Cut Flowers

Growing cut flowers can be management- and labor-intensive, but they are a high-margin crop if managed well – and they beautify your fields. At the November Farmer-to-Farmer Conference in Bethel, Maine, Barbara Murphy of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in South Paris, Nancy Stedman of Little River Flower Farm in Buxton and Don Beckwith of Meadowood Farm in Yarmouth discussed this topic.

Nancy Stedman
Nancy Stedman of Little River Flower Farm in Buxton, Maine. English photo.

Stedman, a Master Gardener, and her husband, Bruce, started growing cut flowers 19 years ago, after successful businesses in printing and in growing and crafting hardshell gourds. (They still do the latter on a limited basis.) They grow 8,000 flowers for cutting each year on their 110-acre farm near Portland and Gorham, hiring help for the greenhouse work and for making bouquets. They’re also hiring a full-time head grower this year.

Stedman started gardening to relieve the stress of the family printing business. After giving a bouquet of her flowers to thank their largest printing customer, Idexx Laboratories, for its business, the gift brought orders for several more bouquets, so Stedman started selling arrangements.

Greenhouse and Hoophouse Crops

Today the Stedmans have one 30’ x 96’ greenhouse heated with wood and propane. Half of it has raised beds for their “signature plant” – Lisianthus. They also grow (and overwinter) eucalyptus in the raised beds, and they’re trying to overwinter Lisianthus this year.

They grow their own greens and experiment with other crops, such as Dianthus ‘Neon Purple,’ which flowered during its first year in the greenhouse. They grow Amaranthus ‘Emerald Green’ and ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ in the raised beds. They start seedlings in the other half of the greenhouse.

They also grow and wholesale vegetable and herb seedlings in the spring to help with cash flow (which doesn’t start for the cut flower business until July).

In two 18’ x 48’ hoop houses they grow more Lisianthus and about 600 Asiatic and Oriental lilies – the Orientals in black crates holding 2 inches of organic soil on the bottom, 11 to 12 bulbs, then about 3 inches of topsoil. Some of these crates are in the greenhouse, others are in the hoophouse on top of the raised beds. They move the crates from the greenhouse to the hoophouse as the weather warms. The second hoop house usually holds a fall crop, such as lime millet, ornamental cabbage or safflower.

Outdoor Perennials

Last year Nancy created a new outdoor perennial bed by “lasagna gardening” – laying about 4 inches of compost on top of five sheets of newspaper to smother weeds, and then growing about 400 perennials, including about 50 lady’s mantle plants. “The florists really like the greens [as fillers]. That’s been the trend for two or three years.”  

Delphiniums – especially purples and sky blues – “are a really nice crop for me. They flower in June, die out a little in the summer, then come back wonderfully in the fall.” She sells very short stems to florists for 95 cents and gets up to $1.50 for tall stems.

Another perennial bed blooms in late May and June, before her annuals have kicked in, and even into July. It includes delphiniums, alliums, Baptisia, irises, veronicas, salvias, yarrow and more. Yet another bed, by the house, provides some early blooms for cutting but is basically Stedman’s personal garden.

Three other fields hold about 6,000 annuals, including asters, snapdragons, strawflowers, Ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’ (“Some florists like it, some don’t, but I love it in my bouquet work and I’ll always grow it.”), calendulas, black-eyed Susans and ‘Benarys Giant’ zinnias.

Most beds have black plastic mulch and drip irrigation. After burying the sides of 4-foot-wide plastic, about 3 feet remain for planting. Most crops have 4 to 6 feet between rows; rows of hardshell gourds are 12 feet apart.

A polypropylene mesh trellis called Hortonova, which the Stedmans install before plants are up and leaning, supports tall plants.

The earliest plants go in the garden around May 10, and most plants are in the ground by the first of June. Reemay, used multiple times, protects early plants from insects and wind, gives 3 to 4 degrees of protection from early frosts, and results in a gain of three to four weeks of growth. The row cover has to be opened during hot spells. Snapdragons and statice usually are the first crops from this garden, and by growing some snaps under Reemay and some in the open, the bloom season was extended.

Stedman learned how to keep snaps blooming all summer from Lois Stack of the University of Maine: “Water, water, water, water, water,” Stack advised. So, “we flooded the beds. We were watering as many as 24 hours a day (with drip irrigation).” Once the snaps started blooming, “I had them blooming all summer, up to frost. They just love water. I had the tallest snapdragons I’ve ever had, and the florists just loved them. Some of the white ones were the tallest, and they were over 3 feet.”

Programs

Stedman wholesales bouquets once or twice a week, averaging 50 to 125 bouquets weekly, to high-end specialty stores and florists, telling them a couple of weeks ahead of time what’s coming. The florists “can’t buy those flowers in and pay somebody to produce a bouquet, so they ask me to do them, and they have them as a cash-and-carry thing in the store,” said Stedman. “Next year I’m going to start following up with my orders, because I’ll go to the store and they’ll say, ‘Oh, we sold out in two days!’” Her late-season bouquets included dahlias, eucalyptus, ‘Sweet Annie’ artemisia, zinnias and ‘Silky Red’ asclepias (a two-toned, gold and red flower). November through February is a good time to approach such customers about buying your flowers, said Stedman.

Stedman also delivers arrangements weekly to businesses from early July to mid-October. “I recycle my vases; I ask them that on Monday mornings they have the flowers thrown away and a clean vase out there. I drop in, chat for a few minutes, bring a new arrangement. My client retention has been very good.

“I would like to get these customers in late fall or early winter, but if I just call or drop in, they might say, ‘Oh, I don’t know…’ But once I start my weekly bouquets, I drop in and talk to the receptionist, I ask her to come out and I show her 20 bouquets.” Nine times out of 10, they want the bouquets. “If they can’t leave [their desks], I’ll bring in a couple of bouquets…or drop off a complimentary one. People in the office just love it, even if they don’t have walk-in customers.”

Stedman’s customers “love little teacup arrangements. But you have to be careful. I tell them to change the water once or twice and make sure there’s plenty of water in them.” She suggests using vases that hold enough water to enable flowers to last longer.

Selling to Florists

Stedman thought florists would be too fussy to buy her flowers, but about four years ago, a florist called and asked for a particular flower. “I picked it, delivered it, and they paid me right then – so I started rethinking selling to florists.” Now nine florists purchase the standard 10-stem bunches of single varieties from her weekly throughout the summer, and Stedman averages $800 to $2,000 per week selling to them.

“I call them once a week, tell them what I have, what heights, colors, and they place their order. It’s been a real trend in the last couple of years to buy local.” No florist has declined her flowers.

“They’re used to somebody coming around with a van or truck loaded with all the flowers they picked from the field. I decided not to do that because when I picked something, I wanted it sold.” New florist customers usually make small orders at first but order more as they get to know the quality.  “These florists have become friends,” said Stedman, and she responds to their emergency needs (for a particular flower for a wedding, for instance).

Florists’ slowest time is summer, and then they like something different, such as field grown flowers, and they’re open to working with new people. “Everything I pick is sold; I don’t have to throw anything away. You pick, put them in a bucket and sell them.” Stedman likes the simplicity and change from making bouquets. She picks flowers the night before or the morning of deliveries and can work with about three florists a day, given the size of her van. “So I deliver almost Monday through Friday with bouquets and cut flowers. I haven’t gotten to the point where I have to make two trips a day.”

Stedman doesn’t hesitate to ask florists what they want – whether a somewhat closed or an open flower, for instance. “They’ll give you great information.” Flowers that are too open for florists are still fresh and nice, so they go into Stedman’s bouquets.  

“You can’t assume anything. You can’t assume they don’t want bouquets because they’re florists. After I deliver flowers to the florists, I look to see what they have in their cool cases. Nine times out of 10 there’s a flower there that I grow that I wouldn’t even think they wanted.” Stedman even invited one of the biggest florists to visit her farm. “She pointed out what she wanted. I had mentioned my bouquets, and she ordered them, increasing the number over time.”

Florists love samples. “Once they start working with a particular flower, they love it and want to work with it week after week.”

Favorites

Zinnias are August and September flowers for Stedman. She shows customers the color choices in magazines, and they pick them out. “They love the lime green zinnias. I grow ‘Envy,’ which doesn’t produce fast enough, but they love them. They also like pinks and magentas; the two they’re not so big on are whites and reds.” ‘Coral’ is another favorite.

Dahlias – Stedman grew about 60 dahlia plants last year and will put in more. A bucket of about 25 stems sold for about $38.  “They love pinks, oranges, yellows, some whites – but we’ve had some insect problems, which show on whites.”

Sunflowers – Stedman grows ‘Sunbeam’ for its green center; ‘Sonja’ and Soraya,’ which are about 4 inches in diameter; and the ‘Sunlit’ or ‘Pro Cut’ series that are 5 or 6 inches in diameter.

Lisianthus – This flower, which most people think is a rose, brings Stedman $1.10 to $1.50 a stem, wholesale, from florists. She sets plugs (the plants are slow to grow from seed) in raised beds in the greenhouse in March and gets the first bloom in mid-July; last year she cut it through December. Field grown plants can be started in March in the greenhouse and set out in early June, with cutting beginning in mid-August. It’s a favorite among customers who pick their own wedding flowers at Little River. The plants take a little frost but are susceptible to rain damage, so Stedman grows them in a hoop house. “You can dress these up and make a $150 bouquet, or dress them down and make a country bouquet; they’re so versatile,” she said. Cut them and put them outside in the shade, and they won’t wilt. Among the varieties that Stedman grows are ‘Mariachi’ and ‘Echo.’

Stedman does not grow gladioli, because so many local people grow them, and florists pay only 65 cents a stem. “If I bought them for 15 or 25 cents a bulb and have to continually mound it and spray it for thrips, it’s not a good crop for me,” she explained.

Pick-Your-Own, On-Site Arrangements and Weddings

For pick-your-own flowers, Stedman charges by the stem. She tries to plant flowers of the same price together, such as a field of snapdragons, statice, ageratum and asters that bring 75 cents a stem.

When people stop and ask for an arrangement on the spot, Stedman never refuses, even though this interrupts the flow of her work.

Some of Stedman’s wedding business resulted from bouquets that she donated to her church, where people who planned to get married there saw them. Occasionally she supplements her own flowers with material from wholesalers, especially early in the season.

Five to 10 brides a season come to Little River to pick their own wedding flowers, often bringing friends, mothers and bridal parties. “They have a great time. I call it my easy money, because they bring their own buckets; sometimes they need scissors from me; then they just spend money and pick. If they’re local, they usually come two or three weeks before to see what we have. If they want something specific, I ask for a deposit. They usually pick one to two days before the wedding. I give them guidance about how to pick – bring clean buckets (I won’t clean them). If I help them, I charge for that. I average about $60 to $300 every time someone comes to pick for a wedding.” One customer picked $675 worth of flowers. One wanted giant sunflowers for a trellis, so Bruce cut 9-foot sunflowers, and then the customer realized she had no way to carry them in her vehicle.

Stedman has three options for weddings: Pick-Your-Own and do your own arrangements; pick and do some things, such as table arrangements, while Stedman does the more time-consuming boutonnières, corsages, bridal bouquets, cakes, flowers for hair, garlands (Bruce did over 220’ of laurel gardland from purchased laurel last year), etc.; or Stedman does the entire wedding, charging for flowers, delivery and setup. Last year, her fourth doing weddings, Stedman designed flowers for 16 weddings – one using over $5,000 worth of flowers. For a limited budget wedding, she did just the bridesmaids’ bouquets – a big gerbera daisy that she purchased and arranged with greens and a bow.

Special Orders

One florist asked Stedman to grow some “Martha Stewart” squashes and pumpkins, so she grew Long Island Cheese, French Rouge, Delicatas, softshell gourds and more. “We sold thousand this year. I have a captive audience…the high end stores, the florists.” The pumpkins wholesaled for 40 cents/pound.

In winter, the Stedmans decorate and sell wreaths to their captive market.

Marketing

Stedman advertises on her Web site and has a sell sheet. “People are always getting married; babies are always getting born; people are always passing. When I go to meetings, I always carry a sheet around and tell people what I’m doing.” She does not advertise in periodicals.

Mark Hutton and Barbara Murphy
Barbara Murphy (shown here with Mark Hutton) of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in South Paris, Maine. English photo.

Cooperative Extension’s Rural Research

Barbara Murphy of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension of Oxford County talked about growing and marketing cut flowers in rural areas – such as South Paris, which has one FTD florist.  Cut flowers have the highest return per square foot in high tunnels, and Murphy had three 28- x 60-foot hoophouses – one in South Paris, one near Augusta and one near Orono.  The South Paris house has a 5,000-gallon water tank buried beneath the center aisle, and black tubes collect solar heat from the top of the house, warming the tank and heating the beds for season extension.

Everything that was grown in hoophouses (in raised, 4-foot-wide beds) was also grown outdoors to see if the expense of a high tunnel is worthwhile.  Tunnels usually produce more and larger stems with better quality. Murphy expects to have enough data by the end of 2008 to compare growth in and out of tunnels.

After cutting the flowers for research purposes, Murphy and her assistant, Becky Armstrong, put them in public places around the towns of Norway and South Paris, which, with a combined population of about 10,000, are the most densely populated areas of Oxford County and are typical of a lot of Maine. Murphy wanted to find out what people knew, what they liked, and to try to drum up business. Bouquets went to libraries, hospitals, town offices, nursing home reception desks and co-ops – places where flowers wouldn’t compete with those of existing growers; and where potential growers might see them. They’ve delivered the bouquets for two years now, every seven to 14 days, and other outlets are beginning to ask how to get on their list.  

“We wanted to see how long the flowers lasted when people didn’t change or even add water,” said Murphy. “We’ve had flowers last over 21 days in water that was never changed. We don’t have a cooler, and we don’t use additives. People are noticing how long they’re lasting; they’re starting to open their eyes to the potential for cut flowers. We do have a farmers’ market in town, but most people buy their cut flowers from Hannaford, and those bouquets are not lasting nearly as long. People are beginning to see that it might be worthwhile to pay a little more for flowers that will last longer.”

Murphy put surveys (see sidebar) by the bouquets at the end of the season. Asked if they were aware that the flowers were grown locally, some people said ‘No’ – even though the bouquets were labeled “Courtesy of Oxford County Cooperative Extension.” Murphy said the sign should have said, “Grown by…”

Using pictures of flowers, Murphy asked respondents to rank their favorites. She showed a picture of a bouquet and asked how much they’d be willing to pay for it. She asked if they’d purchased flowers in the last six months; and if, as a result of seeing the bouquets that summer, they would be more likely to purchase local flowers if they were available. After the second year, she also asked whether they were seasonal residents (who generally have a little more income than local residents); their age range; and their sex.

Zinnia 'Zowie! Yelloe Flame'
Zinnia ‘Zowie’ was one of the top-ranked flowers in test bouquets that Barbara Murphy put around Oxford County. Shown here is the 2006 All America Selections Winner zinnia ‘Zowie! Yellow Flame.’ Photo courtesy of All America Selections, www.all-americaselections.org.

The top five flowers in 2006 were:

1. Lisianthus ‘Grand White.’ “You have to have this,” said Murphy. “I’ve learned that local people who don’t have access to high-end stores or don’t have major weddings regularly don’t know” these flowers, so the first step into a rural market is education. When she put bouquets around town, she listed the flowers (by color).

2 and 3. Zinnia ‘Zowie’ with beautiful orange and yellow flowers, and Godetia ‘Grace Pink’

4. ‘Strawberry Blonde’ gomphrena

5. Rudbeckia ‘Prairie Sun’

In 2007, they grew only six flowers, which ranked as follows:

1. Lisianthus ‘Blue Rim’ was by far the favorite and was still producing in November. The plants need to be started from seed in February and need controlled, exact temperatures, said Murphy.

2. Aster ‘Florette Mix.’ This variety, from Glockner & Co. of Harrison, N.Y., was a “touch flower,” a “high response flower,” said Murphy. “People had to touch it, which, in a retail setting, in a farmers’ market, would make them want to buy it.” Many didn’t recognize it as an aster.

3. Lisianthus ‘Buttercream’ did not produce well, but middle-aged women commented that it had an old-fashioned feel to it. It tied with Larkspur ‘QIS Carmine.’

4. Godetia (or Clarkia or silk flower) ‘Grace Salmon’ grows like a weed. “We can grow thousands of stems but in a very concentrated time.” Plant these more than once, and give them lots of space, said Murphy. To get straight stems with lots of flowers, Murphy recommends planting two rows per 4-foot-wide bed. This flower had people calling the office and asking if the staff did weddings, or if the public could pick these flowers, so Murphy is optimistic about the potential to sell flowers in her area.

Murphy noted that Zinnia ‘Zowee’ was not recognized as a zinnia, “so you have to keep helping [the public] along” with education. Also, green flowered zinnias may work in weddings and bouquets, but are not popular in her area. People asked, ‘Why are you growing green things? That’s what the leaves are for.’
 
Murphy’s survey asked how much people would be willing to pay for the sample bouquet of about 20 stems. In 2006, 28% said $15 to $20; and 12% said more than $20. In 2007, 32% said $15 to $20; and 24% said more than $20.

“People are starting to see that flowers have quality and value,” said Murphy. The few respondents who would pay only $5 to $7 were males. She found that women ages 41 to 60 should be the target population for sales. (Participants at Farmer-to-Farmer said that they were charging between $5 and $10 for a bouquet of about 20 stems of mostly annuals. Something extravagant in the bouquet can bring a higher price; lots of competition at the farmers’ market can lower prices.)

Murphy also noted that simply cutting flowers from bedding plants may bring a lower price. “If you’re growing flowers bred specifically for cutting – with long stems and a different growth habit than bedding plants – that may warrant a higher price. They’re two very different types of plants.” Grower Jan Goranson said that seed catalogs now call everything a cut flower, even if it has only a 12-inch stem. “You can waste a lot of money,” she noted.

Murphy’s bouquets had some high-end flowers, such as Lisianthus, which could sell for $1 or more per stem, but they also had fillers that would cost 50 or 75 cents per stem. “We felt that our bouquets held about $12 worth of flowers.”

Asked in 2006, “As a result of the survey, are you more likely to buy local flowers?” 157 respondents said yes; 16 said no; and 2 didn’t know. In 2008, Murphy will ask how often people would buy bouquets.

Murphy concluded that a market exists for cut flowers even in a moderate to low-income rural area. The product should be clearly labeled with your name and the flowers. “Don’t assume that anyone can guess what a zinnia is.” Exotic flowers with bright colors sell best, such as a Dianthus ‘Amazon Duo.’ Also, “Martha is not always right. Stay with the greens for weddings or bouquet work, but don’t sell them out of a bucket.”

Don Beckwith
Don Beckwith of Meadowood Farm in Yarmouth, Maine. English photo.

Low Tech in Yarmouth

At his 75-acre Meadowood Farm in Yarmouth, Don Beckwith grows about an acre of cut flowers that are sold at the farmers’ market, to one florist, one restaurant and a health food store. He also does some custom work if someone shows up with a vase. (He doesn’t keep vases on hand.) For weddings, he asks about the customer’s budget, then charges more for his time than for the flowers, “because I have the flowers there, in excess of what I can use.

“I think there’s a whole market out there for something as simple as a bud vase business” for restaurants, hotels and motels,  Beckwith continued.

Starting with Seed Ordering

Once the fall frost hits, Beckwith records what did or did not do well and what he wants to increase or decrease the following year. He begins ordering with the Fedco Seeds catalog, which, he believes, gives the best value, “and if you’re willing to be cooperative, you can get a lot of seeds for very little money.” Johnny’s is more expensive but is also local and may offer different varieties or colors. Pinetree Seeds can be useful, as well. “For 95 cents, you can get separate colors of cosmos, way more cosmos than you’ll ever need.”

Sometimes he orders from Seymour’s Selected Seeds in Wisconsin (www.seymourseedusa.com), Park and Stokes. He joined the North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS) “because I like plants in general” and its seed list has about 7,000 varieties.

He orders seed in December and January, and then has a break for about two months before planting. As seeds arrive, he puts them in 1-quart, fiber strawberry boxes, marked with weekly starting dates from March 1 to May 14.

Around March 1, he starts germinating cold-tolerant plants, such as delphiniums, snapdragons and statice. Delphinium started then from seed will produce cut flowers the first year and may overwinter to produce cut flowers for the entire growing season the following year. He sows seeds in cells or pots without rims or seams, so that transplants slide out easily. If sowing into a tray, he sows the entire tray with plants that will germinate at the same time.

He covers the planting mix with vermiculite to reflect light onto the seedlings; and, because he’s colorblind, to help him see the “potentially green thing that is going to come up.”

Very fine seeds are surface-sown onto very moist medium and are then sprayed with a mister, even if the soil mix is very wet.

He sets pots in trays without drainage holes, covers the trays with clear plastic domes and puts them into the proper germination area.  Most seeds germinate best with air temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees; delphiniums and alliums usually will not germinate above 55 degrees, so they go on his 45- to 55-degree office floor. Some, such as kochia (Mexican burning bush), need day/night fluctuations of about 20 degrees; these go into a 20- by 30-foot, wood-heated greenhouse where the temperature drops to about 40 at night. “Our seedlings become almost hardened off in the greenhouse because of that fluctuating temperature,” Beckwith said.

Some seeds need pretreatments, and Beckwith values Johnny’s catalog for its “great germination data.” Snapdragons, for instance, should be frozen for at least two days before they’re sown. Lupines and other hard seeds can be rolled between two pieces of sandpaper, or presoaked. “Put lupines, morning glory and sweet peas in a small bowl, pour boiling water over them and let them sit overnight,” Beckwith suggested.

The only seeds that he would sow individually in pots or cells are sunflowers and castor beans.

Seeding dates are recorded. As soon as he sees evidence of green color, Beckwith moves plants to the greenhouse and records this date. “It doesn’t take many years to figure out that snapdragons should be up in three days. If they’re not up in five days, something is wrong with the seeds or with something else in your process. Reorder the seeds and germinate another crop.”

He transplants seedlings within two or three days of germination, again recording the date. “Don’t wait until the true leaf stage,” Beckwith advised; “the roots will be all tangled together.” Instead, transplant as soon as you can handle the seedling – possibly even with a toothpick or matchstick to tease plants apart. “Often you can just touch a bit of the plant with the toothpick and get it into the next pot.”

Letting the temperature in the greenhouse drop at night hardens plants. “Moving plants in and out is too labor intensive. We’ve taken statice and snapdragons down to 17 degrees and they’ve survived. Delphiniums won’t take it quite that low but will take a frost,” as will calendula and feverfew.

Beckwith sets cold-tolerant plants in the ground as soon as possible. “Part of the root system will be below an inch deep, which is warmer than the top part of the soil.”

Beckwith is low-tech, recording data on index cards, and not using black plastic or irrigation. He plants in an area that usually stays wet.

Selling Season

Cash flow begins around Valentine’s Day, with sales of pussy willows gathered from the edge of the woods. Soon after, Beckwith sells daffodils (which deer don’t eat, he noted) to health food stores.

Then he starts selling his “big three overwinterers” – sweet Williams, “one of the few crops that can be cut and bunched directly in the field”; foxgloves (Digitalis), which are “high value”; and delphiniums. These aren’t risk-free; after the cold, open, 2006 winter, none of his survived.

Beckwith grosses about $13,000 to $15,000 on cut flowers per year and another $2,000 to $3,000 on sales of plants.

Weed Control

Most weeding is done with wheel hoes and oscillating hoes, and is minimized by using transplants. “Eliot Coleman started me on the cold weather gardening path,” said Beckwith: By starting with transplants grown in the greenhouse, “you’re four to six weeks ahead of any weeds” when plants are set in the field.

“I prefer to cultivate after every rainstorm, ideally,” he continued. “Most things are cultivated at least every seven to 10 days until they come into production. If weeds grow up through the statice rosette, they’ll cause blossom rot and browning, and [the planting] will be a tangled mess.”

Cutting

He doesn’t like to work with wet foliage, so Beckwith waits until moisture has dried from plants before cutting the “base” of his bouquets – 10 zinnias, for example – into water in tall containers. He puts 12 of these into a crate, puts the crates in a wheelbarrow and brings the flowers into his cellar. Other flowers are cut and put into plastic containers of water sitting in baskets.  “You don’t really have to cut [flower stems] under water,” said Beckwith; “just get them into water as fast as possible.”

Beckwith uses flower gathering scissors (Fiskers, Gardena, or his favorite – Victorinox, from Switzerland), which won’t cut woody stems but save time on softer stems.

He arranges bouquets in his cool (about 55 degrees), damp cellar. These bouquets sell for $3 to $5 in a small vase; $5 to $8.50 in a larger vase. He doesn’t use any preservatives. His dried bouquets go for about $3 without a vase and $5 with.

What to Grow

Grow a variety of flowers, said Beckwith: “When particular flowers don’t produce, you work around things. If you grow enough stuff, you can work around it.” Among the plants he likes for cut flower bouquets are:

•    Baptisia australia, false blue indigo, for good foliage. (Green is a popular color for bouquets in his area.)

•    Lady’s mantle – This perennial gives cut flowers for at least six weeks; the flowers dry well, too.

•    Hosta leaves around a bouquet will “visually almost double the size of the bouquet.” Such fillers are “good for farmers’ markets, where [customers] might not be willing to pay as much as at florists’ shops.”

•    Campanula latifolia is a tall, white-flowered perennial. (Some campanulas are biennial; others are perennial.) Deer love these plants, so keep them close to the house or fence them.

•    Chinese asters – “Asters are great when they’re productive, their color range and forms are fabulous, but they’re prone to aster yellows,” a virus that chewing insects spread to lettuce and some 200 other species. Row covers can limit the problem until plants are too tall or are ready to be cut. To minimize yellows, Bruce Stedman said that asters can be moved at least 300 feet from previous growing areas and not be grown again in the same area for four to five years. Beckwith advised getting a healthy plant in the ground at the right time, and avoiding cold, wet soils. Some people stop growing asters because of yellows.

•    Calendula, bachelor’s button and silene are bright and colorful and make Beckwith’s first annual bouquets for the summer.

•    Cosmos – White is especially useful for wedding work, and the ‘Sensation’ series is probably best for bouquets in general. Lasting only three to five days, though, they don’t have “quite the vase life I like to give my customers.”

•    Centaurea or basket flower comes in an annual form (cyanus) and a yellow-headed, perennial form (macrocephala).

•    Celosia, including Celosia plumosa and other varieties, is a great cut flower and filler flower, fresh or dried. “People love the ‘brain’ form’ of the flower,” said Beckwith. Seed can be expensive. Johnny’s offers plumey kinds that grow 3 to 4 feet tall and give abundant fresh flower material, but plumosa doesn’t dry as well as spicata or cockscomb; it seems to lose a lot of color.

•    Larkspur – consolida is an annual delphinium with foliage like carrots. It makes great dried and fresh flower material and comes in blue, pink and white – although the white flowers tend to brown. Dark blue ‘Blue spire’ is “probably the best,” said Beckwith. “Every time you move it you lose 100 petals and you think you have nothing left, but it’s a great dried flower.” He sprinkles seeds in little clumps in cells, puts a dome over the flat, and puts the flats outdoors to germinate, since the seeds do best in cool weather. Flowers should be cut and dried quickly once they bloom; they stop blooming in July.

•    Delphinium – Some are annuals (such as D. chinensis and the ‘Pacific’ hybrids); others are perennials. “Any of the delphiniums are great crops,” said Beckwith. “You should be able to get $1 to $3 per stem, even at the farmers’ market, as well as wholesale. ‘Belladonnas’ branch more than others.” The flowers bloom in late August or early September from an early spring sowing and were still blooming in November last year. If the perennials overwinter, they produce flowers earlier and throughout the following summer.

•    Foxgloves are “almost but not quite the equal of delphiniums.” They can be bunched and sold directly from the field, bringing $5 for four or five small stems, or they can be sold by the stem. ‘Foxy,’ an annual form, can be used all season but grows only 2 feet tall and branches.

•    Gomphrena, especially deep purple, is great for fresh bouquets and is frequently used in dried bouquets, although Beckwith says it falls over if it absorbs moisture. He prefers to use its dried flowers in hanging arrangements.

•    Lupines are combined with sweet Williams or sold alone as bunches. They flower between sweet Williams and delphiniums.

•    Statice – “You gotta have it,” said Beckwith. It’s “perfect for fresh flower filler work and dries great.” It can be tough to grow, as weeds come through its rosette form. Beckwith sets statice transplants on either side of a furrow, on a little ridge, so that when he cultivates, he’s pulling soil away from the plant – rather than planting it in a furrow and covering the rosette with soil when cultivating.

•    Snapdragons are “another must-have flower.” These and statice can be planted as soon as you can get on the ground. His stopped producing after their first big flush this year. Beckwith keeps trialing various snaps but has found nothing to equal ‘Rocket.’ Stedman said that she grows greenhouse forcing snaps from Germania (germaniaseed.com). These are “awesome” midseason plants that get “really tall without a lot of water” and have thick stems. Her customers like the intense colors of ‘Cherry Rose’ and ‘Dark Orange.’

•    Rudbeckia, or black-eyed Susan – Florists generally don’t like this plant, said Beckwith, because it can droop on hot days. “But if you put it in the cellar, it comes right back,” and it’s a good plant for fresh bouquets at farmers’ markets. Gloriosa daisies are an improved form of Rudbeckia, “but the bigger the petals are, the more droopy they seem. Florists really don’t like this, because once it droops, it may not come back for them.” A tiny-flowered variety called western rudbeckia (R. triloba) has “adorable little flowers, many branches, and is 3 to 4 feet tall,” although when deer eat it, the plants bloom shorter and denser. “I’ve read that perennials can be induced to shorten themselves by cutting them when they’re about half grown,” said Beckwith. Western rudbeckia can be cut and used fresh from about mid-August to the end of September, or it can be dried.

•    Scabiosa, or pincushion flower, is another favorite of florists for its usually tall, slender stems that last well in a vase. A lot of people like the deep maroon form.

•    Silene – Stokes offers a form called ‘Electra,’ but Beckwith grows a species form called neomexicana, from the Rock Garden Society. Silene tolerates cold weather and mixes well with calendula and blue bachelor’s button. He makes two to three sowings, as clumps, of this and feverfew, which also tolerates cold. Bright magenta is a favorite color.

•    Sunflowers – “Everybody has them, and I guess you have to have a few. I don’t get too wild about them,” said Beckwith. He grows two or three multibranching varieties. ‘Moulin Rouge’ is his favorite, although it does lose petals when the flowers hit one another. “Sunflowers look great in the field, but they don’t stand much abuse.”  During the discussion, growers noted that red varieties were more prone to drooping than others; and that cutting in the morning or late at night, and when plants had just started to flower, helped prevent drooping and petal drop and increased shelf life. Stedman noted that if too many petals drop, she simply pulls them all out and uses the center of the flower. The tarnished plant bug can feed on buds and deform flowers. In addition to ‘Moulin Rouge,’ growers like ‘Red Sun’ and ‘Teddy Bear.’

•    Sweet peas – To germinate these, soak the seed and then plant four or five in a Jiffy pot, get them up in the greenhouse, plant them outside and begin “stooling” (basal branching – stooling can be induced in many species by pinching and in sweet peas by subjecting them to cold outside temperatures after they germinate in a greenhouse). Sweet peas are a nostalgic, old-time flower that can easily bring $3 for 10 to 15 stems, can be very productive, but can have a short sales life. Beckwith has heard of florists paying up to $3 per stem when they had to ship the flowers in. The major problem with snaps is their high nitrogen requirement. “The Nearings used them to ascertain the N fertility in their soil,” said Beckwith. Given high N, they then attract aphids, which spread bacterial wilt.

•    Grasses – Beckwith likes grasses and sedges for their seed heads and leaves. Among the several he grows is bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), which is on Maine’s threatened species list.

•    Zinnias are probably the last plants that Beckwith germinates, around May 1. “It seems like the second you get them in the ground, they grow about three leaves, and then they start to bud.” He removes the first buds with scissors, encouraging the plants to grow dramatically taller so that by September he can cut a lot of zinnias. The “cut and come again” varieties and the ‘Benarys’ are best.

•    Amaranths are good fillers and will reseed. People like the droopy nature of Love Lies Bleeding, but the plants can end up lying on the ground and rotting.

•    Lobelia cardinalis and syphilitica are native, with striking red and blue flowers, respectively.

•    Astilbes are perennials with great cut and dried flowers that are feathery and light. The seeds are like dust.

Discussion

For fillers, workshop participants suggested statice, sweet Annie, ageratum, Queen Anne’s lace, gomphrena, lady’s mantle, crespidia, plumose types of celosia, Cramer’s amazon (a Celosia from Johnny’s) and Euphorbia marginata (snow on the mountain). Euphorbia came with caveats: cut it early in the morning to prevent drooping; don’t get the sap in your eyes or on your skin; put fresh cut stems in warm water to unseal the bottom; and don’t use this in bridal bouquets, because it doesn’t hold up out of water.

In marketing, “Let people know you grew the flowers,” said Murphy, through signage of by telling them, so that they don’t think you simply bought the flowers. “There’s a real disconnect about what people think can be grown in Maine.”

To store dahlias, Stedman related information from a Master Gardeners’ conference: Dig them after two frosts, when they’re black; shake off some soil; dry them for about a week in the house, covered with newspaper; cut all but 2 inches of the stems off; then push a screwdriver all the way through the cut stalk in order to release some moisture. Cut the tubers so that each piece has some stem, some flesh and an eye; and store them in wood shavings (available at pet stores) in plastic bags with holes in them. Stedman likes the ‘Waterlily,’ ‘Pompom’ and ‘Karma Decorative’ varieties.

Regarding pinching plants, Beckwith said that the Cramer’s celosia that Johnny’s sells is self-branching, and that if other celosias are not pinched, they’ll produce fewer, larger flowers, which can bring more money per stem. Murphy pinches Lisianthus, “otherwise you get one flower in the center that’s relatively short, and all these buds kind of waiting.” Stedman removes zinnia buds multiple times; pinches snapdragons before putting Reemay over them; and always pinches cosmos. “If you grow plants under row covers, pinching keeps them lower longer,” said Stedman.

Some growers felt that having organic flowers helped sales; others didn’t. In the Portland Farmers’ Market, which is inundated with bouquets, the organic distinction helps. (Beckwith noted that his flowers are not certified organic, only because he uses Pro Mix with them; all of his produce and herbs are certified and are started in Living Acres mix, which he finds too expensive for cut flower production.)

Resources mentioned for cut flower growers include:

Dr. Lois Stack, University of Maine – [email protected]

Specialty Cut Flowers: The Production of Annuals, Perennials, Bulbs, and Woody Plants for Fresh and Dried Cut Flowers, Second Edition, by A. M. Armitage and Judy M. Laushman. Ironwood Press, 2003.

Growing for Market, a monthly newsletter for growers. www.growingformarket.com.

The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, which has an annual conference. www.ascfg.org

Stedman’s Web site, which includes her blog: LittleRiverFlowerFarm.com

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