Six Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Growing Cut Flowers
I can imagine why you might want to grow cut flowers; to go out into your garden on a golden summer evening, clippers in hand, and hunt for ripe blooms to bring into your house. There is such a stillness of mind in picking and arranging flowers that feels so good it must be part of being human—so ancient it’s writ right into our DNA.
So then why is it so damn frustrating to learn how to do it? There is so much to learn and I’ve spent hours and hours researching and pulling together resources because as it turns out, it’s not like learning to grow vegetables where you can go to your local library and check out a dozen books on the subject.
My goal is help you skip all that and get straight to the reward at the end. Here are the top six things I wish I knew when I started growing cut flowers:
1. Not every flower makes a good cut flower
The first time I sought out to grow cut flowers I did what I’m sure most people do: circled a bunch of photos in my seed catalogue that looked pretty and ordered them. I’m embarrassed to admit how little I knew about flowers in general before I hit the order button, but I quickly found myself standing in a garden of blooms and not knowing what to do: “where do I cut?” “is this right?” “it’s so short?” Since then I’ve devoted a lot of time to learning what exactly the cut flower trade is all about and what flowers work as cut flowers. I’ve come to realize that the object of the game is all about the ideal stem.
Basically, an ideal stem is 18-24”, about 1/4” thick, and lasts a week in a vase. Flowers developed for the cut flower industry will produce these ideal stems (if you know how to grow them properly, ugh!) while most garden flowers will not. That’s why if you want to grow cut flowers you have to become somewhat versed in the catalogue of cut flower varieties – I find the little pair of scissors in the seed catalogue don’t always hold true.
One lesson that isn’t shared nearly enough is that many cut flower varieties need to be pinched! That means that if you just plant them in the ground as they grow they will not produce any ideal stems without this crucial step. Basically, many branching type flowers will send up one leader and multiple side shoots – none of which will be the ideal stem. To encourage the plant to produce ideal stems – the leader must be “pinched” sending more energy to the side shoots to become bigger, longer, and of a more uniform size, length and bloom time. I usually aim to pinch the leader so that around 4 leaf sets are left – meaning 8 side shoots will develop into ideal stems.
As with vegetables, if cut flowers are planted too close they won’t grow to their ideal size. However, if planted too spaciously, they actually might suffer in length and straightness. There is an ideal range for cut flowers to be planted in, and in order to get an ideal stem, these should be adhered to. As a side note, some cut flowers can be grown either to harvest their leader or to pinch and harvest as a branching type. For harvesting leaders, plants should be closer together.
4. Proper Stage of Harvest
Another quandary I ended up in when I first tried growing cut flowers was a short vase life. I soon learned that many cut flowers need to be harvested before they’ve fully bloomed and allowed to open in the vase. Cosmos are the number one flower that springs to mind – their delicate single petals not only fall off soon after picking if they’re already open, but they’re a favourite of many insects who like to nibble on them. Sunflowers also fall into this category.
There’s also another category of harvest stage for blooms that need to be fully open before they’re picked – like zinnias. Zinnias have stems that don’t harden up until their flowers have been open for a day or two. Basil is also more likely to wilt if not fully mature.
If you are not getting a good vase life on your flowers, make sure you know when their correct stage of harvest is.
5. Proper Harvest Technique
This one is mostly about zinnias and other “cut and come again” branching types. I find that my first few zinnia stems are too short to be considered ideal stems. However, this is normal. Some cut flowers need to be harvested “deep” in order to produce ideal stems. If cut “deep”, meaning I cut with no mercy and slash the plant back shockingly low, removing many leaf sets that would grow into flower stems, the blooms that will follow grow on long, straight, thick stems. You aren’t doing the plant any favours by trying to spare all those leaf sets. You’ll only get short, wonky, crooked, weak stems instead of plentiful 24” straight ones.
Also, all cut flowers should also have their foliage stripped on about half the stem at the time of harvest. No foliage should be under water. If you look at the hands of any cut flower farmer, you’ll notice a blackened mark on their ring finger from stripping foliage!
6. Harvest Windows and Succession Planting
All cut flowers fall into a few different categories of harvest windows. There are the “cut and come again” types that you basically have to plant once and they’ll give you stems all season; on the other side of the spectrum there are the “one and done” types that just give you one crack at the can; and then there are those that fall in between, perhaps giving you one first flush and then another a few months later.
Generally speaking, cut and come again types only have to be planted once, while the one and done types need to be planted every few weeks. I say “generally speaking” because some varieties, like cosmos, are technically cut and come again types, but will only give a flower farmer only one flush of ideal stems. They will continue to bloom, but on weenie stems that are unmarketable. Lovely for a home gardener though!
Is Your Brain Spinning?
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Here’s my advice: When you pick a cut flower variety that you want to grow, review these six things and turn them into a question (Is it a good cut flower variety? Does it need to be pinched? What is the spacing?). The three best resources for answering these questions are the Johnny’s website, the Floret website, and the Flower Farmers facebook group.
I’ll even go a step further: I’ve picked a few cut and come again flower varieties that are easy to grow and started them in my greenhouse for you! I’ll be bringing them to market and they’ll come with instructions on how to grow and how to harvest. I’ve even pinched them for you already. I’ll be bringing them to our farmers’ markets and have them available in a few select flower shops. Sign up for our newsletter to get updates!
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