By design, my bouquets are not the largest or lushest, but the flowers consistently last five to seven days. I practice a strict set of protocols designed for maximum vase life. It starts with choosing the right varieties to plant.

Looking around farmers markets, I don’t have a direct flower farmer competition, but I am up against various farms that bring a few bouquets, bunches and potted plants. No one is going to buy sunflowers from me when a different vendor offers three fully blooming stems in a pot. The customer will buy it because of the idea that uncut in soil has a longer lifespan. I focus on early and late season sunflower production for bunches, not bothering to try to compete.

Here is how I ensure my customers have the best experience possible with my flowers week after week. Stringent cleanliness is most important. Flowers need to harvested during the cool of day (either morning or evening). Time of harvest matters. In the morning, plants are most hydrated, but after a day of photosynthesis they are fat and happy in the evening. Buckets of flower must be allowed to rest for at least two hours but preferably overnight. I make market bouquets in the heat of the afternoon the day before they’re sold. Most importantly, quality control begins in the field. Any flower with bug damage, that is too far open or bent is rejected and dropped. We also take time to deadhead plants as we harvest to ensure there are fresh blooms the next cutting session.

Farms that harvest through the whole day for production understand their plant physiology to know what can tolerate those conditions. Peonies hit marshmallow stage whenever they wish. Herbs are best harvested in the morning, but still must form a flower and achieve a woody stem stage. Zinnia tolerate midday heat better as long as they pass the wiggle test. But heat is not the only enemy – lisianthus and statice will not survive a rainstorm once they begin to open. There are so many “yes, but…” scenarios. Stage of harvest was my biggest learning curve and I still open the post-harvest care book to make sure I get it right.

Some plants are naturally branching, offering several blooms in succession. Lily is a great example. I harvest when the first bud is swelling. This way there’s no damage to the delicate petals during handling and bouquet making. By the time it reaches market, the first one is open. It may only last a few days, but the next blossoms will open in turn. All summer, I harvest cosmos in the same branching habitat, just as the first one is budding. Again, it lasts a short time and the rest follow suit. I love bunching three to five stems of cosmos in the center of market bouquets so the unopened buds add a certain whimsy. Scabiosa, Rudbeckia triloba and feverfew act in the same way.

Other buds will keep opening in the vase. Spikes in particular offer many options. I cut with only one to two buds open and sell at less than half open. This prevents insects from pollinating the blooms, causing open buds to drop since their job is done. This makes a huge difference in vase life. As much as we love pollinators, we must beat them to our flowers. We must also contend with gravity with spikes, especially snapdragon and gladiola. If they fall over or even lay on the side of the bucket, the tips will reach for the sky, creating a bend that cannot be fixed. A slight bend can be charming. A right angle is not.

Circumstances that do not allow us to be strictly diligent – weather, schedules and other obligations – mean we need supplies that make our lives easier. So that I’m not always trying to wash buckets right before I harvest, I wash, disinfect and fill in batches. But leaving them in the garage or studio invites dust and debris to settle on the surface. (More of a problem is my dog taking a drink out of every single clean bucket.) I purchased a bulk pack of cheap plastic shower caps. Every time one is filled, it is capped. Now I only have to do two to three batches of buckets a week and they’re always ready to go.

Each stem is processed through at least three different buckets. I wash 50 to 60 buckets a week in my small operation. A dedicated washing station makes all the difference in a farmer’s ability to keep everything clean. It needs to be convenient and used for nothing else. The goal is to keep the flower water clean enough to drink through all of the stages of harvest.

There are products available to help keep the water clean, to hydrate the stems and to feed the blooms. I noticed the biggest difference in flower life when I started using the slow release bleach tablets for harvest. Certain stems have little hairs that trap dirt and bacteria – like sunflowers, zinnia and Rudbeckia. The tablet slows down bacteria growth. Before I put the bunches in the cooler I transfer them to a bucket with the holding solution, basically getting the stems out of the dirty bathwater. Holding solution is mostly acid and bleach and it does what it says. After we make bouquets, they go into a fresh bucket of holding solution. The goal is for the flowers to stay fresh and drinking for the customer. We set a three-day expiration date, giving five days of enjoyment in the home.

None of us need to be reinventing the wheel. By listening to each other, we all pick up tricks and tips that make this business easier and more profitable. I’ve made some huge mistakes but have made great progress in producing a consistent product all season long.