Organic Flower Farming

Larkspur and tall varieties of ageratum make lovely cut flowers

When I first thought about quitting my city job for life on a small farm, I didn't plan to become a flower farmer. I wanted to be an herb grower. For a time, I did grow herbs for upscale restaurants. But then I put in a few rows of zinnias to sell at a farmers' market, and was surprised at how well they sold. The next year, I grew a dozen kinds of flowers to make into mixed bouquets and was again impressed with the demand. I discovered that, acre for acre, flowers were more profitable than produce. My husband and I still grow vegetables, but flowers have become an important part of our market garden.

As our business has expanded, my interest in growing flowers has grown. The colors, fragrances, forms, and movement of flowers are endlessly intriguing. I take pleasure in almost every aspect of growing flowers, from winter's work of studying catalogs and choosing new flowers to plant, to summer's work of harvesting, bouquet-making, and selling. Even after a decade of growing flowers, I still feel a thrill when my customers exclaim over the beauty of my flowers.

As you begin your journey into flower gardening, you should determine whether you want to grow enough flowers to keep your house full of bouquets all summer long, to raise flowers for dried arrangements to sell, or to quit your present job and become a full-time flower farmer. Then narrow your selection to plants that best meet your needs.

Request catalogs from several seed companies.

Why Organic Flowers?

People who understand the importance of growing food organically often wonder why I use organic practices for flowers. After all, you don't usually put flowers in your mouth, so what difference does it make?

For one thing, the most successful family farms over the last several years are organic market gardens, in which a wide array of crops are grown and sold locally. The "organic" label is an added attraction for many customers.

Also, many of the flowers sold by florists and supermarket floral departments have been imported from other countries where the pesticide regulations may not be as stringent as they are in the United States and Canada. Residues of these chemicals can still be on the flowers when you buy them.

Choosing the Best Cutting-Garden Site

Flowers have the same requirements as vegetables. Most need full sun and fertile, well-drained sandy loam with a neutral pH and abundant organic matter.

Water

Before you plant, determine how you'll get the water to your garden. You might have to lay a pipe below the frost line and install a new faucet by the garden, or haul a hose, which is hard work. Installing an irrigation system could be a big labor-saver.

Plant a Quick Windbreak

When wind pushes stems off-vertical, their tips will turn upward, creating a nasty bend in them. So pick a site that has trees, shrubs, or buildings to shield flowers.

A strip of ryegrass allowed to grow 4 feet high protects 24 to 32 feet behind it. Some protection extends above the height of the windbreak. The best strategy is to plant a strip of wheat or ryegrass (perpendicular to prevailing winds), leave 30 to 50 feet open for flowers, and plant another strip. Strips 5 to 10 feet wide provide enough density to really slow the wind. In a large garden, your long-term goal might be to plant a row of 10-foot-tall flowering shrubs every 100 feet in your flower garden to provide wind protection for young plants.

Soil Preparation

Most soils need their structure, fertility, and drainage improved before planting.

Compost. If you're just getting started, the quickest route to improved soil is to add generous quantities of composted organic matter. Many kinds of materials are beneficial, as long as they are fully composted: manures, fir or pine bark, or agricultural by-products such as rice hulls that may be available in your area. Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer over your planting area, and till or incorporate it into the soil.

Cover Crops. Another way to improve soil is to seed it with a cover crop, such as annual ryegrass (in fall) or buckwheat (in spring). In the fall, plow or dig your garden area, then seed it with annual ryegrass. The seeds will germinate, and plants will begin to grow, then go dormant when the weather turns cold. They'll grow again in spring. Two to four weeks before you intend to plant, turn them under with a shovel or tiller. If they begin to flower, mow them to prevent them from going to seed.

If you're starting your garden in spring or summer, plant the cover crop during the growing season. Instead of planting the entire garden, do small rotations by seeding just one or two strips of a cover crop this year and growing flowers in the rest of the garden, then switch next year.

You can plant most cover crops in a home garden by broadcasting the seed, then raking it in, and turning on the sprinkler. On a commercial scale, some crops may require a seed-planting drill, but you can broadcast most seed and then incorporate it with a disc pulled by a tractor. Ask the seed supplier how to plant the type you buy.

Starting Plants

Most commercial-scale farmers buy plants in sufficient quantities to qualify for a wholesale price. The required minimum purchase varies, but most suppliers ask for an order of at least $100 (and require you to show them a sales tax number or other proof that you're in business). If you find a supplier with a good selection, you can surely order that much and get three or four times the number of plants that you'd get for the same amount from a retail supplier. For example, my wholesale supplier of perennials sells a flat of 32 plants for $22 and a flat of 72 plants for $25. For $25 retail, I could buy only a dozen perennials.

Seed Starting

If you don't have a greenhouse, you can still grow good transplants with artificial lights. Before we got a greenhouse, we grew thousands of transplants every year in a space no bigger than a refrigerator. Our setup, accommodating more than 500 transplants at a time, required only shop lights, boards, and concrete blocks.

Here's How To Do It

Buy four 4-foot fluorescent shop lights, four 4-foot-long, 1-inch by 12-inch boards, and eight concrete blocks. You can buy special "grow lights," or you can combine one warm light and one cool light tube in each fixture to provide nearly a full spectrum of light for your plants. Attach the shop lights to the boards with the chains provided, leaving about 6 inches between the board and light. Stack the blocks on the floor about 3 feet apart, and place boards across them to create shelves. Adjust the chains on the shop light so that the tubes are about 5 inches above the floor.

You now have a miniature greenhouse on your floor. Slide two flats of plants under each light fixture. As the plants grow, raise the light by its chains so that it always remains about 2 inches above the tops of your plants.

To increase the number of plants you can grow, just stack up more blocks, boards, and shop lights. In a space 4 feet wide, 1-foot deep, and about 5 feet tall, you can grow 576 transplants: use four layers of lights, with two flats under each light, and 72 plants in each flat.

Germinate seeds in the dark, or on a warm windowsill, but you need to get them under those lights just the minute you see a shoot emerging from the seed. Then keep the lights on, 16 hours a day.

Annuals or Perennials?

Many perennials make beautiful cut flowers that last a long time in the vase. In my experience, they tend to have a more ethereal quality than the robust annuals. A few delphiniums or campanulas, for example, can turn a country bouquet into a work of art. Peonies provide a romantic feel and sweet fragrance.

About 60 square feet of annuals -- a bed that's 5 feet by 12 feet -- will provide bouquets throughout the summer. The flowers bloom prolifically, and most of them provide multiple stems for cutting each week. They also bloom over a long season, although some may die out if your weather gets too hot. This selection also provides an assortment of colors and shapes, and some kinds that can be used dried.

Finally, this plan uses plants in quantities of six, because most garden centers sell six-packs. Expand the garden by a foot or so and squeeze them all in, if you wish, when you must buy in quantities of eight.

Here's what you'll need for a 5-foot by 12-foot bed (all but the gloriosa daisy are annuals):

Floss flower (Ageratum 'Blue Horizon'). Don't mistake low-growing varieties for this tall variety. Buy six plants.

Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus). Be sure to get a tall variety, such as 'Rocket' or 'Liberty'. You'll need six plants.

Cockscom (Celosia argentea cristata). 'Fire Chief' is a good variety for its long stems that you can use fresh or dried. Direct-seed a 4-foot row, or buy six plants.

Larkspur (Consolida ambigua). In mild-winter areas, larkspur should be direct-seeded in the fall. You also can freeze the seed for 2 weeks and direct-seed in spring. You'll need enough seeds for a 12-foot row, or buy 18 plants. Larkspur can be used fresh or dried.

Cosmos. Choose 'Versailles' or the Seashells strain. These flowers can be direct-seeded in a 4-foot row, or buy six plants.

Globe amaranth (Gomphrena). 'Bicolor Rose' is a soft pink and white, or you can buy the clear pink, dark rose, or red varieties. These branching plants produce an astonishing number of flowers, and because you'll use them only as bouquet fillers, buy just three plants. They can be used fresh or dried.

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus). Buy seed for a 12-foot row. Grow a branching, multicolored variety, such as 'Autumn Beauty', to get the most versatility. Or find one of the exotic dark red sunflowers, such as 'Velvet Queen' or 'Prado Red'.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia 'Indian Summer'). The blooms on this huge-flowered black-eyed Susan actually look better a few days after they've been in the vase. Get six plants.

Mealy-cup sage (Salvia farinacea 'Victoria' or S. f. 'Blue Bedder'). This lovely blue spike can be used fresh or dried. Buy four plants, and cut them hard to encourage branching.

Painted sage (Salvia viridis, also called S. horminum). This heavily branching plant sends up spikes of what look like pink or blue leaves; they're actually bracts (a leaf that's part of a flower cluster or at a flower's base) around the inconspicuous white flowers. Look for the Claryssa strain. They can be used fresh or dried. Because they branch so profusely, you'll need only three plants.

Zinnias. Grow State Fair or California Giant strains, or some other variety that's 30 inches tall. Direct-seed an 8-foot row, or buy 12 plants.

Best Cut-Flower Bush Peonies

One of the main considerations when choosing a peony is vase life as a cut flower. In general, cut flowers should last at least five days. Some peonies last much longer, but others have an unacceptably short vase life. In 1995, Kansas State University Extension specialist Karen L. B. Gast tested 29 varieties to determine their vase life. The table lists ones tested, along with the number of days they lived in the vase. All have many-petaled "double" flowers.

Name, vase life (in days)

Pink:

'James Pillow' 9.5

'Mister Ed' 8.5

'Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt' 8.3

'Raspberry Sundae' 8.0

'Grace Bateson' 7.8

'Walter Faxon' 7.3

'Therese' 7.2

'Better Times' 7.1

'Monsieur Jules Elie' 6.4

'Edulis Superba' 6.3

'Reine Hortense' 6.1

'Sarah Bernhardt' 5.6

'Wrinkles 'n Crinkles' 5.5

White:

'Festiva Supreme' 8.6

'Dr. F. G. Brethour' 8.3

'Henry Sass' 8.1

'Lois Kelsey' 7.4

'Festiva Maxima' 7.3

Red:

'David Harum' 9.0

'Felix Supreme' 8.5

'Karl Rosenfield' 7.7

'Felix Crousse' 7.7

'Philippe Rivoire' 7.6

'Shawnee Chief' 6.9

'Richard Carvel' 6.8

'Monsieur Martin Cahuzac' 6.6

'Lora Dexheimer' 6.5

'Kansas' 5.5

This article was adapted by National Gardening from The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower's Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers, by Lynn Byczynski (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., White River Junction, VT 1997; $25)

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This article is categorized under:
Articles → General → Landscaping → Yard and Garden Planning
Articles → General → Garden Care → Soil, Water, and Fertilizer
Plants → Flowers → Annuals
Plants → Flowers → Perennials
Plants → Flowers → Perennials → Peonies
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