Your Seed Chronicles: Planning & Planting for an Abundant & Frequent Floral Harvest
Among the many reasons why smart flower farmers rely on succession planting are that it enables you to:
- Maximize space.
- Extend the harvest window.
- Maintain a continuous supply.
- Optimize quality and yield.
There are as many ways to optimize flower production as there are types, sizes, and locations of farms. Let's start by defining the term succession planting. Long-implemented by produce growers, the succession approach involves planting at regular intervals throughout the season to ensure continual harvest. It's an equally important strategy for cut-flower growers to adopt.
Thanks go to our flower farmer contributors for their sage advice shared here. You'll be inspired by these field- and greenhouse-tested best practices from across the country!
- Jeanie McKewan of Brightflower Farm in Stockton, Illinois
- David and Lina Brunton of Right Field Farm in Millersville, Maryland
- Bethany Bernard of The Flower Peddler in Bridgeton, New Jersey
- Josh McCullough of Red Twig Farms in Johnstown, Ohio
- Stacey Denton of Flora Farm and Design Studio in Ashland, Oregon
If you're new to farming, rest assured, each season you grow cut flowers will give you increased appreciation for succession planting. If you're an established grower, you will likely have already devised preferred methods of planning, implementation, and record-keeping. At Johnny's, researchers have spent years developing useful tools to help growers put the principles of succession planting into practice. You can find calculators, checklists, and other resources for succession flower farming in the Flower Grower's Library. A good starting point: Johnny's 7-Day & 14-Day Interval Planting Charts for Flowers.
While planning tools are essential, we also love learning first-hand from the folks who are in their fields and greenhouses, personally sowing, planting, and harvesting fresh, local, and seasonal flowers. To learn more about succession planting, I engaged directly with flower farmers this past winter. Our timing was ideal to talk about best practices, lessons learned from prior seasons, and new insights for producing even more flowers this coming season. I spoke with Slow Flowers members in Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, and Oregon; together, they represent a good cross-section of zones, ecoregions, and cultural conditions.
The best advice from each of these farms is to find a method that works best for you and become habitual about your approach. Let's dig into the details…
First things first: Know what you want to grow and give yourself a rough idea of when each flower, herb, foliage, or grass will be harvested. That way, you can segment your "flower year" into the seasonal phases that work for you.
From analog to digital tools, scheduling is universally the most important item on the Succession Checklist. By way of example, here are several approaches to scheduling and planning the flower year into seasonal phases.
Growing Zone: 8b • Ecoregion: Oak Savanna Foothills
"Since my primary field is less than an acre in size, I increase my yields — and thereby my profits," she explains, "if I can get two crops from the same bed through succession planting."
Here is a sample of Stacey's planning chart for succession planting management on her ¾-acre flower farm.
|1 • OVERWINTERED COOL-SEASON ANNUALS||2 • SPRING-SOWN HEAT-LOVING ANNUALS|
|Flower Crop/Variety||Seeded||Last Harvest||Flower Crop/Variety||Seeded||Last Harvest|
Stacey's chart illustrates how a compact enterprise like Flora Farm relies on "double-cropping."
Growing Zones: 7a/7b • Ecoregion: Chesapeake Rolling Coastal Plain
David and Lina Brunton, owners of Right Field Farm in Maryland, rely on a number of reminders to know what to plant when, but their wall calendar is ever-present as a daily reminder.
"The easy one that we use all the time is a big wall calendar, something that we adapted directly from Lisa Mason Ziegler of The Gardener's Workshop," David explains. "The wall calendar chronicles the life of a plant from seed to harvest, and it works better for us than any kind of database or spreadsheet — although we use those, too."
When sowing seeds, they write down the tray number, the variety, the bump-up date (if required), plus dates when a start hardens off and when it's planted. In a perfect world, David and Lina also jot down the first harvest date.
"Another number we're going to try recording this year is the count for every stem we cut. I think that will help when we're deciding what to plant next year," he adds.
After trying out a variety of different labeling materials, the Bruntons now rave about the efficiency they've gained by using little brass tokens with numbers stamped on them. Outdoors, each row is also numbered, making quick-referencing a cinch. "Having some agreed-upon way to indicate where you're supposed to plant or prep or harvest or weed is nice," David admits.
6 Planting Seasons at Right Field
Right Field Farm phases its plantings over 6 "seasons" throughout the year:
- The first phase begins with sowing long-season annuals over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend in January. This usually amounts to "a few trays of seeds under lights in the basement," David points out.
- The second phase, which David describes as spring annuals, includes many of the same flowers overwintered from the prior fall planting: agrostemma, bachelor's buttons, snapdragons, stock, rudbeckia, scabiosa, bells of Ireland, and cerinthe. Because these are generally frost-hardy varieties, the spring annuals are often transplanted first.
- That makes room in the sowing area for the first succession of summer annuals, including "workhorses" like zinnias, cosmos, sunflowers, and celosia. All of these are planted in 4 successions. Only the sunflowers are direct-sown outdoors. "We've adapted the first of Johnny's 3 Methods for Succession-Planting Sunflowers, which for us is to direct-seed 3 varieties in the same plot at the same time, all with different blooming times. It's worked great for us, and we pack them in close and don't over-feed because we like smaller sunflowers for our arrangements," he says.
- Next, the fourth phase: a mid-summer sowing of perennials and biennials, including echinops, eryngium, lupine, columbine, and echinacea, for blooms in the following spring through summer. "That timing gives the plants enough time to get established in the ground."
- David and Lina take a planting break in August, followed by a September planting of cool flowers and spring bulbs. "Our farm adds more perennials every year. Each fills its own seasonal slot, from early hellebores, branches, and spring bulbs, to peonies, then summer bulbs and corms like tuberose, gladiolas, and dahlias."
- The sixth and final phase of succession planting that can't go unnoted involves cover crops. Right Field plants rye for cover during winter to prevent erosion and add organic matter; a mix of varieties including cowpeas during the spring; and buckwheat in the summer.
Growing Zone: 5a • Ecoregion: Rock River Hills
At Brightflower Farm, Jeanie McKewan use Google Drive to access files from both her desktop and her smart phone, making it easy for crew members to reference even while outdoors.
Based in the Illinois Driftless Area, just 10 minutes from the Wisconsin border, Brightflower Farm is in its 13th season of growing a diversified mix of cut flowers and plants for customers that include several Chicago-area Whole Foods outlets and wedding and event florists in Chicago and Madison markets.
Jeanie credits now-retired flower farmer Joe Schmidt, cofounder of Fair Field Flowers in Madison, Wisconsin, for many of her successful techniques. "It all starts with a seeding log of all the flowers I will grow," she says. "For each variety, we have: 1) a sowing date; 2) the number and 3) size of flats; and 4) the number of seeds per cell. We then record 5) the germination date; 6) planting date; and — if I can stay up to date with my record-keeping, I'll note 7) how much we harvested."
Jeanie creates a spreadsheet from her master plan, and brings it out to the sowing bench to document each day's activities. "I bring that back to my computer and update the log," Jeanie says. She turns the seeding dates from black to red type, an at-a-glance trick for knowing what's already been sown.
Paired with the Google documents is a master map of all the fields and rows within each section. "We mark what is planted in each row and the date planted."
Most of the farm's flowers are sown in seedling flats, then transplanted to the field, rather than being direct-sown. "I believe you have better luck with sowing in flats followed by transplanting, because you're putting a stronger, larger plant into the soil — plus, they have a jumpstart on outpacing weeds."
Growing Zone: 6a • Ecoregion: Loamy High Lime Till Plains
Josh and Lindsey McCullough own Red Twig Farms, located in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. The couple began their 5½-acre farm as a division of McCullough's Landscape & Nursery, Josh's parents' business. They have since spun off as an independent cut-flower farm specializing in woody branches (twig dogwood and willow) and peonies. With the addition of a 20x36 square-foot high tunnel and several caterpillar tunnels, Red Twig recently added spring bulbs (ranunculus and anemones) and seeded annuals to their production plan.
"We want to adapt to the markets and be more than a two-season business," he explains. Red Twig Farms ships 90% of their branches to out-of-state customers, while wholesale cut peonies and annual flowers go to local florists and DIY brides. At their seasonal Farm Store on the McCullough's Landscape & Nursery grounds, they sell flowers to the community.
Josh primarily starts his own seedlings, beginning sowing in early February. "Last year, we planted snapdragons, celosia, eucalyptus ('Baby Blue' and 'Silver Drop'), delphinium, and dianthus. "I look at the germination information for the individual packets and schedule (sowing) on our calendar," he explains. "My goal is to achieve about a 2-week window between sowings."
Since Red Twig Farms is relatively new to growing flowers from seeds, Josh says they've started with a few popular varieties, including the 'Madame Butterfly' snapdragons, 'Queen Lime Orange' zinnias, and a number of sunflower varieties.
Growing Zone: 5a • Ecoregion: Rock River Hills
While for many, succession planting is a weekly or biweekly ritual (think sunflowers and zinnias), Jeanie at Brightflower extends her stock (Matthiola) availability by planting "spring" and "fall" successions. With a lovely, clove-like scent and pretty color palette, this cold-hardy crop with a rapid growth cycle lends itself nicely to shoulder-season production.
"Our spring planting is on the first of February, while our fall planting is on the first of July." The second planting continued to generate farm income into the holiday season. "Last year, I cut stock in the final week of November, which allowed us to deliver Mason jar arrangements with fresh stock, mums, greenery, and winterberry to grocery customers in early December," Jeanie says.
Growing Zone: 8b • Ecoregion: Oak Savanna Foothills
Depending on how much acreage is available, you may need to address issues around the frequency of sowing, such as these, raised by Stacey of Flora Farm:
- Am I tending my soil fertility by rotating plant families and adding compost/amendments between crops?
"Short crop rotations demand a lot from the farm organism," she notes.
- What's my method of turnover, from one crop to another — e.g., mowing and tilling or hand-pulling, followed by tilthing/forking and planting?
"I need to plan to have the resources (machines, farm hands, time for decomposition), available at this extremely busy time of year (May and June)," she says.
- How long is my harvest window for my cool-season annuals? Can the later heat-lovers I'm planting afterwards take light frost?
"In my climate, heat-lovers that are planted out past the first week of July have trouble maturing a sufficient quantity of flowers to make the effort of planting and maintaining the crop worthwhile," Stacey explains. "Things that can take light frost, however, such as cosmos and Tulsi basil, are good choices for following the cool-season annuals that are later to finish out."
- Can I have even more success with succession planting by using low tunnels in the field?
"I have found my successions are approximately 2 to 4 weeks earlier when grown under low tunnel cover."
The best reason to keep accurate records is to forecast what particular variety, and when, you'll harvest in the future, Jeanie of Brightflower says.
"Noting the dates when I start harvesting gives me important data to quote, especially with designers and their brides. Each year, for instance, florists will ask, 'Are you going to have sweet peas at the end of May?' And I can look up to see that I started cutting my white sweet peas on May 31st last year. Or, that I started cutting 'Coral Charm' peonies on May 22nd, so I can say, 'I should have them for your May 25th wedding this year.' "
Noting the quantity harvested each year allows you to compare against the quantity planted. The percentage germination rates fluctuate by variety, so these comparisons help Jeanie know when to increase the percentage of seeds she sows accordingly.
At Red Twig Farm, the McCulloughs label the crop and variety when sown, making note of the best start date. "Record-keeping is important to us," Josh says. "We're noting different soil and ambient temperatures. We even track how we amend the soil."
Growing Zone: 7a • Ecoregion: Inner Coastal Plain
Bethany Bernard and her husband Dan Vohringer of New Jersey-based The Flower Peddler grow cut flowers on 10 acres, serving wedding and event florists, DIY wedding clients, and customers at four farmers' markets.
Bethany relies on her smart phone as the best planning and recordkeeping tool. "I don't live off of coffee and spreadsheets," she jokes. "I have a calendar that I write in, but it's on my phone. My phone is kept with me at all times. As I'm going through the season, I take notes. And then my phone will alert me when it's time to do it again."
Because of limited greenhouse space to start seedlings, Bethany uses 3 planting methods: 1) direct-sowing; 2) planting pre-ordered plugs; and 3) seeding in trays for transplants.
"We direct-sow sunflowers, cosmos, zinnias, annual grasses, and grains. We do some seeding for transplants in our basement — sweet peas and asters, for example." She refers to the previous years' notes and photos, all of which are stored on her phone, to plan and order when plugs should be delivered. "I do that for the entire season, and tell my broker which plugs I want delivered at that same time next year."
A Note about Experimentation
Last season, the Bruntons of Right Field Farm (Growing Zones 7a/7b) thought about planting biennials a bit earlier than usual.
"Around the middle of October, we had a bunch of dianthus begin to bloom — which wasn't what we intended. So, we went back to the calendar to see when we had sown dianthus in our seed blocks," David explains. "Lo and behold, it was in mid-June, which turned out to be too early if we wanted those dianthus to overwinter, and not quite early enough if we wanted a big fall crop. All that was evident from the calendar!"
Brightflower Farm • Growing Zone 5a
Any flower that is "day neutral" is a good candidate for multiple plantings, Jeanie says. "I can do five to seven snapdragon sowings over the season. We track it by date; for example, we start snaps in January and our last sowing is at the end of May or early June."
Right Field Farm • Growing Zones 7a/7b
Flora Farm • Growing Zone 8b
Keep in mind that mowing and cutting perennials back hard can also provide you with a tool to manage bloom succession. Some of Stacey's favorite perennials include the following.
- Scabiosa atropurpurea and Rudbeckia hirta. FYF (first-year flowering), beginning in mid-July. Mowing after seed pods begin formation leads to another harvest window in September. Subsequent years' flowering begins a few weeks earlier (late June), but second fall harvest after mowing/pruning is comparable.
- Achillea millefolium and Veronica. FYF. Cut back hard after first bloom in May for a second flush in late summer.
- Heliopsis. An FYF perennial that blooms in June and will produce a second flush of blooms in late summer, if cut back hard after first flush.
- Monarda 'Bergamo'. Although an annual, Monarda 'Bergamo' will begin flowering in early July from a February seeding and will produce a second flush of blooms in September, if cut back hard after first flush.
Chronicling your floral activities may feel like too much "admin" work when you'd rather have your hands in the soil, but devising a system of planning and record-keeping is one skillset that sets a successful course for any flower farm, regardless of size.
The best advice I've learned from these conversations is to JUST START. Whether you use a mobile or desktop device, a conventional spreadsheet, an app, index cards, or an old-fashioned paper calendar, it's not so much the method that matters as the discipline.
You'll find what works best for you, and thank yourself next season and in many seasons to come!