Growing Flowers for a Cutting Garden

Growing flowers to sell from your cutting garden seems like an easy task, but learn about the ever-important planning stage from the owners of a flower-growing business.
By Michael and Audrey Levatino
November 2013
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Don't just plant your flowers! Farm them and enjoy the benefits of a properly kept cutting garden.
Photo By Fotolia/KUHabler
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Planning an annual flower garden and choosing which flowers to grow can be a tough task. The Joy of Hobby Farming (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013), authored by husband and wife team Michael and Audrey Levatino, talks straight to the hobbyist farmers living by the need to "not just grow flowers, but to farm them." In this excerpt from the sixth chapter, titled “The Flower Garden”, the authors state that the hobbyist farmer needs to not just grow flowers, but to farm them.

You can purchase this book from the GRITstore: The Joy of Hobby Farming

A Dream of Flowers

It’s impossible to be surrounded by land and not want to do something with it. Our house was surrounded by two and a half acres of grassy and weedy lawn. Built in 1935, the only foundation plantings were trees. None of the previous owners had done any type of landscaping — there were no bulbs, flowering shrubs, or perennials.

I wouldn’t say that living surrounded by viable farming land inspired me to quit my teaching job, but wanting to do something that utilized this land in a positive way did occupy my thoughts after I had decided to take a break from teaching. Since we first moved onto our bit of land, we had wanted to participate as vendors at the local farmer’s market. We knew we could grow things, but with both of us working full time we could only manage a kitchen vegetable garden and the various beds of flowers we planted around the house.

As the idea of using our land spun around slowly in the back of my mind, touching on various plans and projects (spinning our llamas’ fleece into yarn, growing herbs for essential oils to make skin care products, keeping bees and selling honey . . . ), I was intrigued by my sister’s venture into growing and selling flowers. She and a couple of friends went in together on the cost of bulbs and the labor of planting and harvesting. Unfortunately the endeavor fell apart when one of the partners stopped helping with the labor, which then spiraled into a collapse of the venture. And so I began to think about growing flowers to sell at the market as a way to make use of my land.

I’ve always loved flowers, and I’d had a fair amount of luck with the flowers I’d planted around our house. I began to research this flower growing business. After checking out The Flower Farmer from the local library and reading it through, I was hooked. The next step was approaching Michael with the idea and getting him to invest both the money and the time to make the project happen. This was much easier than I anticipated. I began making a list of flowers that would do well in our climate and were considered good cut flowers. I ordered seeds and started them inside on heat mats with lights. Michael and I attended a cut flower workshop sponsored by the agricultural cooperative extension agency and this really helped us gain a perspective on what we were getting ourselves into. We acquired much useful information, especially in the form of resources to access for various supplies (drip irrigation, row covers, support netting) and met with other local flower growers, one of whom had been our local market’s biggest cut flower vendor and is still active in the market community. — Audrey

Having a cutting garden is a much different situation from having a landscaped garden. When we tell people we grow cut flowers to sell at the farmer’s markets, most of them reply, “Oh, you must have a beautiful garden!” Well, yes and no. It looks great before we go out to pick, with literally hundreds of blooms topping lush green foliage. After picking, the garden is simply rows of bare greenery and undeveloped flower buds. Imagine a row of 500 gorgeous, colorful, stately tulips. After we’ve been out to pick, only the pale green leaves remain. In contrast, a landscaped garden is there to provide visual pleasure and a specific type of structured space to enhance your lifestyle year round. A cutting garden is all about how to grow the most beautiful healthy flowers the most efficiently and, in our case, in the most environmentally friendly way possible. In short, we don’t just grow flowers, we farm them.

Planning and Constructing the Cutting Garden

If you are planning a personal cutting garden, you can adapt most of what is discussed in this section to fit a smaller scale and your own personal needs. As always, look at what you have available to you and try to adapt it to work for your purposes. A southern exposure, allowing full sunlight for six to eight hours a day, is necessary for growing most flowers. We were fortunate to have three quarters of an acre adjacent to our vegetable garden and already fenced off from our pastureland. With minimal additional fencing — we used chicken wire and cedar posts cut from our woods — we excluded this space from the dogs and the chickens, and then built a sturdy gate wide enough through which to fit the lawn tractor and a large wheelbarrow. The other gate was wide enough to fit the tractor and truck. Just as with your vegetable garden you will need access to a plentiful water source. For the long straight rows we planned for the flowers, drip irrigation is the most efficient watering option, both in terms of water use and time management. Drip irrigation is also convenient, easily adaptable to your planned space, and fairly inexpensive.

We planned on five long rows of flowers to fit the space and still allow room for the tractor to maneuver — two 3x60-foot rows, and three 3x80-foot rows. Our first year we learned the hard way that the paths between the rows need to be at least four feet wide, five if you have the space. We could barely squeeze through the zinnias and cosmos on either side of one path, and there were certain spots that became inaccessible as the season wore on. It is difficult to imagine how big those tiny little seedlings are going to be in only two months’ time! The following year we were able to expand the paths for all but the first of our rows.

In order to prepare the land we invested in a plow for our tractor and a tiller. Neither of these tools is recommended for soil quality and should be used very sparingly. But if you’re starting with a field of heavy grass and weeds, there’s really no other option to initially prepare the ground for planting unless you want to spend several years working it by hand. Of course, borrowing these tools for the few times you need them is also a good option.

Nothing productive had been grown in this space before and the ground was mostly compacted clay and rocks. That first year we brought in two dump truck loads of soil mixed with compost and added it to the beds as we tilled. As we picked rocks from the soil we also came across old glass bottles, pieces of cinder block, bullet casings, fragments of dishware, old nails, and twisted pieces of metal. Even as we work these beds three years later we still occasionally find these things in the soil. In addition to the human junk, our old nemesis the wire grass had a firm hold on much of this space. While it is still a nuisance, we have managed to grow and cultivate flowers in this area. They are mostly annuals that we till up each year, rather than perennials that the wire grass would eventually envelope and suffocate.

How to Choose the Right Blooms for Your Farm

Perennials

Perennials, planted in the correct hardiness zones, will regrow each year from their roots. It is important to carefully consider their placement in the garden since they will require a permanent home and can become very large in size. A few examples of common perennials used in growing cut flowers are daisies, echinacea, peonies, and yarrow. In our cutting garden the perennials occupy the first row, closest to the vegetable garden, where it is now impossible to maneuver the tractor. As our business grows and our garden aspirations expand, we are beginning to extend perennials into the second row that we have been using for bulb flowers. Perennials are like the backbone of the cutting garden. By planting an interesting selection of perennials that bloom over a long period of time, you provide yourself with a base crop of flowers that does not require you to seed and cultivate the plants each year. Perennials are an investment, both in time and money. Unless you grow your perennials from seed, and this requires at least one to three years for the plants to become mature enough to produce large and abundant blooms, you will need to purchase plants from a reputable source.

Be selective and plant what you really want; remember, these plants will be around for a long time, and moving them is not an easy task. We grew eight echinacea (purple coneflower) plants from seed our first year of flower growing. At the end of the first season we got a few small blooms. We were looking forward to the second year’s crop of these bright, stately wildflowers. Apparently, so were the Japanese beetles. The plants bloomed gloriously, and the beetles decimated all but one or two blooms before I could harvest them. In an effort to get some return on our time and effort, we picked the stems and removed the tattered, dirty leaves from the center seed cone. We used these bright orange and rusty brown stems in bouquets with great success. However, the following spring, we found that the echinacea, being a wildflower, had self-seeded and taken over a third of the row in which it was planted. We tried to dig it all up and move the plants to various spots in our regular yard, but even as we sit here, echinacea plants are growing in our spring bulb row.

Woody ornamentals, perennial trees and shrubs, are another extension of the cutting garden. Although most “woodies” are traditionally landscape plants, they can serve double duty by providing interesting cuts to bring indoors. Examples of commonly found woody ornamentals are buddleia (butterfly bush), forsythia, hydrangea, and lilac.

Bulbs, Corms, and Tubers

Bulb, corm, and tuber flowers are an upfront expense and can be quite costly. Bulbs also require extra digging, which means extra time and effort, to plant them at the required depth. The advantage of planting bulbs is that you then have flowers early in the season. In April, people are eager for a bright burst of color after the bleak coldness of winter. We got a late start that first year. We didn’t really begin to plan out our flowers until December, by which time it was far too late to plant bulbs. We didn’t have enough flowers to attend a market until the very end of June! Bulbs do take up quite a bit of space, but in many cases (i.e., tulips) growers till them up after harvesting them, thus treating them as an annual crop. This makes sense if you need the space for other crops that season, but it cuts your profit margin drastically. In general, most bulbs whose flowers are cut will not return with the strength and vigor of bloom they produced in their first year.

Most tuberous, or rhizome, flowers are more expensive and are meant to return year after year. Examples of these are dahlias and tuberose. They do not have to be planted as deeply as most bulbs, and many have the advantage of producing more than one bloom per tuber. An important consideration when selecting bulbs, corms, and tubers for your garden is whether or not they are hardy enough for your climate and can be left in the ground over winter. Depending on your hardiness zone, some bulbs and tubers may need to be dug up and stored in peat moss or sawdust over the winter months. If you must store bulbs and tubers over the winter make sure you have a dry, dark space that is protected from rodents. Some bulbs, corms, and tubors will naturalize — return each year and even multiply. Check the hardiness zone for each variety. If you do leave your bulbs, corms, and tubers in the ground over the winter, be aware that they make tasty meals for voles and other critters.

Annuals

The greatest volume of flowers in a cutting garden are produced from annuals, those flowers that live only one season and must be replanted each year. Prime examples of these are larkspur, sunflowers, and zinnias. How much space you devote to each variety of flower depends mostly on the size of the plant at full growth, and how many of them you need and want for your markets. As always, much will be learned through experience. Our first year of growing cut flowers we woefully underestimated our customers’ desire for giant yellow sunflowers. Luckily we had the space in our garden and were able to plant 500 single-stemmed sunflowers the next year and we’re up to several thousand now. Another mistake we made was not planting any type of ornamental grass or greenery for use in bouquet making. Using inexpensive grasses and greenery helps boost the value and adds texture and depth to your bouquets at the market. Plus, the more room in a vase taken up by greenery, the less flowers you have to use to fill it out.

Your annual flower garden begins with the arrival in the fall of that season’s seed catalogs. Most seed companies now have separate sections devoted solely to varieties of flowers that are best suited for cut flower use. Ask around and find out where other growers get their seeds. Look in gardening magazines and online. Get on the mailing list for as many catalogs as you can so that you will be aware of all the newest varieties of flowers. Then make your wish list. If you are growing in the field you will need to pay particular attention to the hardiness zone of the flowers that catch your eye. One of my favorite flowers is the delphinium and I confess to feeling thwarted and constrained by the fact that I don’t live in a climate conducive to producing delphinium. I’ve attempted to grow it anyway, and was finally rewarded this year by a crop of about ten magnificent spires of delicate flowers. It makes sense to order the bulk of your seeds from one company. This way it is easier to keep track of your order and you’ll have only the one shipping fee.

The size and variety of flowers in your cutting garden are entirely up to you. We try at least ten new varieties of flower each year, most of which don’t work out that well and we don’t plant again, but those that do are added to our list of regulars. If you are growing to sell at market, remember that customers are attracted to the new and unusual. Having something that no one else offers will bring customers to your market stand. Also consider how you will be marketing your flowers. If you do any kind of bouquet or arrangement work, having a plentiful supply of filler material is essential. Ornamental grasses, distinctive herbs, and interesting shrubs provide a low cost way to add body and interest to a selection of flowers. You can add value to bouquets by using several specialty flowers like lilies and then filling them out with less expensive flowers and filler. Decide on several foundation plants, those that you will grow every year, and then try out other varieties around these.

Read more: Planning a Cutting Garden

Reprinted with permission from The Joy of Hobby Farming by Michael and Audrey Levatino and published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2011. Buy this book from our store: The Joy of Hobby Farming.


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