A few weeks ago I was enjoying a chat in the greenhouse of vegetable-growing friends. In April, everything is lush in the trays and full of possibilities. Conversation turned to June and my friend called it “the Abyss.” The hoopla of Mother’s Day is over, the bedding plants have been sold and they are in a waiting game for the first of summer vegetables. What they have are greens and specialty crops like peas and strawberries – nothing that goes together to make a full meal.
The cut flower world is much the same way. Everyone is looking for peonies in June. The honor is rightfully deserved, as they are the queen of the garden, but when we have nothing else to go with them, we overstuff bouquets and undersell some of our most valuable blooms. Creating categories for design helps us plan out beautiful and profitable bouquets for market or weddings. We have to understand what we really need when so we can plan realistically for the season. This starts with focals, but also includes spikes, filler flowers, greenery and twinkly elements. Availability of flowers is different every week in June. By breaking it down into these tangible groupings and creating a calendar of what blooms when, crop planning becomes a logical guide.
One solution to this challenge is to add fall-planted hardy annuals. To understand how they fit it, we must define important characteristics of cut flowers. They need to be varieties that grow long, straight stems, flourish in your climate, last in the vase for five to seven days and are beautiful or interesting to use in design. Before planting, the stage of harvest must be determined. Event designers can use shorter stems with a shorter window of viability than bouquet makers, who need longer stems and the blooms to last at least a week.
Planting everything on Memorial Day is a lie we need to stop perpetuating. I live in USDA Zone 5A, with a last frost date of May 20. This means that Memorial Day becomes this magical gatekeeper for tender annuals. The hardy annuals are essential for extending the season for growers. We use the published first and last frost date as a guide, but dates are less important than the actual temperatures that plants tolerate. Some plants take cool nights really well, like stock or snapdragons, but delphinium and Iceland poppies burn out when the daytime temperature hits 80º. Keeping these parameters in mind, we can set rules that make it easier to group flowers into planting times that make sense and are easy to execute.
I’m currently talking with a bride who is getting married early next June. It seems ridiculous to make her commit to flowers now, but that’s exactly what we need to do to be sure we can create a crop plan that encompasses her favorite colors. I’m starting columbine, foxglove and dianthus to plant in August; I’m adding perennials like geum and astrantia to ensure we have mature plants to harvest next year to fulfill her vision.
Focal flowers and spikes are most prevalent in June, but fillers are harder to find. To fill the rest of the categories week after week is to understand lifecycles of plants and how to manipulate them. By placing these plants into cold tolerance categories we have many more options for field production. A plant has one job: to replicate itself. We interrupt that process by harvesting flowers or picking fruits or vegetables before they go to seed. The cycle is germination of seed, foliage growth, pollination, flower bloom and seed formation.
Every plant has different needs, so there are exceptions to all of these scenarios. In the simplest form, the triggers for germination, setting of buds and seed formation are a combination of light, temperature and moisture. Once we stop trying to grow cold-loving plants like snapdragons and stock in August, we will have stronger, longer stems and better flowers.
Plants from all of these categories can be treated as fall-planted hardy annuals. Plants that winter over need six to eight weeks to meet the maturity necessary to survive dormancy. My first frost date is Oct. 1, so I’m aiming to transplant seedlings or direct sow around Aug. 1. Biennials generally reseed themselves to keep their species going. But as flower farmers, we cut and sell all the blooms, so it’s necessary to start transplants each year, treating them as hardy annuals. These are transplanted in August to allow enough growth for them to survive winter dormancy. They are the first to emerge in spring and bloom in June. We do the same with tender perennials such as delphinium and feverfew. Foxglove, snapdragons and dianthus all need eight to 10 weeks inside before set out. Those need to be started in June to make it to the necessary level of maturity and vernalization.
My favorite bulb to grow as a hardy annual is Dutch iris. They are happy, spiky touches of color in mid-June. Because the bulbs do not regenerate for another season, they can be spaced like eggs in a carton. At harvest, they can be pulled to extend the stem length, as is commonly done with tulips.
Perennials that should be reseeded each year include yarrow (because it reverts to white in subsequent seasons), feverfew (because it burns out like delphinium or Iceland poppies), veronica (because I can never have enough of these sweet blue spikes), geum (for a bouquet twinkle) and lady’s mantle (because a froth of chartreuse makes everything look better).
The list of plants that can be direct seeded in August has many favorites. In my part of the world, I’ve had the most success with bupleurum, bachelor button, nigella and orlaya to over winter. It’s important to overseed, then wait to thin in spring. The plants that emerge in spring are far superior in substance and height than those seeded in early spring. Of course, we need both, but it’s always exciting to start out the season with such prolific plants.
I plan my beds based on when the plants are finished so I can turn it over all at once. Using the same area year after year is tempting, but I try to move them around for rotation. When we lay plastic down for August planting, I also include two rows that will be left blank for early spring planting. Prepping these ahead has been the best advice I’ve ever received.
High tunnels churn out crazy amounts of fancy blooms during June, but field growers can still enjoy a piece of that flower pie with careful planning and taking advantage of manipulating plant lifecycles. By planning a year ahead to purchase seeds, bulbs and supplies, we have many more options. I still feel like I’m playing catch up every June, but after five years of playing with these techniques I finally have enough of a steady harvest of flowers to fulfill my bouquet commitments for the stores and market where I sell.
Betsy Busche is a flower farmer and designer in Upstate New York. She borrows dormant gardens from friends and family to farm just under an acre of annuals and perennials. She sells market bouquets in the Utica, NY, area along with teaching flower farming through Cornell Cooperative Extension Delaware County. She also offers garden consulting throughout Central New York.