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Becoming a Flower Farmer

Springtime is in full bloom, and along with the warm sun, fragrant blossoms, and promise of a long, fun summer often comes the edgy restlessness of spring fever.

If you’re considering a drastic career change — ditching those stocks and bonds you sell all day for stalks and petals instead — this excerpt from the chapter “Basics for Beginners” from The Flower Farmer by Lynn Byczynski should help.

As you begin your journey into serious flower growing, the first thing you should determine is where you hope to go. Do you want to grow enough flowers to keep your house full of bouquets all summer long? Do you want to raise flowers for dried arrangements to sell at craft fairs? Do you want to earn some money while staying home to raise children? Do you want to quit your present job and become a full-time flower farmer?

All of these options are possible with flowers. It helps to have clarified your goals before you start digging beds and ordering seeds, because hundreds of flowers are available to you. But since you can’t grow them all (not all at once, anyway), you should narrow your selection to those that best meet your needs. I recommend that you request catalogs from several of the seed companies listed for this chapter in appendix 2. Many of them have excellent color photos that will serve as a guide while you’re becoming acquainted with flowers. Of course, all blooms look great in the catalogs, which is why this book gives you the names of the easiest, most reliable varieties to get you started as a cut-flower grower.

In this chapter, you will find recommendations of foolproof flowers for the novice grower. If you’ve never grown flowers before, these suggestions will help you get some experience before you make the leap into a full-fledged commercial venture. In subsequent years, you can expand your plantings to include the many other varieties recommended throughout the rest of this book. In the alphabetical list of recommended cut flowers in appendix 1, you’ll find specific information about the uses, desirability, cultivation, and handling of more than one hundred kinds of specialty cut flowers. They are considered “specialty cut flowers” because they transcend the standard floral fare of roses, carnations, and chrysanthemums. They are considered good cut flowers because they have long stems and a vase life of at least five days. These recommended varieties are, in short, reliable in both the home and the marketplace.

However, hundreds of other plants can be grown as cut flowers—for yourself or for sale—even though they don’t meet the stem-length and vaselife standards of those most commonly grown. For example, lilies-of-the-valley are in some demand for weddings, despite their short stems. Some floral designers will use just about anything from the garden, including petunias, geraniums, and even the grasses you may think of as weeds. Many British and old American books on flower arranging make no mention of vase life; if a bloom lasts two or three days inside, it’s worthy of cutting.

This book, then, is just an introduction to the topic of cut flowers. The flowers you will find here are reliable and will serve you well as you get started in flower farming. But don’t let them limit your creativity. Sometime down the road, you will want to try new cultivated varieties or explore antique flowers. You might want to experiment with postharvest handling to find a way to get better vase life out of a short-lived flower. You might want to branch out into greens or unusual flowering branches. Once your flower skills are firmly rooted, you’ll want to stretch.

A Garden of Annuals

Many of the best flowers for cutting are annuals, which live only one season and therefore can devote all their energy to blossoming. Perennials, in contrast, have to spend much of their energy developing roots and foliage to sustain them year after year. That’s not to say they aren’t good cut flowers; some perennials are, and we’ll get to them later. But it will be the annuals that at first form the foundation of your cut-flower garden and provide the greatest number of stems for your bouquets.

Many of the best annuals can be direct-seeded into the garden. Others need to be started in a greenhouse; these are readily available at garden centers because they’re also good bedding plants. However, you need to be careful when purchasing annuals from a garden center. Many of the flowers that I recommend for cutting are also available as dwarf cultivars for bedding, so always check the tag to make sure that the cultivar you’re buying will be tall enough for cutting. For example, one of the nicest blue flowers for cutting is a tall ageratum called ‘Blue Horizon’. Most of the ageratums you’ll find at garden centers, though, are the short types used in the front of landscape beds.

For the garden of annuals, I recommend that you set aside a special area: in the vegetable garden, along a fence, or beside the garage. Although annuals are beautiful to behold individually, they won’t look great from a distance. You’ll be cutting them constantly, and they’ll never display the intense spread of color you might want in a landscape. Also, you should immediately cut flowers that have passed their peak (it’s called deadheading) to encourage new blooms. So give annuals their own spot where you won’t be reluctant to cut them for indoor use or to deadhead fading blossoms.

In the beginner’s garden plan described in the illustration below, you’ll find a list of the most basic, reliable, cheerful annuals that you can grow for a long season of cut flowers. This represents just a tiny portion of the annuals that look great in bouquets. Depending on your expertise, you may also want to grow more-difficult annuals such as sweet peas, lavatera, and lisianthus. But even with the very basic flowers listed in this sample garden, you’ll be able to make colorful informal bouquets or select color themes for more formal arrangements. The varieties have been carefully chosen to provide a wide range of colors and shapes over a long season. In fact, the annuals in this plan can supply all the cut flowers you need. However, it never hurts to vary the menu in your arrangements, which is why you might want to plan for cut flowers in the other parts of your garden. You can always prune a few branches from your shrubs, steal a couple of rosebuds, and snip flowering herbs from the vegetable garden.

Perennial Beds

If you’re a serious gardener, you probably have given considerable thought to the plantings around your house. If you have a perennial bed, you may have planned the selection and placement of the flowers to combine colors, season of bloom, height, and texture into an eye-pleasing whole. The idea of going in there and snipping flowers for a bouquet may seem nothing short of sacrilegious. If that’s your reaction, then you’ve just found an excuse to plant new perennial beds.

Many perennials make beautiful cut flowers that last a long time in the vase. They tend to have a more delicate, ethereal quality than the robust annuals listed in the beginner’s annual garden shown below. A few delphiniums or campanulas, for example, can turn a country bouquet into a work of art. Peonies will provide a romantic feel and sweet fragrance. Phlox will add brilliant colors unlike any annual flower.

There are scores of perennials that make good cut flowers. Many may surprise you because you don’t normally think of them as cut flowers. Consider the blossoms of the shade garden: Hostas are lovely for both their foliage and their blooms; the tiny flowers of coralbells (Heuchera sanguinea) make a wonderful addition to a country bouquet; and arching sprays of old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) look exquisite in an arrangement. The extensive list in appendix 1 will give you a complete picture of recommended flowers you can choose from when planning a perennial cutting bed. The sample garden illustrated below will give you a specific plan for a small perennial cutting garden that you can double or triple in size if you wish.

A Beginner’s Annual Garden

This sample garden is designed for the new flower grower who wants to gain experience with growing and harvesting flowers without being overwhelmed by the diversity and size of a commercial garden. About 60 square feet of annuals—a bed measuring 5 feet by 12 feet—will provide enough stems to fill your house with bouquets throughout the summer and give you a feel for the work.

The flowers in this plan are basic, but they all have many qualities to recommend them. All of them bloom prolifically, most of them providing multiple stems for cutting each week. They also bloom for a long time, although you may find that some of them die out if your summer gets too hot. This selection of flowers provides a wide assortment of colors and shapes, and many varieties can be used as both cut and dried flowers. Finally, this plan uses plants in quantities of six, because most garden centers sell annuals in six-packs. If you have to buy more flowers, you can always expand the garden by a foot or so and squeeze them all in. Here’s what you’ll need for a 5-foot by 12-foot bed:

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

  • Gomphrena spp. (globe amaranth). ‘Carmine’ is a glowing rosy pink, which is the most useful color in my opinion. But there are several other good ones, including pale pink-and-white ‘Bicolor Rose’ and red ‘Strawberry Fields’. Gomphrenas produce an astonishing number of flowers, and since you’ll use them only as fillers in bouquets, buy just three plants. They can be used fresh or dried.

  • Ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’. Don’t mistake low-growing varieties for this tall cultivar. Buy six plants.

  • Antirrhinum (snapdragon). Be sure to get a tall cultivar, such as ‘Rocket’ or ‘Liberty’. You’ll need six plants.

  • Zinnia. My favorite is ‘Benary’s Giant’, which is 30 to 36 inches tall. Direct-seed an 8-foot row or buy twelve plants.

  • Salvia farinacea ‘Victoria’ or ‘Blue Bedder’. This lovely blue spike can be used fresh or dried. Buy four plants and cut them hard to encourage branching.

  • Salvia horminum (tricolor sage). This heavily branching plant sends up spikes of what look like pink or blue leaves; they’re actually bracts surrounding the inconspicuous white flowers. They can be used fresh or dried. Because they branch so profusely, you’ll need only three plants.

  • Rudbeckia ‘Indian Summer’ or ‘Prairie Sun’. Both have yellow blooms 6 to 8 inches across. ‘Indian Summer’ has brown centers; ‘Prairie Sun’ has green centers. Get six plants.

  • Celosia argentea var. cristata (cockscomb celosia). ‘Chief’ and ‘Kurume’ are good varieties with long stems; they can be used fresh or dried. ‘Cramer’s Rose’ and ‘Cramer’s Burgundy’ are also nice cockscomb types. Direct-seed a 4-foot row or buy six plants.

  • Cosmos ‘Versailles’ or ‘Double Click’. These can be direct-seeded. Grow a 4-foot row or buy six plants.

  • Helianthus annuus (sunflower). Buy seed for a 12-foot row. For the longest season of production, grow a branching variety, preferably one that is pollenless. (See page 16 for more on sunflowers.) The ‘Aura’ series meets both criteria. You might also want to plant a red, bronze, or bicolor variety such as ‘Moulin Rouge’ or ‘Ring of Fire’. The classic florist sunflower is a singlestemmed variety such as ‘Pro Cut’, ‘Sunrich’, or ‘Sunbrite’.

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