Flowers are fleeting, especially once they have been cut. As a grower, our goal is for our customers to enjoy them for at least five to seven days. The exception is events such as weddings or funerals. Even then, we are cutting those flowers and holding them until the event in our cooler. So, longevity is the goal all around, but there are three mortal enemies of flowers that need to be addressed to ensure great vase life.

Once a flower is cut, all the rules change for its care. The sun is no longer beneficial – it actually damages petals on a cellular level. The same is true for ethylene gas in the air and bacteria in the buckets. All three of these degrade flower tissue. The trick is that the damage doesn’t often show until 24 to 48 hours after exposure, when they’re already in the customer’s possession. This is when they think they did something wrong when their flowers shrivel up. We need to understand all three and come up with strategies to prevent contact. It’s really just about cleanliness and clutter.

It’s universally understood that water in buckets and vases breed bacteria that clog stems and shorten the life of a cut flower. Fuzzy stems on sunflowers, zinnia and others compound that problem by increasing surface area. Vessels need to be clean enough for a human to drink from. Protocols for washing and disinfecting buckets, using holding solution, etc., are all great until we get busy. The temptation to rinse out a vase rather than disinfect it exponentially increases by the distance between the work area and water source.

Vases need to be able to be cleaned thoroughly and narrow necks make it impossible to get every spot. Porous materials also foster bacterial growth. I have had some very conscientious customers return bags of rubber bands. Unfortunately, they are disposable, as is oasis foam, which cannot be reused.

Maintaining a bacteria-free environment in buckets and vases can be a challenge, but it’s vital to providing a quality product. These sunflower stems have extra hairs that increase the surface area to breed bacteria. Photos by Betsy Busche

I struggle planning ahead sometimes, not having enough prepped buckets ready every time I make mixed bouquets because I try to use everything I cut and am make decisions on the fly. It is not acceptable to put a bouquet with a fresh cut into a bucket of used water. It is like reusing a dirty diaper.

At farmers markets, it’s incredibly tempting to consolidate buckets as the day goes on. At the end of market, I send the leftover bouquets to a store to sell through the weekend. When I’m hot and tired and just want to pack up, it’s tempting to skip the step of preparing fresh buckets with holding solution. This is not a place I allow myself to cut corners because the customer deserves the best bouquets.

Ethylene is most known for ripening bananas that are shipped green. It is naturally occurring in plant matter and has some benefits, especially to fruit, but it is damaging to certain species of cut flowers. Again, the damage is at the cell level and does not show up right away. Particularly sensitive is stocks or Matthiloa. The blooms become dry, with the texture of tissue. Once it starts, it is impossible to reverse. It happened to me with several bunches during a workshop in a church basement. After an hour and a half, it was noticeable. The ones I brought back to the studio showed advanced damage the next day. That was an expensive and inconvenient mistake. I still don’t know what the actual cause was.

As a natural plant growth hormone, ethylene is found in decaying plant material, combustion exhaust and smoke. There are treatments with inhibitors that make sense for a large-scale crop. For the rest of us, prevention is key. That means being cognizant of sources and avoiding them as much as possible. The most obvious is emptying the leaves and stems left over from stripping stems. Where I also discovered a problem is hanging bunches for drying in the same space I’m working. Once I added two fans to the space and kept the windows open, that improved. Consider space heaters a liability too.

Flowers should not be kept in the same coolers as fruit and vegetables, but especially not fruit. The area we don’t necessarily think is a problem is transporting flowers, especially in the back of a pickup truck under a cover. Older models don’t always seal completely on the tailgate. If flowers are trapped with ethylene-producing produce in a truck, there can be damage.

For afternoon deliveries, it’s sometimes necessary to pull the vehicle into a garage with the air conditioner running to cool it. If this is your workspace or it’s connected to it, the exhaust contains ethylene.

Who you are set up next to at a market makes a difference. Food trucks are problematic for a flower display because they usually have generators running the whole event. Even the wood-fired pizza trailer is a source. To know what to protect, there are many lists of impacted flowers online.

Most flowers grow in full sun most happily, but once they are cut this changes. Sun damage is the stealthiest of the these three but is equally as harmful. It breaks down the tissue and does not show up for a day or two. I don’t love setting up at events where I need my tent; as the sun moves across the sky, the orientation of the display needs to be adjusted every hour. It is tempting to set out a bucket of sunflowers or gladiola in front of a tent leg to gain attention from passersby. Unfortunately, it just makes the flowers unsellable.

This is tissue damage on tulip petals after being on a sunny window for three hours. This did not show up until the next day.

While transporting, windows in a vehicle are challenging. Even tinted windows can intensify the sunlight. At this point, I can pack my SUV based on the time of day and direction I’m driving to protect the flowers. Just a half-hour drive with sun streaming in the window can cause significant damage.

Farm stands are where I see the most challenges for keeping flowers out of the sunlight. We want to use the flowers themselves to draw attention to the stand, but there has to be some sort of covering protecting them. A north-facing three-sided structure is ideal but not always an option. For security reasons, many farms are building or buying a shed with a door and lock. Making people walk in to purchase also helps keep flowers safe from the sun.

The key to improving quality and preventing damage from these three areas is being aware of the environment and creating protocols to protect our valuable cut flowers. Sometimes damage happens during transportation or display, making them unsellable. Shrinkage is costly to our operations at every level, from harvest through the sale. Looking forward to next season, now is a great time to fix mistakes, be more efficient and be more competent in handling cut flowers. These are not areas where we can take shortcuts.