I recently posted a few slides on our Instagram account about the things I wish I knew when we started our farm. My hope was beginners (whether farmers or home gardeners) would learn and avoid from my mistakes.
To my surprise, I received a lot of interest and feedback for more advice and I thought it would be more helpful to write a post so I have the flexibility to add details rather than a line or two used for social media.
Let’s Start With Lessons
Biggest lesson I learned from last year was to locate wholesale companies for seeds and flower bulbs. I paid a pretty penny for not doing due diligence. Last year, I spent $2800 for seeds; this year, I spent $400 (and will receive more seeds than I got last year). There are specialty seeds not available at the wholesalers which I will purchase directly from other sources, but everything else will be from wholesale. Also wholesalers have inventory of seeds that are sold out or not available elsewhere – like specialty eucalyptus seeds. Here are the two wholesale seed companies I know: GeoSeed and BallSeed but I ordered all my seeds from GeoSeed. Most wholesale companies require you to have a business license (business tax id, sales tax resale certificate, etc).
High up with paying retail for seeds, is paying retail for bulbs. YIKES!! Last year I purchased anemone corms for $1.16 per corm, this year $0.52. Last year I spent $1.40 per corm for ranunculus, this year $0.57. It pains my heart to see these numbers, but on the positive side, I will only make this mistake once and I’m giving myself grace. There are many wholesalers that sell bulbs and corms but the ones that seem highly reputable are BallSeed and Onings. I ordered from BallSeed this year as I was too late to order from Onings and the items look good so far. Final judegment will be this spring when they bloom. If you want to be able to order the specific bulbs and corms you want, then order early – which I will be doing going forward.
Here’s a lesson that can have huge financial implication: not weeding early. Not staying on top of weeds can cost hundreds of man hours and extra dollars if you need to hire labor to get it under control. It’s easy to put it off because there are so many other top priorities to work on in a farm (harvesting, bouquet making, planting, etc.), and not putting weeding among this list of top priorities came back to bite me. We had a few 50′ rows of weeds that grew taller than me before we remediated this problem (denial is easy to do with distasteful tasks). The photo below are weeds at bout 4′ tall. It took all summer and fall to finally get the weeds removed and beds ready for planting. What took months for us to solve could have been managed by committing a couple of hours a week to hoe the areas where weeds were starting to sprout. Weeds are easiest to manage when they just sprout; you don’t even need to bend if you have a hoe.
During the fall, I see so many flower farmers plant 1ooo’s and 1000’s of tulip bulbs. It’s like a right of passage that’s done without much thought and you feel pressure to follow suit. Last season I planted over 1500 tulip bulbs, this season I’ve scaled it way down. The problem with tulips is you are more dependent on the weather than other plants and here’s why. Tulips, for longest lasting vase life, need to be harvested when they are just starting to crack open. If temperatures suddenly warm up, bunches and bunches of tulips will require harvesting wreaking havoc to your original work plan. You have to drop everything and harvest multiple times per day to catch them at the right stage. Of course, harvested tulips can stay in the cooler for up to a month but you will be doing nothing else but managing the tulip harvest during the busiest time of the year of planting, sowing, and weeding. And, if you already have not pre-sold your tulips, what do you do with your inventory of harvested blooms? For these reasons, I have limited the number of tulips to what I think I can conservatively sell and plan to work my way up gradually.
I had not realized how much difference some flowers grow and produce blooms if planted in the fall rather than spring. There are cold-hardy annual flowers that love growing slow and cold over winter. If you plant them in the fall, they reward you with earlier blooms (weeks early) and taller, healthier stems. Granted, it takes a little bit more effort to protect them over the winter (installing hoops and frost covers when temperatures dip below freezing) but the rewards more than outweigh the cost. I’ve listed the flowers I’m overwintering here.
Taking succession planting seriously. Succession planting in its simplest form, is sowing and growing seedlings to plant throughout the season to extend the blooming of selected flowers. If you don’t plan and actually do the task of succession planting, you end up running out of inventory in fall. I had a couple of big orders for pick up end of August/early September and I was able to fulfill them (with additional flowers from a fellow grower), but it was close.
Tied to succession planting is making sure I have the right balance of flowers that will flourish during the end of summer/fall period, such as rudbekia, marigolds, and of course heirloom mums. One thing I just learned is that cosmos blooms beautifully during the cooler temperatures of fall so succession planting them late summer will be a must for me next growing season.
Speaking of heirloom mums, you must keep pinching/cutting back the fast growing mums up until buds begin to form (usually late June/July) otherwise you end up with very tall flowers that are hard to keep from flopping over and thus with straight stems. The same goes for Montauk daisies. They need to be cut way back in July otherwise they will be leggy and floppy.
Money Saving Tips/Hacks
When I first started my farm, I thought I had to buy “official” flower farming tools and accessories. NOT! The price of everything has risen significantly with inflation and anything I can do to lower cost is a plus for me and for my customers, so, here are some ways I save money. If you have other suggestions, please share below in the comments section.
Floral buckets: they’re not very expensive but when you purchase in volume, it adds up. For example, at Johnny’s Seeds, the 10L buckets are $19.75 for 10 and shipping is $15. The per bucket cost totals $3.50. However, if you went to your local Dollar Tree, they have 8.5L cleaning pails (with handle) for only $1.25. Need a bigger bucket? Johnny’s sells 13L bucket for for $5.50 per bucket including shipping, but you can purchase the standard 19L bucket at Lowes or Home Depot for $5. Not too much price difference except the bigger buckets from the hardware store are sturdier, have handles, and holds a lot more stems – especially convenient with tall stems.
At my farm, I use organic or sustainable methods as much as possible. For example, to clean my buckets, I use Dr. Bronner’s Sals Suds. It’s a biodegradable and plant-based cleanser. As proof of it’s safety, just look at the grass outside my shed where I do all my cleaning. The grass is greener than anywhere else, even though it gets drenched daily with soap and water. Similarly, I don’t use chlorine bleach to disinfect as it is extremely harmful to the environment, especially the fishes and other aquatic animals. If you have a septic system, bleach will kill the good and bad bacteria that live there and beneficial bacteria helps effectively break down the waste in your system. Without them, your septic system will get clogged. So what is an effective alternative? I use Percarbonate of Soda (green bleach, or you may recognize it as oxygen bleach commonly found in many oxybleach detergents). This is a biodegradable, non-toxic alternative that, when dissolved in water, breaks down into water, oxygen, and soda ash. To disinfect my cutting tools, I mix hot water with green bleach (a heaping tablespoon to one cup) and soak the tools. The green bleach mixture is good for about 4-6 hours so you will need to make a new batch beyond this time frame. If you are interested in learning and utilizing easy green methods, I highly recommend this book (NOT an affiliate link, I don’t believe in it). Nancy Birtwhistle has written a series of other books related to sustainability and money saving hacks which are highly rated (I have 2 of 3 of her books). You can also follow her Instagram account.
I do not use commercial flower food as they contain a high volume of crystallized bleach. Instead, I use Nancy’s eco-friendly flower food recipe (which I list on the reverse of my business card that goes out with all my bouquets). Dissolve 1 tsp of sugar in hot water, add 1-2tsp of vinegar and fill vase with water. The sugar feeds the flowers while the vinegar keeps bacteria at bay. The key is to make sure all the sugar is dissolved which is why you want to use hot water.
I hope you found this post useful, whether you are a flower farmer or home gardener.
I’m always looking to learn, become more efficient and look for cost savings and hacks. If you have any ideas or methods that work for you, please share in the comment section below so we can all benefit from each other’s knowledge!
Hedy, along with her husband Steve, own and manage a small flower farm in beautiful Cape May, NJ. They focus on growing artisanal, seasonal, hard-to-find, and heirloom blooms using organic and sustainable methods. They also make and sell kimchi using organically grown cabbage and other vegetables.