kids at the farmers’ market.
They’ll be thrilled. So will Mom.
The garden workhorse isn’t usually bothered by insects
or pests. We often find those nasty, big spiders making fascinating
webs between them here and there. Actually they’re Orb-web
spiders, yellow and black argiope, and they are working for
you, so work around them. Japanese beetles can sometimes hit
zinnias, Gill says.
KARMA DAHLIA --
I recommend these highly (see
previous column on Karmas). Bogash loves them. Gill says
in some areas, people have problems with grasshoppers (especially
if there are high grasses or fields are nearby), cucumber
beetle, and leafhopper.
Others mentioned include Celosia (especially wheat), Ageratum,
Statice and Salvia leucantha which have very few insect problems,
Gill says. Gill also recommends Liatris, Sedum (Autumn Beauty),
Tuberose, Phlox paniculata and Lisianthus as of little interest
to insect pests (but bear in mind lissies are hard to start).
Trachelium caeruleum, lavender to dark blue flowers borne
in panicles at the end of the stem, are also relatively pest
free, he says.
What Are the Biggest Problems for Flowers?
Insects that can be a problem for flowers include aphids,
thrips, spider mites, leafhoppers, beetles and caterpillars,
says Bogash. “They can often be controlled with natural
parasites and predators.” While beneficial insects can
be bought from biological control companies and through many
catalogs, the alluring descriptions can be daunting. Both
Gill and Bogash say beneficials work better in a greenhouse
setting. In fact, Bogash says in a closed system, beneficials
work very well. In tunnels, they can be competitive. “Large
predators, lacewings, ladybugs don’t like being around
each other. Maintaining sanctuaries, giving them a place to
go, helps.” For beneficials, various catalogs and websites
tell you how many you will need, when to release and what
to expect, including IPM Laboratories, Inc., www.ipmlabs.com.
The Association of Natural Bio-control Producers web lists
distributors in the U.S. at www.anbp.org.
Another resource for the flower grower fighting insect pests
is the sticky trap, yellow or blue cards (available at many
nursery centers and through many seed and greenhouse catalogs)
with a brightly colored surface coated on both sides with
a special sticky, non-drying glue. These traps will catch
many insects and can help you with monitoring them. Unfortunately,
they’ll also trap beneficial insects. They’re
especially useful in the greenhouse environment.