When most of us begin our flower journey we start with the easy, tender annuals such as cosmos and zinnias. They grow profusely and produce many branches. When I started I didn’t know better than to cut at the natural juncture of branches. It never occurred to me to cut deeper into the plant to get the stem I actually wanted because it seemed like a complete waste to dump the emerging buds on the ground.

But there I was, trying to sell foot-tall bouquets made mostly of flowers. Few people would pay $5 for them. I was doing something seriously wrong so I spent that winter watching every video I could find on mixed bouquets. Over and over I saw these people casually working with their two- to three-foot stems. It’s the norm. I had to figure out how to grow these stems.

Flowers are genetically programmed to grow to a certain height. Varieties are bred for a purpose. This makes some perfect for low-growing bedding plants and others cuttable for bouquets and arrangements. I started intentionally seeking seed categories based on height and their other great cut flower characteristics. I also became disillusioned by seed catalogs that did not include heights with their varieties. I turned a corner and became a serious cut flower grower.

Taking it to the next stage of understanding, I realized that cut flowers fall into three categories of growth habitat. The single stems (tulips, allium, gladiola and some sunflowers) produce one stem and one flower per seed or bulb and then are done for the season. Daffodil, yarrow and statice grow stems that shoot up separately from the base of the foliage, allowing us to cut at ground level without damaging or stripping the leaves that sustain the plant. Then there are those that form a central stem with side shoots up the stem. When cut, these produce more stems, and thus more flowers.

Allison McDonough from Flower Hound Farm practices speed bouquet making during the Flower Farmer Summer Intensive at Birdsong Farm Community Garden. Each farmer brought a bucket of flowers to communally share as they built their skills in speed mixed bouquet making and teaching flower classes. Photo courtesy of Carla Crim

This brings me back to what I was doing wrong in the first place. With branching plants, we harvest the first flower from the center at the natural joint; those that follow will never be longer than that stem. This is where that idea of genetic programming is so important. If we reach down into the plant to cut just above a pair of leaves, the next stem will grow from there, reaching that same height. Bingo. That’s how to get long stems.

Taking it further, some farmers don’t even mess with that central stem, but rather pinch it when the plant is young so that all the stems on that branching plant grow from the base. Once I realized I could actually train my zinnias to the perfect cut and then come again, my plants became healthier and there was much less waste. This year I was hit hard by Japanese beetles, with many of the plants so destroyed that the buds that did open were pretty horribly misshapen. We cut those stems all the way down so there were only a few leaves at the base. It worked like magic. The plants have rebounded and are finally giving us the yield we originally expected.

Pinching does lead to a cascade of other issues, though. Because everything is growing from the base and heads are heavy, the plants must be supported by either horizontal netting or corralled around so they don’t fall. (Cosmos especially like to go “timber” between the time I check them at night and when I cut them in the morning.) When we start adding these structures, reaching in to harvest or weed become more challenging. This has to be addressed. One year I let the lamb’s quarter go along the celosia and it created a wall in the netting that I had to hack down so I could harvest.

I fixed my stem length issues and honestly I’m really annoyed with myself when I find a cosmo that escaped the pinch. To harvest it, I have to cut low and then strip off all of those side branches. This makes the stem particularly weak and it can snap easily at any of those joints. It does not look as professional in a bouquet. Pinching is a bit like potty training – it’s not a pleasant process but once mastered, everyone’s life is better.

As I learned to pay attention when purchasing and plant the right varieties for what I need, my productivity increased greatly. Two-foot stems for bouquets makes the process much smoother. I don’t sell to florists, so that is not an issue (and I can use shorter stems in arrangements). It’s a continuum but it’s taken me five years to match my practices to my markets. This year has been horrible with weather, pests and disease no matter where you live, but following best practices has allowed me to bounce back from what looked like a total loss of 1,200 zinnia plants. Next week will always be better.