What I wish I'd known before I became a Flower Farmer
It's so hard to begin this post because there are so many things I wished I'd known before starting the journey of creating a Flower Farm. I'd read The Cutting Garden by Sarah Raven and was so smitten with the idea of having a garden filled with flowers purely for picking that I re created her design and filled it with rows of flowers. My first surprise was that I didn't get flowers for months and then when I did I had enormous quantities of blooms and nowhere to sell them.I wanted to add dahlias to my collection but had missed the correct time of year to order them. You get the picture. I was as green as Kermit the Frog when it came to growing flowers to sell. Bear in mind that I started growing in 2015 just before the wonderful information from Floret was readily available.Her early blog posts were a life saver for sure. Hopefully the next few paragraphs will be helpful to the Newbie Flower Farmers amongst you and will save you making the mistakes that plagued my early years. I'll just touch on a couple thoughts per post and try and create a little series for you.
Lesson number #1 : Sow in Autumn for early Spring flowers
The concept of sowing seeds in autumn was a light bulb moment for me. I didn't realise that I could sow in autumn, plant out in the field over winter and then enjoy early crops of flowers in spring. The first year I successfully completed this I was overjoyed. It meant I could have stock and cerinthe in my tulip posies and not only that I discovered that cornflowers and ammi majus were two to three times as tall and abundant as their spring sown cousins. Here is a list of Hardy annuals that I sow every Autumn to help you along.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but it's a start. Basically any seed labelled as a hardy annual will stand a good chance of surviving a winter in the field. Together with bulbs you will have a good start to your Spring plan. What bulbs would I recommend? Tulips are an easy one. Make sure you opt to grow the "fancy doubles" rather than the singles. These are sometimes called peony tulips. I think when growing speciality cut flowers it's important to choose flowers that are a bit different from what you may find in a supermarket. It'll be easier to sell something that a customer may not have seen before or that is not readily available in your location.
Incidentally the photo above depicts the first rows of flowers that I ever planted. My early plantings went into the Sarah Raven inspired Cutting Garden which turned out to be very difficult to maintain. I soon learned that growing in rows and into weed mat was a much more efficient way of growing a large crop. The very bushy crop in the middle was a crop of cornflowers with (I think) Ammi majus planted next to it. The netting was there not to protect the flowers but to protect a fig crop that we grew once upon a time. I since learned that my rows were WAY TOO LONG for me to deal with! I'm at the stage where I'm actually downsizing my farm a bit which includes making these rows shorter so they're much easier to tackle once a crop has finished flowering.
Lesson #2 :Learn how to successionally sow
Again this lesson was something I had to learn the hard way. That first Spring I sowed up a storm. I was so passionate about flowers that I wanted to grow everything! I think I must have sown about eight different types of sweet pea - all at the same time! Sweet peas are such a prolific flowerer and I ended up with so many stems I just couldn't keep up with them.I also didn't tie them in properly so had quite a few vines slump into a messy tangle. These mistakes in themselves weren't showstoppers but when I compared my efforts to Floret I did feel like a huge horticultural failure! I journaled regularly (and still do) about these failures and wow I beat myself up a lot! I didn't realise that learning by experience, while annoying and costly, is actually the best teacher of all. As well as sweet peas I grew a shed load of cornflowers in blues, pinks, purples and the fancy mixes. Cornflowers are one of the most fiddly flowers to harvest and I had a long row of them! I didn't even get close to harvesting even a quarter of the blooms so they quickly went to seed. This was also in the day before dried flowers had made their triumphant comeback. I could have hacked the plants back and hung upside down for drieds but it just wasn't in my remit at that point.
So I learnt that to sow little and often is the key to a continuous (or fairly continuous) flow of flowers. I say fairly continuous because you can have the most well planned out sowing schedule but there will always be something to trip you up along the way. That might be a huge slug attack that reduces your beautifully planted sweet peas to stumps overnight (been there). It might be the freak hail storm in November that flattens your painstakingly planted and netted (twice) cornflowers and ammi majus (been there too). The trick is to do your best but expect a few hiccups throughout the season. I keep a separate sheet in my Planner Spreadsheet entitled "Things I must Achieve Next Year" and if I've had any crop failures they go on the list and become top priority. This has worked pretty well for me and keeps my focus when there are a million things to remember.
Lesson #3 : Start Small to grow Big
This is the first thing I will tell a new flower grower. I wouldn't recommend rushing out and buying a greenhouse or a walk in chiller. I also wouldn't recommend trying to sow every cut flower seed even if you are desperate to grow them. I'd invest in some weed mat, some irrigation and keep my annuals to a modest amount but make sure I sow some for Spring, some for summer and some for Autumn. I'd consider adding a few perennials to the mix and maybe a few shrubs for foliage. Just to get that going is harder than it looks but definitely do-able. You'll also be more likely to have some successes which will encourage you to keep going.
Keep really good field notes throughout the season. Include dates for when you sowed, when you planted out and when it flowered. Were there any insect issues? Did it require staking? How prolific was this variety? How easy was it to grow? In time this information will help you to weigh up whether a crop is worth sowing. Phlox is one of the most beautiful flowers. I love it's colour palette (creme brulee and sugar stars varieties in particular) and it's scent is second to none. However, it's hard to get any kind of decent stem length and it's fiddly to harvest if netted which it needs to be as it's a bit of a flopper. So you will need to weigh up whether such a fussy flower works for your business model.
My final thought would be to consider why you want to grow flowers? Do you want to make a profit? Do you want to give away the excess flowers to friends and neighbours? Do you dream of picking armfuls of flowers as per pinterest and Insta posts? Your initial reasons for growing flowers will help to guide you on your journey so be sure to write these reasons down. They're important. You may find yourself veering off this initial path which is to be expected. But if you find yourself really unsure of where you're going next you can always return to the beginning and remember the WHY that compelled you to start this venture which will help you keep your balance.
Lesson #4 : Who is your market?
Lesson #5 Grow perennials - they will probably save your bacon
Lesson #6 - Grow shrubs and trees in your first year