Only when I transitioned from vegetable farming to flowers did I realize the challenges involved. It was a mystery how to grow the long, straight stems common in Instagram feeds. Once I learned the definition of a good cut flower, the rules were simple. The plants must thrive in your growing conditions, the stems are long and the blooms must last in a vase five to seven days. Most of all, the blooms need to be beautiful or interesting in an arrangement. To get to that point, I needed to address the 12 things that tripped me up in the beginning:
- Choosing Wrong Varieties – The obvious issue is height, as plants are genetically programmed to grow a certain amount before blooming. Choose varieties that grow more than 24 inches as a rough rule. Flowers that meet other criteria but do not last for a week in the vase are not viable for cuts. The worst are those that look great at harvest but shatter petals a few days later (garden phlox, chocolate sunflowers, Verbascum). These can still be used in event work, but not sent home with a customer expecting a long vase life.
- Propagation – As part of the lifecycle, a plant is determined to reproduce itself, so most produce seed of some sort. That doesn’t mean every plant in every climate should be started from seed. Many replicate themselves better, and more truly to favorable characteristics such as size and color, from root divisions (most perennials), tubers, corms or bulbs (dahlia, gladiola, tulips, allium) or cuttings (herbs, scented geranium, salvias). Dahlia can be grown from seeds, but almost all of those are single and semi-double bloom and don’t hold up well in a vase.
- Ignoring Soil Fertility – Good soil grows great plants. Remembering that every plant is different, it’s necessary to balance soil texture, pH and nutrient content. Some flowers like bachelor buttons thrive in poor soil. Lavender is very exact about loving alkaline sandy conditions with low nutrient load. Heavy clay suffocates dahlia tubers and peony roots. Too much nitrogen causes most plants to spend all their effort growing foliage without many blooms. Before investing in perennials or tubers, it’s important to understand what you’re already working with.
- Preventing Weeds – If the soil is good, weeds will grow and often outgrow your plants. The best time to eliminate weeds is when they’re young. Pulling larger weeds causes surrounding plants to become unstable in the ground, resulting in stems falling over. One way to control weeds is by smothering them with landscape fabric, plastic, cardboard, newspaper or mulch. The other option is cultivating by hand or mechanically around plants, removing weeds at thread stage. Letting them go results in smaller flowers and impedes harvest.
- Spacing – It’s always tempting to cram perennials in closely, especially in spring when the ground is wide open – but they need room to sprawl and flourish. Many annuals can be planted at a closer spacing. This forces the plants to grow taller to reach the sun, helping create those coveted long stems. The average spacing for cuts is nine inches, so depending on the width, hundreds of plants can thrive in a 100-foot row. Varieties without a canopy of leaves can be spaced every six inches. My goal is to plant them as close as possible without causing more problems.
- Growing Out of Season – We need to embrace a set of temperatures that set some plants apart from others. Almost everything that blooms in early (tulips and daffodils) to mid spring (perennial, biennial and overwintered hardy annuals) must undergo a period of vernalization. Spring-planted hardy annuals (larkspur, statice, snapdragons) are comfortable down to 26º. Tender annuals (zinnia, cosmos, amaranth) need the soil to warm up above 50º to be happy. One of the reasons we get the hardy ones in early is that they burn out in temperatures above 80º. As long as we know these three numbers, we can plant in the best conditions.
- Not Hardening Off – Every year I’m tempted to plant directly from the greenhouse into the garden, but transplants need time to acclimate to their new environment. This is obvious for cool nights, but more importantly young seedlings can burn out in the hot sun. Don’t skip this step.
- Pinching – The trick to long stems is to remove the growing tip of branching varieties so they’re forced to grow multiple stems from lower points in the plant. The first time is hard because it feels like you’re destroying a perfect plant. It’s worth it because those stems are long, straight and don’t have as many junctures that could snap in designing. That said, only pinch branching plants. Those that naturally grow out of a base (statice, daffodil, ammobium) or are terminal single stem (sunflower, tulip, stock) should not be pinched.
- Pollinators – If cut flowers are pollinated, reproduction has happened and the flower naturally sheds its petals to focus on seed formation. Everything we do as flower growers is to beat pollination because we want our blooms to last for customers. Most flowers are harvested at the absolute earliest stage to provide that weeklong vase life. It’s really important to learn the proper stage of harvest and to respect flowers’ natural needs.
- Post-Harvest Care – What happens once we cut a flower can be equated to major surgery. Plants need the opportunity to recover from that trauma. At the very least, they need to draw up as much water as possible to survive handling. This often takes at least two hours of resting and drinking in a bucket (but overnight would be better). Some plants need extra help with this process. Usually that means a heat treatment, whether placed in hot water or seared with a lighter.
- Not Planting Enough – As a bouquet maker, I’ve definitely struggled with having enough of each category every week. I grow in increments of at least 20 perennial plants, or 48 to 96 of each annual. Each week I strive to make 100 bouquets, so I base my crop planning math off that number. I’m only limited by how much I can realistically harvest. Some plants are stringy and tangly (gomphrena, bachelor button, scabiosa) so I only plant as much as I can handle harvesting.
- Growing for an Event – In my first year, I thought I understood sunflower days to harvest and how much I needed to grow for a wedding. I planned a 10-day period on either side of the event date. What I did not count on was the birds that ate most of the seeds, then what remained being dampened by grass pressure. Fortunately, I could buy sunflowers from another farmer. Growers need to stand back and take notes during the season to understand realistic timing of plantings for events, holidays and CSAs. These are important income streams, but learn for a year or two before committing.
These are struggles from the first year. We all are challenged by any combination of these. Some get easier to master, but I still lose a tray of seedlings every year because I’m not paying attention to sun intensity. We all make mistakes; I hope you learn from mine.