By Lynn Byczynski
There’s no such thing as easy money in farming, but adding a U-Pick to an existing flower operation comes close. We did it for a few seasons at our farm in Kansas. Before we started, we were a little worried that our U-Pick customers would pick all the prettiest flowers, leaving us short for our florist and supermarket accounts. But the opposite happened: People picked the flowers that were fully open, almost past their prime. They left behind the choicest flowers, those that were just beginning to open.
A few other lessons we learned about U-Pick:
- Space your beds far enough apart so customers won’t be brushing up against plants when they are fully grown. Bee stings, pollen, and wet foliage can be a real turnoff for non-gardeners.
- Keep walking areas smooth to avoid twisted ankles. We were surprised by how many people brought frail, elderly relatives out to the farm to pick, and we worried about them falling. Now, we use grass paths between our beds, which makes picking much safer and more pleasant.
- Verbal instruction is good, but you still need signs to let people know where to find containers, clippers, and water. If they’ve never picked before, show them how to do it.
- Set prices that make sense to your customers, who won’t know about the relative costs of production for various flowers. Either make everything the same price, or boldly mark beds of higher-dollar flowers. Even then, some people won’t notice and you may have some hard feelings when they find out the flowers they thought were all 50 cents a stem actually cost much more.
- Plant flowers that you don’t want included in the U-Pick in a different location. If you have high-dollar flowers, you can pick a bucket of them and put it by the cash register to encourage add-on sales.
- Don’t stress out if customers pick weeds, short stems, or other things that would never make the grade if you were picking. Remind yourself that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that they’re enjoying the experience as much as the purchase.
Flower power for roadside markets
By Lynn Byczynski
Driving through Delaware farm country on our way to the beach, I saw several roadside markets with large flower gardens along the road. They turned my head, which is exactly what was intended. And what better way to draw attention to a farm stand? A large patch of flowers can have the same visual impact as a wagonload of petunias in spring or a pile of pumpkins in autumn.
The key to using flowers is to plant a lot of them. The patch needs to be big enough to present a solid block of color to passing motorists. The flowers should be profuse, cut-and-come-again varieties that will bloom all summer long. The perfect flowers for the job are zinnias. Tall, dahlia-flowered zinnias, the type used for cut flowers, will bloom for months if kept dead-headed. Seed can be purchased in separate colors to create vivid patches of color. If the flowers aren’t harvested regularly, they will branch lavishly to present even more color. What’s more, zinnias are one of the cheapest, easiest and most reliable flowers available.
Zinnias can be planted two or three rows per 4’ wide bed. The more beds, the better. They can be direct seeded, most quickly using an Earthway® seeder with the beet plate. For best branching, which leads to the most concentrated color, they should be thinned to 12” apart in the row.
The most visible color from a distance is yellow, so you might want to plant a patch of all yellow zinnias. Other bright yellow flowers that bloom over a long period include the branching sunflowers (don’t do the single stem varieties because you get only one bloom per plant); rudbeckias; and African marigolds. These are all good for cutting, so you can either make bouquets to sell at the stand, or let customers pick their own.
Another roadside attraction you can create with flowers is a butterfly garden. Many flowers, including zinnias, are attractive to butterflies. Another good flower for a butterfly garden — one that is highly visible from a distance — is Asclepias curassavica, the yellow and orange butterfly milkweeds. Monarch caterpillars feed only on milkweeds, so a good stand of milkweed plants will attract egg-laying females. Although the plants will be damaged by the caterpillars, they recuperate after the larvae pupate and put on a good show of blooms by late summer.
Using flowers to call attention to your business is a smart strategy on so many levels: it’s cheaper than banners or signs, it can give you another product to sell, and it’s good for the environment.
Post-harvest handling and vase life
By Lynn Byczynski
How long should cut flowers last in the vase? Cut flower growers who sell at farmer's markets joke that the ideal vase life is 6 days — just long enough that the customer will buy them every week. In truth, most growers aim for the longest vase life possible so customers will see the flowers as a good value and come back again and again.
Here are the top 5 factors that determine vase life:
- The variety itself. Some flowers last a day, some last three weeks. Even within species, there can be big differences in vase life among cultivars. For example, single stem sunflowers last several days longer than branching varieties. Various products are available to increase vase life, but there is, nevertheless, a maximum longevity for every variety. The Flower Farmer lists vase life for 100 of the most commonly grown varieties.
- Stage at harvest. Most flowers can be picked before they are fully open, and they will continue opening in water. Picking at an early stage gives the end user a longer vase life than waiting to pick until the flower is fully opened. Floral preservatives can help in this regard because they contain sugar, which feeds the flower so it continues to open and develop good color.
- Time of day at harvest. Flowers should be picked in the morning or evening; picking during the heat of day makes it difficult for the flower stem to take up water and results in shorter vase life.
- Temperature and light after harvest. Flowers that are exposed to heat and direct sun after harvest will suffer. Some, though not all, can be stored in a cold cooler to prolong vase life. All will benefit from being held in an air-conditioned room, out of direct sunlight.
- Cleanliness. Once flowers are cut, they take up water through their stems. Bacteria can clog the stems, reducing water uptake and causing them to wilt prematurely. Therefore, it is imperative to reduce the chance of bacterial contamination. Anything that touches the flowers must be extremely clean — clippers, water, buckets, vases. Scrub everything before every use with soap and bleach, and let tools dry in the sun. If stems are dirty (after a heavy rain, for example), let the soil wash off in the picking bucket, then transfer the stems to a bucket of clean solution. Floral preservatives contain a biocide that kills bacteria, and should be used if cut flowers don’t last long enough.
Appeal to their senses with fresh cut flowers
By Lynn Byczynski
Fresh cut flowers have universal appeal that will attract customers to your fresh market stand or add value to a CSA. Picked fresh from the garden, flowers add color, scent, and personality to your home and workplace. Flowers require no special equipment, just clippers and buckets. There is a flower for every season, making them a natural addition to your season extension plan. The basics:
Start with the easiest varieties Johnny's Cut-Flower Kit for Market Growerswith sunflowers, zinnias, and cosmos eliminates the guesswork and provides a foundation on which you can build your flower business.
Grow direct-seeded annuals such as Amaranths, Celosia, Gomphrena, Ornamental Grasses, Rudbeckia, and Salvia. For Zinnias, you can even use Johnny's Earthway Seeder, set on the beet plate, for sowing.
As your confidence grows, expand your menu of cut flowers to include perennials and more challenging varieties such as lisianthus and delphinium.
Cleanliness is essential to vase life, so scrub your buckets and clippers with a disinfectant before every harvest.
Cut flowers are one of the most profitable crops to grow in an unheated hoophouse. The minimal protection brings a wide range of benefits: excellent flower quality, longer stems, fewer pests, and a much longer season of harvest. Provide drip irrigation if possible as overhead irrigation can spoil the blossoms.
Year-round flowers strategy
By Lynn Byczynski
Flowers are a natural addition to a market farm or vegetable garden, and a beautiful way to increase revenue and extend the season. They have the same cultural requirements as vegetables, for the most part. Start them in the greenhouse just as you would any vegetable or herb crop. Outside, grow them in the same beds, with the same tools, fertility, and irrigation. Flowers will attract bees and other pollinators that help increase yields and quality of your other crops. And watch for the many beneficial insects that will hover around your flowers until they find some vegetable pests to prey on.
Flowers attract people, too, with their colors and fragrances. They will beckon customers to a farmers market stand and add value to a CSA share. Johnny's offers a wide selection of flowers that are easy to grow from seed, providing you with the best possible profits. And there's something for every season.
In spring, offer a selection of bedding plants ranging from always-popular petunias to less common varieties such as Gem marigolds, Tapestry phlox and creeping zinnias. Create your own themed collections of plants and group them with colorful signs to explain the connection. Be imaginative and educational: Grandmothers Garden for heirlooms such as hollyhocks and morning glories; Butterfly Rest Stop for plants that migrating Monarchs feed on such as asclepias, tithonia, and zinnia; Glorious Garnish for edibles such as calendula and viola. And don't forget the customers who don't have time or space to plant their own pots. Create instant gardens for patios and decks, mixing flowers, herbs and even vegetables in big containers.
In summer, sell cut flowers at farmers markets and farm stands, to supermarkets and florists. Many CSA farms offer bouquet shares or have a few beds of flowers for members to cut themselves on pick-up day. If you're just starting with flowers, try a few basic crops such as sunflowers and zinnias, which can be planted with a push seeder and require little attention other than weeding and watering until its time to harvest them. Grow some easy fillers such as cinnamon basil, statice, and Amazon celosia; the result will be dramatic summer bouquets!
Fall brings an opportunity to sell florals along with pumpkins and gourds. Sunflowers, grasses, and grains have an autumnal look that sells well beginning in September. Wreaths made of broom corn, Sweet Annie, or ornamental peppers are easy to make and can be sold right away or weeks later after they have dried. Arrangements of dried flowers are coming back into style for fall decor, and are perceived as being a good value because they'll last for months.
You also can extend the fresh flower season by planting in a hoophouse in late summer. For example, by September 1, you can plant a final crop of a day-neutral sunflower such as Sunbright Supreme, to bloom in late October through Thanksgiving. Fall plant flowers that need a cold period, such as sweet William and larkspur, to bloom early next spring.
By Lynn Byczynski
Day length is a huge factor influencing the growth and blooming of flowering plants, so it's important for flower and bedding plant growers to understand its effects.
The first thing to know is that the term day length is a misnomer. Scientific research has confirmed that it's actually the length of the dark periods, not the length of daylight periods, that controls plant growth. But this fact was discovered long after day length became a widely used term in horticulture, and the name has stuck. Understanding the importance of dark periods can come in handy for the grower, though, because it can be used to trick plants about day length and force them into bloom outside their normal season. More on that later.
Many plant species have day-length triggers that determine when they grow vegetatively and when they bloom. Plants that flower when the days are longer than 12 hours are referred to as long-day plants, and those that flower when days are less than 12 hours are called short-day plants. Those that don't respond to day length are called day-neutral.
Summer flowers are often long-day species, so they won't bloom in winter even if you were to plant them in a tropical greenhouse. Rudbeckia 'Indian Summer' is a good example. It grows vegetatively when days are short and then when days reach a certain length, it sends up tall flower stems. Plant it in spring, and you'll get a great crop in summer. But if you plant it in summer, hoping for a fall crop, you will be disappointed. The plants will grow nicely, as the days get shorter, but they won't flower - or if they do, it will be on short stems. They simply need longer days to produce long-stemmed flowers.
Many other cut-flower varieties are either long-day or short-day plants. Most sunflower varieties, for example, are long-day species that will grow vegetatively during the short days of spring, then bloom when the days reach a specific length. If you want to grow sunflowers in early spring or late fall, when days are short, you need to plant day-length neutral varieties.
Greenhouse growers use supplemental lighting to get around the day-length requirements of flowers. They may turn on lights shortly before sunset to extend the length of the light period. Or, they may turn on the lights during the middle of the night for a short period of time, a procedure called night interruption lighting. This brings us back to the fact that it's the dark period that's important to plants: The short days of winter have long nights. If a grower breaks up those long nights by turning on lights in the middle of the night, some plants will act as though the night is short (and therefore the day is long) and behave just as they would in the middle of summer. Many bedding plant and cut-flower greenhouses use night interruption lighting to force flowers to bloom in winter.
With day length playing such a big role in flower production, it's smart to get acquainted with the day length at your location during each month. Get a sunrise/sunset calculator and mark your calendar with the dates when you have 10 hours of daylight, 11 hours, 13 hours, and so on. Over time, you will begin to notice correlations between day length and your garden's activity.
Lynn Byczynski is the editor of Growing for Market and the author of The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower's Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers
By Lynn Byczynski
Sunflowers are a popular crop, and a great way for vegetable growers to experiment with adding flowers to the product mix. With more than 50 cultivars to choose from, getting started with sunflowers can be a bit intimidating. I'll explain the advantages and disadvantages of the various types of cut sunflowers.
For those in a hurry I'll cut to the chase: If I had to pick the easiest, most sure-fire variety for a beginning grower, I would recommend the 'Sunrich' series or the 'Pro Cut' series. I will explain why in a moment, but first I'll backtrack to the background information.
There are two basic categories of cut-flower sunflowers: the single stem types and the branching types. These two types are so different from one another that I think of them almost as different plants. I personally grow the single stem types because they are preferred in my market, but I can see where some growers would do better with the branching types. Here are the pros and cons of each.
Single stem varieties, including the Sunrich and Pro Cut series, are pollenless hybrids, which means they don't drop pollen on furniture, tablecloths, and clothing, as non-hybrid sunflowers do. Many are really quick to bloom, just 60 days from seeding. There's a good selection of day-neutral varieties (see article on day length), which means they can be grown in a hoophouse early in spring or late in fall. They can be crowded into a 6" x 6" spacing to produce a bouquet-sized flower. Or they can be spaced a foot apart to make dinner-plate sized flowers.
Single-stem varieties have strong, thick stems and flowers of substance that make a statement and fill out a bouquet, which endears them to florists. And their vase life is amazing - up to two weeks in plain water.
On the negative side, single stem sunflowers produce one flower from one seed. (A few cultivars may send up small secondary flowers in mid-summer, but this is not the norm.) This means you have to succession plant every 10-14 days all season if you want to have a continuous supply. You would also need to charge $1 to $2 each for them in order to make any money.
Branching varieties produce numerous blooms over a long period of time, so they don't need to be succession planted as frequently. There are numerous unusual colors among the branching varieties, including burgundy, chocolate, bronze, and bicolors. Most of the doubles (more than one layer of petals) are branching types. In other words, this category has a lot of pizzazz.
However, the stems on most branching sunflowers are not as long or strong as the single-stem varieties. Most take about 90 days or more to bloom, and they require a lot of space; they should be planted 18" apart. Their long production time creates more opportunity for insects and disease to attack the plants. Many branching cultivars have copious amounts of pollen. (Look for those identified as pollenless if you think this is going to be a problem for your customers.) As a group, the branching varieties are not especially long-lived in the vase, some with only 5 days of vase life.
These are the basic considerations in choosing varieties, but new cultivars are being introduced every year that banish some of the objections to each type. There are now branching varieties that bloom in 60 days and have no pollen, such as Moulin Rouge and Peach Passion; there are single stem varieties that are fully double, such as Double Quick Orange; and there are bicolors, such as Pro Cut Red/Lemon Bicolor.
As for my recommendation of Sunrich and Pro Cut, I see these as offering a strong sunflower with the traditional appearance that appeals to all kinds of people, hence they are easy to grow and sell. They are not finicky about when you grow them, and there are plenty of color choices among the two series. If you want just a basic sunflower, this is a good place to start. Over time, you will surely want to try others and eventually you'll find the combination that is right for you.
Lynn Byczynski is the editor of Growing for Market, a magazine for local food and flower growers, and the author of The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower's Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers.
By Lynn Byczynski
Cut flowers are one of the most profitable crops to grow in a hoophouse. The minimal protection of an unheated hoophouse brings a wide range of benefits: excellent flower quality, longer stems, fewer pests, and a much longer season of harvest.
The best varieties to grow in a hoophouse depends somewhat on your climate. You should use the valuable space inside a hoophouse for crops that won't do well outside or that you can't grow outside at all because of wind or late frosts.
The key to successful hoophouse production of cut flowers is to experiment. Your climate and markets will determine the best varieties for your situation. Here are some basic guidelines to consider in choosing the best crops for your hoophouse.
In the South and in mild coastal areas, some cool-loving flowers will grow all winter without adding heat to the hoophouse. In colder areas, the hoophouse provides just enough protection to grow these varieties very early in spring or later in fall than usual. Daylength may limit blooming for some varieties, but even flowers that won't bloom in the short days of winter can put on significant growth and be ready to send up stems as soon as the days get longer. Day-neutral flowers will bloom as long as the temperature is acceptable. Some of the top crops for hoophouse production in cool weather:
- Anemones, Dutch iris, freesias, and ranunculus are high-value cut flowers, grown from bulbs or corms.
- Ammi majus, bupleurum, campanula, delphinium, dianthus, digitalis, larkspur, lupine, snapdragon, stock, and sweet peas are seed-grown flowers that love cool weather.
- Single-stem sunflowers are a great crop for early spring, late fall, and even winter in mild areas. Grow a day-neutral variety such as the 'Sunbright' series, plant them closely, and replant every two weeks for a long harvest season.
It may get too hot for human comfort inside a hoophouse in summer, but some flower varieties can take the heat and even thrive on it. Be sure to provide as much ventilation as possible, such as by removing end walls, so that the hoophouse cools off at night. And pay attention to the plants' water needs they may require more frequent irrigation inside the hoophouse than in the field. Don't plant varieties that are prone to foliar diseases because the still air inside the hoophouse may worsen the problem. Zinnias, for example, are more prone to problems inside than outside.
In extremely hot summers, the best flowers for the hoophouse are celosia, lisianthus, and ornamental peppers. In cooler areas, most summer flowers can be grown in a hoophouse. Delphinium, for example, will bloom repeatedly throughout the summer in a hoophouse. Lilies can be planted sequentially for a long season of harvest. Annual dianthus such as 'Amazon Neon' can be succession planted for several flushes of flowers.
For more ideas about hoophouse production of cut flowers, see my books: The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower's Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers and The Hoophouse Handbook.
Lynn Byczynski is the editor and publisher of Growing for Market.
If you're growing flowers for fresh or dried florals, don't limit yourself to plants with blossoms. Grasses, grains, herbs, and even a few vegetables can be important components of a flower business. Here are some ideas and variety recommendations for unusual additions to your floral menu:
Herbs can be useful in both fresh and dried floral designs. Not all herbs are good for cutting, however, because they may lack stem length or vase life for fresh cuts, or they may turn brown when dried. Basil, for example, is available in numerous attractive cultivars, but only a few will hold up for a week in the vase. These varieties are highly recommended:
- Basil 'Cinnamon' and 'Mrs. Burns Lemon'
- Dill 'Vierling'
- Echinacea purpurea
- Garlic chives
- Wild marjoram
- Common sage
Grasses and grains. Ornamental grasses add movement and contrast to fresh flower bouquets. Two of the best are Panicum 'Frosted Explosion' with airy, sparkly plumes, and Eragrostis 'Ruby Silk' with gracefully bending red plumes. Millet, barley, wheat, and rye are used fresh and dried. Several inexpensive cover crop varieties are attractive enough to be used in floral design, or you can grow specially selected varieties from the flower section of the catalog.
- Barley, 6-row
- Winter rye
- Spring wheat
- Millet 'Highlander' and 'Purple Majesty'
- Wheat, 'Black Tip' and 'Silver Tip'
Vegetables. For cut flowers, artichokes and cardoons are exotic and valuable cuts. A wide array of peppers can also be grown for cutting and drying. Customers who buy cut flowers in summer will purchase pumpkins, gourds, and winter squash for ornamental purposes in fall. Here are some varieties to try:
- Artichoke, 'Tempo'
- Pepper 'Nippon Taka', 'Prairie Fire', 'Numex Twilight', and 'Black Pearl'
- Specialty pumpkins
Lynn Byczynski is the author of The Flower Farmer and the editor of Growing for Market.
The easiest way to succession plant sunflowers is to grow several single-stem varieties with different days to maturity, planting them all at once, and then harvesting over many weeks. Single-stem varieties are uniform and predictable about bloom times during the main season, and about a week slower in early spring and fall.
Here are the average days to maturity for the most popular single-stem commercial varieties:
- Pro Cut Series 50-60 days to bloom
- Sunrich Series 60-70 days to bloom
- Sun Series 70-80 days to bloom
By planting some of each variety, you can have sunflowers blooming for a month from a single planting date. Thus, you need to start seeds once a month, rather than every 10 days, as would be required if you grew only one variety. For example, start some of each series on March 1. Pro Cuts will be ready April 20-30; Sunrich will be ready April 30 to May 10; and Sun Series will be ready May 10-20. Do a second sowing of each variety on April 1 and that planting will begin to bloom May 20 and continue through June 20. By repeating each month, you can have sunflowers ready for harvest all summer.