Five Easy Flowers for Market Gardeners (and How to Grow Them)

I know a lot of market gardeners who want to add flowers to their garden but don’t know a lot about them. I’ve been there! Order a few things that look nice, try to follow the instructions on the seed packet and maybe bring a few buckets of zinnias to market in the end. It’s hard not to feel like you’re wasting your time, space and money and write them off as a “fun crop.” However, cut flowers CAN be productive, marketable and profitable, there just isn’t a whole lot of readily available resources for market gardeners on how to do it. I’m no master flower farmer, but I have figured out enough to feel more confident about adding them to our vegetable operation efficiently and productively, so I really want to share with you what I’ve learned so you can too.

One thing I’ve done here is made sure all the flowers are seed grown annuals that are started in the greenhouse so they are all basically started and planted the same way. They can also all be harvested twice per week which fits with most market gardeners harvest schedules (unlike some types that need to be harvested 2x per day), and I’ve included some basic tips on what you’ll need to grow and harvest your flowers as a marketable crop. I’ll also note that I have an urban market who respond better to subdued tones and delicate textures than big bright and loud colours and I’ve made mention of that in all the flowers below.

The take-away here is to treat your flowers with the same respect as you do your veggies. Know how to grow them, what time of day to harvest them (first thing in the morning or in the evening when it’s cool), know what stage to harvest them in, and know how to properly store them until they’re at market. It’s not complicated, you just have to learn how to do it, like any crop! If you haven’t already, read my blog post on Six Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Growing Cut Flowers.

 

SEED SOURCES

All the flowers here you can order from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine. When you get comfortable you can start ordering from Geo Seeds (you need a business tax id to get an account) which will save you money and give you a wider selection, but there’s no growing information, online catalogue, online ordering or photos.

 

TOOLS

Here’s the tools you’ll need in addition to what you should already have as a market gardener:

  1. Clean—NAY—STERILE buckets: Seriously! Don’t use your rock picking buckets. Have separate, clean, bleached buckets for your flowers. Bacteria will wilt them. I use these cheap ones for both harvest and display.
  2. Felco-310 snips. They’re only $20 and your hands will thank you.

FERTILITY

You don’t need to get fancy, but the following flowers are considered medium feeders and I amend my flower beds with compost. Don’t skimp out on your soil for flowers and treat it like you would for your vegetables. For flowers that continue to bloom all season, I like to give them a foliar spray of fish fert every few weeks.

 

IRRIGATION

Flowers like water, it’s no secret. They’re also not crazy about being wet though, so drip is actually ideal, which pairs nicely with landscape fabric which is a favourite with flower farmers. However, as long as the following flowers aren’t wet when you harvest (or put a fan on them after you do), I wouldn’t get too worked up about using overhead.

 

YIELD

This might be crazy generalized, but for your crop planning purposes I would roughly estimate that each plant below produces 1-2 stems per week in its harvest window. So if you want 5 bunches per week (a bucket), plant 50 plants.

 

1. Benary’s Giant Zinnia (very easy)

Benary’s ‘White’ from Johnny’s

Zinnias don’t always have to be the vibrant red, pink and yellow that spring to mind. In fact, it’s only an old fashioned market that I find tends to go for those ones out of nostalgia. There are some really elegant zinnia colours out there like coral, white, lime and salmon rose. Benary’s Giant is the variety bred for the cut flower industry and will outperform almost every other zinnia out there. Order your seeds by colour, not a mix, and present them in blocks of colour at market or CSA pick ups.

How to Grow

Start in 72s 3 weeks before your last frost and a second succession 2 months later. Your first sowing will continue to produce but you’ll likely start to see black splotches develop on the foliage, while the second sowing will have fresh lime green foliage.

Set out after last frost, they are not frost tolerant at all. In a 30” bed plant 5 rows at 12” spacing staggered, or a 9” grid spacing. I’ve never put them in landscape fabric but this year I will, not because of weed pressure but because I didn’t like the splash back of mud and dirt on the foliage which really liked to cling. Your first bloom will develop on a short bushy stem. Cut it off! Encourage low branching. This is the trick to growing zinnias.

How to Harvest

Zinnias need to be mature before they’re harvested or their stems will be weak and flop over. Give them a wiggle to see if they’re ready before cutting. Cut deep to encourage future stems to grow long and straight. Strip most of the foliage and put in clean bucket of water (with a drop of bleach is recommended). Remove any unusable blooms, cutting deep, to keep your zinnias blooming.

How to Store

Don’t put them in the cooler, just a cool shady spot. I try to harvest my zinnias right before I sell them because they can’t be stored in a cooler.

 

2. Statice (easy)

‘Sunset’ Statice from Johnny’s

Like zinnias, there are some beautiful statice varieties and statice makes a great “filler” for bouquets or “mixed bunches”. Sunset and Apricot are beautiful, and white and blue pair beautifully in some colour combinations. Best of all, they’re easy, produce all season, and are everlasting.

How to Grow

Start indoors 8 weeks before last frost. They germinate well but are finicky about soil depth – they need a bit of light but don’t root unless they’re a little buried too. Vermiculite is a good cover for this reason. I start in mini soil blocks and bump up – you could either sow in flats and prick up to 72s when first true leaves appear, or sow into 72s and hope to get like 50% success.

Plant out around last frost (they’re a little frost hardy). In a 30” bed 5 rows, 12” spacing staggered or a 9” grid. The first few might bloom on short stems, cut low and discard and the stems to follow will get taller and taller.

How to Harvest

Harvest when all the florets are fully open or you may actually find they wilt! Cut right back to the ground. Remove all stems to keep them blooming all season.

How to Store

I find my walk in cooler is too humid for statice so I leave them out.

 

3. Potomac, Rocket & Chantilly Snapdragons (easy but less simple)

Potomac ‘Lavender’ from Johnny’s

I find snapdragons very rewarding to grow. There are many types but not all are good for cut flowers. Chantilly is great for first thing in the Spring (snaps are very cold hardy) while Potomac and Rocket are good for the height of summer. There are so many great colours but I still recommend ordering your colours separately to get the visual impact of the blocks of colour. Each sowing of snapdragons will give you a first flush for 3-4 weeks. They will give you a second flush but I found it’s not worth the wait.

How to Grow

Snapdragon seeds are tiny and need about 2 months until they’re ready to be planted out. Sow 3 successions 1 month apart starting 10-12 weeks before your last frost. I sow each tiny seed with a toothpick in a mini soil block and dust lightly. You could scatter lightly in a flat and prick up to 128s. Remember to feed them!

Pinch seedlings back to 3-4 leaf sets to encourage branching. Don’t skip this step unless you’re intending to plant closer together for one stem per plant, which in my opinion is more trouble than it’s worth, unless maybe you’re using a Japanese paperpot transplanting system.

Plant out first thing in your garden, they are very hardy. On a 30” bed plant 5 rows at 12” staggered spacing, or 9” grid. If you don’t pinch, plant on a 6” grid. If you want to really do it right, plant into landscape fabric and set up horizontal netting. Set this up at the time of planting. Snapdragons really take off and their stems will flop over and snap at the base without support. Netting will make the difference of like half your stems being usable or not.

How to Harvest

All the literature says cut when 1/3 of florets are open on the bottom. I say you can cut a little before this point, because the open florets are so delicate and can get knocked off. Timing is important, but after that it’s pretty straightforward. Cut them first thing in the morning and strip bottom foliage.

How to Store

Snapdragons are geotropic, for your intents and purposes meaning they need to be stored straight or they will bend. I like to wrap them in newspaper, 10-15 in a bunch and put them in a 5-gallon bucket in the cooler. Or just try to get them as straight as you can in a 5-gallon (we’re not selling to florists, after all).

You can keep them in the cooler until they’re ready to sell.

 

4. Strawflower (easy)

‘Apricot/Peach’ Strawflower from Johnny’s

Not every market will go crazy for these, but I found sales really picked up in the autumn and they are lovely in a mixed bunch. The Apricot/Peach mix from Johnny’s I start early and harvest from one planting all season, whereas the Sultane Mix (also from Johnny’s) I’m growing for September harvest this year.

How to Grow

Start 6-8 weeks before planting out around last frost. I start in mini-blocks, you can sow in flats and bump up to 72s. For autumn harvest, start in early May.

Plant out around last frost (they are a bit frost hardy). In a 30” bed plant 5 rows at 12” staggered spacing, or 9” grid. Pinch back to encourage branching. If you don’t, just harvest the first bloom (it will be a bit short and the stem a bit bushy) and nicer stems will follow.

How to Harvest

Like zinnias, strawflowers can be a bit floppy before they’re mature. Do a wiggle test to see if they’re ready. The petals should be starting to separate. I usually harvest my strawflower last thing in the morning or in the evening because they close up in the cool humidity of the morning.

Cut deep and strip most of foliage (which isn’t that pretty, unfortunately).

How to Store

They will store in the cooler but look a bit icky while they’re in there and when they first come out, so don’t go straight from the cooler to market.

 

5. Aromatto and Mrs. Burns Lemon Basil (easy)

Basil ‘Aromatto’ from Johnny’s

Every great bouquet should have some foliage, and the easiest to grow will be familiar to you: basil! Before you get too excited, in order to get lush, tall, fragrant Aromatto basil to last in the vase, I dip their stems in boiling water for 10 seconds. It’s really not that big a deal, but if that freaks you out, you might be disappointed without this crucial step.

Mrs. Burns Lemon Basil smells amazing, looks amazing, doesn’t need any stem boiling, lasts a dogs age in the vase, but doesn’t grow very tall. This is the trade off… but I think it’s still worth it. It seriously smells amazing.

How to Grow

Sow around 4 successions every 3 to 4 weeks. Start indoors 6 weeks before last frost in 128s or 72s, 2 seeds per cell (thin to one). Pinch to encourage branching. Plant out after last frost. In a 30” bed plant 5 rows, 12” staggered spacing or a 9” grid.

How to Harvest

Basil should be flowering and a bit mature with a woody stem before it’s harvested as a cut flower. It’s a bit finicky about being wet or cold, but doesn’t like to be hot either. I’ve been known to harvest wet with dew, boil the stems, and place in front of a fan. Otherwise cut deep and strip any foliage that will be below the water line. Take back to the house/shed and dip Aromatto stems in boiling water for 10 seconds (the boiled part will turn green) before returning to cool water.

How to Store

Basil doesn’t like to go into the cooler, though I’ve seen Mrs. Burns hold up alright. Keep in a cool dark place. I try to harvest right before they go to market.

 

 

 

Honourable Mentions

 

Procut Sunflowers

Procut ‘Gold’ from Johnny’s

I chose not to include sunflowers on my list because they are a pain in the ass for me to grow in my intensive market garden and they weren’t popular enough at my urban markets to be worth it. They should be harvested when they just begin to crack (2x per day or they will get nibbled), and the stubble leaves a mess in the field which is annoying in an intensive system. Not all customers go for sunflowers that are still mostly closed, but they will last the longest in the vase this way. If you want to sell them open, still harvest them at this stage and let them open outside the cooler for 12 hours before bringing them to market.

If you want to grow sunflowers for market, I highly recommend the professional series “Procut” over branching types which don’t hold up in the vase. You can transplant them for an early start, they hold in a vase for a long time, and they’re FAST. In fact, you need to succession sow them every 10 days! Planted at a 6” grid spacing they will grow to be a smaller, more marketable size. Harvest when they just begin to crack open and put in the cooler until you’re ready to sell. I haven’t tried this, but I can imagine sunflowers would be a good candidate for the paperpot transplanter (if you can sell 264 sunflowers every 10 days).

 

Cosmos

Double Click ‘Cranberries’ from Johnny’s

Cosmos are so easy to grow (don’t need added fertility) and so charming, but like sunflowers they must be harvested 2x per day and sold at the still-closed stage which market customers don’t always go for. If harvested open they will likely get nibbled by bugs and have a short vase life.

If you want to grow cosmos, try the double clicks. They’re a bit more forgiving about being harvested open. Sow every 3 week for continuous blooms (12” spacing) and pinch!! PINCH!! Don’t not pinch! Leave about 5 leaf sets. Harvest single varieties when they just start to crack a petal (morning and evening), strip foliage and put in the cooler until you’re ready to sell.

 

 

 

Did you find this useful?

Growing cut flowers for market is a positively Oceanic subject matter, but I hope I’ve helped you visualize how you can add it as a successful crop to your market garden. If you found it useful, please comment below, share, and/or subscribe to my newsletter from the farm! I’d love to hear from other market gardeners who have had either difficulty or success with adding a few flowers to their crop lists.

Glynis MacLeod

Farmer, flower picker, dreamer, thinker, lover of 19th c. Russian literature.

Comments

  1. Glynis MacLeod

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    Teresa
    April 22, 2017

    Hi! I just want to say thanks for compiling this info and your tips! I am a second year backyard flower farmer and I am growing many of those varieties you listed for the first time, so I appreciate you sharing. Here’s to a great season!

  2. Glynis MacLeod

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    Susan Lynch
    April 23, 2017

    Great article, very interested in the snaps – I am a rose grower so I am endeavouring to add other cut flowers to my field that will enhance them . Thanks for sharing .

  3. Glynis MacLeod

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    Mary
    April 25, 2017

    Wow, this is amazing. Thank you so much for being so generous with your knowledge. I now know which are good for me to start with.

  4. Glynis MacLeod

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    mirmysgarden
    May 10, 2017

    This is so helpful. Thank you so much! I have 3 of these on your list growing now and didn’t know you shouldn’t put zinnias in coolers. Do you know another good time to start seeds for Chantilly? Would you say late summer to plant in Fall? I have a hard time figuring out schedules. I am in zone 9

    • Glynis MacLeod

      Leave a Reply

      Glynis MacLeod
      May 14, 2017

      Thanks! I am in zone 5 so I have a very different environment, but you should look into the book “Cool Flowers” by Lisa Mason Ziegler who grows in zone 9 and does, I believe, plant snapdragons in fall to bloom first thing in the Spring. I have found the foliage to be very frost hardy, but not the blooms. Ziegler also has great online resources. Thanks!

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