When we first started growing flowers 8 years ago, we didn’t realize that there would be some differences from the vegetables we’d been growing for years.
In our first year growing flowers, I bought a handful of seed packets, including one called Cut Flower Mix. This was a mixture of flower seeds that were good for cutting. That’s all I knew. I planted them out directly into one of our field beds. Basically the same as I would have done for mixed lettuces – except given the broad diversity of seed size and shape of these various cut flowers, I wasn’t able to use our push seeder and instead sprinkled them by hand.
As they started germinating – some quickly and some very slowly – I realized that weeds were also germinating. And it wasn’t easy to tell what was supposed to be there and what wasn’t.
I could identify any of my vegetable seedlings as soon as they popped up out of the soil. But this mixture of flowers was completely new to me. Luckily I had planted them in straight rows and could weed between the rows. But, in the row, I ended up with a mixture of flowers and weeds, some fast growing and some very slow growing.
I also ended up with lots of flowers blooming in the peak of summer – which was beautiful. But then they were gone and I didn’t have enough diversity left to make more market bouquets.
The next season, I had learned many lessons and purchased a much wider selection of flowers, of different colours and shapes, and no more mixes! I also made sure that I wasn’t only purchasing seeds for varieties of big and bright flowers (like Zinnias and Cosmos) but also for unique smaller flowers that would help the showier ones pop (like Orlaya and Feverfew ), unique grasses that would give texture, and foliage to fill out the whole bouquet and make it look more natural and abundant.
I made plans to plant the same variety out multiple times throughout the season to stagger the harvest. That second year I planted more of these succession plantings than I currently do. I learned so much about how different varieties do at different times of the season, when flower pests arrive, and the effects of daylength.
The next thing I needed to learn was starting the seeds in the greenhouse. Based on my poor identification of the flower seedlings (and weeding) issues of my 1st year, I planned to start all my flower seeds in the greenhouse, even when the seed packet recommended it be direct sown. This is something I still do. Nowadays, a few of my succession plantings of some flower crops will be direct seeded, but not in the spring, only later in the season when weed pressure is reduced.
The thing about flower seeds is that some germinate in 5-8 days (depending on temperature and other conditions) like Marigold or Chinese Forget Me-Not. Others take 14-21 days, like Delphinium or Baby’s Breath. And some take even longer, especially perennials.
I found that my cells trays with slow-germinating flower seeds sometimes grew algae on top which prevented the seedling’s emergence. This led to wasted space in our greenhouse. To overcome these issues (of space and algae), I started sowing my flower seeds in open flats. I fill an open flat with potting soil then make shallow rows using the side of a pen – usually about 10-12 per tray. In each row, I sow one variety and label it. Once the seedlings grow to an appropriate size, I pot them up into 72 cell trays. While this takes some extra time, this is still what I do for the majority of my flower seeds.
A few lessons I learned doing this: make sure that the varieties you plant in each tray have a similar germination and growth speed. Lisianthus is a notoriously annoying flower to grow from seed. They take SO LONG to germinate and they grow so slowly. I would never plant them in the same open flat as fast-growing Calendula (in fact, for very fast-growing, reliable seeds like Calendula or Sunflowers, I sow them directly into cell trays like 98s). You definitely don’t want to end up with 1 slow-growing variety in an otherwise empty open flat – that defeats the purpose of saving space.
Doing this has pretty much eliminated our issues with algae. Also, after I sow the seeds, I sprinkle Perlite (puffed rock that looks like puffed cereal) on top – a heavier amount for larger seeds and barely any for very tiny seeds – which helps prevents algae. Ventilation is key as well – though tougher in cold late winter.
Once our flower seedlings have been potted up, they stay in the greenhouse until they’re large enough to be planted outside.
When we’re planting the flowers to the field, we plant them with pretty tight spacing (unlike for landscaping purposes). For cut flowers, we want nice tall stems. We plant them close so that they strive for the light.
Then we water, weed, and wait. We also pinch some of them (like Zinnias and Snapdragons) so that the plant will send out multiple side stems instead of focusing on 1 centre stem.
Once they start blooming, we start harvesting. People at the farmers’ market often exclaim “Your farm must be so beautiful!” when they see all the flowers. It does look beautiful, though we cut many flowers when they’ve just start blooming (so they last longer for our customers).
For us, growing cut flowers has been a great way to increase biodiversity, help our customers connect with the farm, support pollinators and other wild species, and bring beauty and health to our wider community.
The benefits have extended to our farm as whole. Our crop rotation has improved (since flowers are mostly different species than vegetable crops), more habitat for beneficial insects has decreased pest pressure, and our market opportunities have broadened (like local and eco DIY weddings).
Shannon wrote this article for Rural Delivery magazine’s Gardening column.