by Sally Colby
Ko Klaver grew up on a flower bulb production farm in The Netherlands and currently operates a successful cut flower consultation business, so he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to growing and marketing cut flowers.
“There is a huge opportunity because of where we are culturally as a nation,” said Klaver. “We’re seeing the need for sustainable, locally grown cut flowers – flowers that are going from the field straight to the vase without a major carbon footprint that comes with traveling all over the world.”
Klaver says more flowers being sold at supermarkets, and farm markets are also featuring fresh cut flowers. “Farm-direct retail is also happening. Customers can pick their own cut flowers, or buy flower bouquets sold by the side of the road,” he said.
Event coordinators seeking fresh cut flowers have a major challenge finding new and unique flowers for brides, which presents another opportunity for cut flower growers. Klaver says designers or do-it-yourself brides often can’t find the unique material they’re seeking because most of what’s available is from mass production.
According to Klaver there’s been a major change in floral shops since 1990, with most shops being swallowed up by supermarkets. So while the traditional florist shop has changed, there’s a need for floral material.
What are customers looking for in cut flowers? “They’re looking for a personal relationship with you,” said Klaver. “They need consistent supply of quality floral products. You have to be a stickler on growing quality material. If it isn’t up to par, it’s better to not ship it. Sustainability in growing is important. People want to know where flowers came from, and also what’s on the flowers. They also want to support the local economy.”
Klaver has some pointers for those who want to get into growing cut flowers. First, growers should be excited about the business and not just in it for making money. “Next generation growers have to be serious about business and be adaptable to change,” he said, recalling his own shift from using the telephone to becoming a digital communicator. “You can’t be a monoculture grower in the United States. It works in Europe because there’s a different distribution system there (auctions). But that also presents more challenges.”
Growers should pursue multiple sales outlets and determine whether retail or wholesale is best, or perhaps pursue farm market outlets. In any case, Klaver says it’s best to spread the risk. “I’ve had too many growers who make a deal with a florist and think they’re good to go, but then find that they won’t take what is grown,” he said. “You always have to figure out what’s next – what’s coming around the corner.”
Determine how big your operation will be, and whether it will be part time or full time enterprise. Will you operate as sole proprietor or an LLC? Are there multiple families or older children who want to become involved? “Keep excited about it all the time,” said Klaver. “If you’re getting worn out, you have to rethink your business model. Ask yourself why you got into growing. If you don’t have a plan, growing flowers can become a very expensive hobby.”
Freshness is a major key to success with fresh cut flowers. “This is an impulse business,” said Klaver. “It’s about the oohs and aahs, the presentation, the look of your product, the right fragrance and substance. When I grab five stems of lilies, I hold them sideways and look for the bend factor – are they straight or do they go down? We need quality, heavy stem material. If you think you can move gladiolus after being in the cooler for three weeks, they might do ok but it won’t do your name any good because freshness is why people buy flowers. People don’t want to buy flowers, put them on the table and the blooms fall off after 48 hours.”
Klaver urges cut flower growers to keep up with trends in flowers and colors.
“Rose Lilies are a monumental shift in the industry – they have a pleasant fragrance, no pollen stain and boutonnieres can be created from the flower itself. For event coordinators and wedding designers, that’s a whole step of labor taken out of the design process,” said Klaver.
Timing is everything when it comes to cut flowers. For each variety, determine how many days it takes to grow, then plan from there. Klaver relies on Excel spreadsheets to track everything from plant growth and size to shipping dates. For those who plan to grow year-round, invest in the correct lighting before starting.
Fertilization is a critical aspect of production and Klaver advises growers to watch the pH and soluble salts. “Do not get lazy with that,” he said. “It usually happens in late spring when increased watering is needed because temperatures rise, and people forget to adjust the fertigation levels. They add more fertilizer because more water is going in, and that’s where the challenge comes.”
Harvest time and technique is critical for an optimum product. Klaver says the number one rule is that flowers should not be open at harvest. “If a flower is open, it produces ethylene from the pollen,” he said. “Ethylene shortens the flower life. And never, ever store cut flowers with produce unless you want to get out of the cut flower business. Ethylene from produce will kill flowers really fast.”
Floral crops should always cut early in the day when the metabolism of the plant is not fully up to speed yet and temperatures are lower. “That’s when the transfer to the cooler is most beneficial,” said Klaver. “If you cut in late afternoon and it’s 75 or 80 degrees outside and go to 42 degrees in the cooler, the flowers will turn brown.” If you have to cut in the afternoon, create a staging area and introduce cooler temperatures slowly.”
When it comes to trends, Klaver says one of the hottest crops for cut flower production is bearded iris. He recommends the tall varieties (Iris germanica) for the best cut flower stems. “Flower shelf life isn’t as long,” he said, “but it’s unique item for cutting and there are many colors.”
Calla lilies also very popular, but are not an easy crop to grow. Klaver recommends that growers have at least five years of experience before growing callas. “Get the fundamentals right, and then grow callas,” he said. “It’s a crop that needs a lot of attention. You need to handle it as a monoculture crop and have people who are devoted to caring for it.”
Peonies are another favorite among designers. “Peonies are exploding in popularity because they are the alternative to roses,” said Klaver. “You can grow peonies in tunnels in early spring, or plant them in a cooler or shaded area to delay the crop. Peonies store in the cooler really well, so you can hold them for a while.”
Klaver recommends that growers become involved with the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers at www.ascfg.org for the latest industry-related information.
Essentials of cut flower production
by Sally Colby