by Sally Colby
Jackie Coldsmith started organic vegetable farming about 13 years ago, running a CSA and selling fresh produce at farmers markets. Although her primary crops were vegetables, Jackie also grew some flowers for cutting and offered them at market. She loved growing flowers, and found that her customers shared her appreciation for their beauty.
Over the past few years, Jackie found that it was becoming difficult to make a profit with vegetables, and realized that not only was her heart in flower farming, it was a legitimate enterprise.
Since Jackie was already familiar with growing flowers, it was a matter of making the leap to growing them exclusively. She switched to growing only flowers on her Tierra Blooms Flower Farm just two years ago, and says it was a good decision.
“In the transition from vegetables to flowers, I found that the marketing is completely different,” said Jackie. “Especially if you’re going to sell to florists and do weddings. I feel like I’m starting over again, and this is my second year doing just flowers. There’s a lot to learn, but it’s where we need to be. Even when I was growing vegetables, flowers were my passion.”
For now, Jackie is growing flowers on a fraction on the available land, not really using what she could, but with small children, she prefers to keep a balance and grow her business slowly. She’s currently selling flowers at one farmer’s market on Saturday and has a 20-member CSA. “The CSA is great because people pay early in the season and commit to getting flowers,” she said. “It’s more of a personal relationship.” CSA customers get one large bouquet for 16 weeks, or can choose a half share that includes eight bouquets over the season. Jackie also supplies flowers for weddings if she is asked, but doesn’t advertise this service yet. This year she provided flowers for four weddings in May, and has already talked with people for 2017 weddings.
Jackie starts some of the seeds in a high tunnel, which has two layers of plastic to retain heat in early spring. “High tunnels are wonderful,” she said. “The quality of product you can get from them versus the field is superior. It’s a controlled environment, but I haven’t mastered using it for cut flowers. I would like to use it more, and would consider adding another high tunnel.” A kerosene heater supplies heat in early spring when Jackie starts seeds. She plans to establish seeds in the high tunnel this fall to obtain flowers for early spring planting.
As she transitioned from vegetables to flowers, Jackie was able to use her existing equipment. She has a 30 HP tractor with a front-end loader and a 4’ tiller behind it, and a forklift. She also has a walk-behind tiller for weeding. She had purchased a second-hand cooler when she was growing vegetables, and it now serves as a cooler for flowers. “I like to cut stems into plain water the day before and store them in the cooler overnight,” said Jackie, who highly recommends that flower growers use a cooler. “They soak up water and stay fresh and hydrated, and it’s the best way to prolong vase life.” She maintains the cooler at about 40 to 42 degrees, which is a good temperature for most flowers.
Jackie uses the same organic growing practices as when she growing vegetables — the only difference is that isn’t certified organic. She finds that plants thrive in mushroom compost aided by organic fertilizer and fish emulsion. She makes her own soil mix using an Eliot Coleman recipe. She has also found that flowers are not as finicky as vegetables when it comes to replanting the same species in the same rows from year to year.
The flowerbeds at Tierra Blooms are 75 feet long, and 4 feet wide, with landscape fabric to help keep weeds down. Jackie uses a template and torch to burn holes in the landscape fabric and places transplants in the holes. She uses overhead watering for at least the first three days to help young plants become well established.
Jackie’s late summer cutting beds includes calendula, ageratum, millet, cosmos and plenty of sunflowers. She says it’s important to have well-planned succession plantings in order to maintain a steady supply of flowers for customers. “I’m doing about five successions of sunflowers,” she said. “I plant them every two weeks. Sunflowers are so easy to grow in succession because I just direct-sow the seeds. If you’re doing farmers markets, sunflowers are the way to go. People love them — they draw people to your stand. Think seasonally about planting and successions — red and yellow sunflowers will be ready for fall.”
This year Jackie grew two successions of zinnias, which she’ll be able to cut in September and early October.
Jackie says while a lot of what she knew from growing vegetables applies to flowers, she has learned a lot in a short time. Harvest is an especially critical time, and Jackie strives to harvest flowers so that they are at peak for customers. Cutting flowers so that they have longer stems is ideal, and Jackie says that comes with confidence. “I like to make sure the flowers are as perfect as possible,” she said. “I fill buckets with water, cut into the bucket and keep them in the cooler overnight. The overnight cooling is helpful.”
One important aspect of providing high quality cut flowers is keeping everything clean, from buckets to clippers. “If your buckets are dirty, bacteria get up into the stem,” said Jackie. “Some people use disinfectant, but I just use soap and water. Keep clippers clean, keep everything clean. You never know how the customer is going to treat something.” Jackie talks with her farmers market customers about how to keep flowers fresh for as long as possible. “They could take them home, mistreat them and think they got bad flowers from me, so I did a write up to educate people about how to keep their flowers fresh.”
When it comes to keeping up with an ever-changing industry, Jackie says that the blogs of wedding designers helps her with ideas about floral trends and ideas. She also visits grocery stores throughout the year to see what’s included in bouquets and to compare pricing.
As she experiments and learns more about the market for fresh cut flowers, Jackie plans to add a larger variety of annuals and add more woody plants and perennials.
Her ultimate goal is to expand while using the space as effectively as possible.
Visit Tierra Blooms online at www.tierrabloomsflowers.com.
Transitioning from organic vegetables to cut flowers
by Sally Colby