Cut flower farming workshop offers in-depth advice
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — At this year’s annual Future Harvest Conference, Maya Kosok, owner of Hillen Homestead in Baltimore, opened the pre-conference workshop on “Sustainable Flower Farming” with a talk on “Flower Farming 101.”
A successful urban farmer, Kosok hared numerous tips and techniques that had learned during her own adventures in cut flower farming over the last eight years.
Like her admonition to “learn the Latin names” of the flower varieties they are planting, Kosok’s advice on practicalities, such as “having a consistent length to your beds because it really helps for supplies,” whether those supplies are seedlings, drip irrigation lines, or landscape fabric.
For the former, she suggested that attendees should consider outsourcing at least some of their seedling growing to other greenhouse growers.
Kosok especially recommended that attendees consider outsourcing growing their annual seedlings for their mid-June and mid-July succession plantings.
“I think a lot of flower farmers underestimate how much expense and time they’re putting into growing their seedlings,” Kosok said.
In addition to a brief discussion of succession planting — a series of multiple plantings of the same flower crop to ensure consistent and continued harvests over the course of a season — and its benefits, Kosok discussed some specific planting constraints, which flower farmer,s who, like herself, farm on limited acreage, should consider.
For example, she said woody perennial shrubs “need to earn their space.”
“Even though they’re lower maintenance overall,” she said, “they still need a plan for weed maintenance” during the season, she said. Thus, failing to fully evaluate whether those “woodies” will produce sufficiently during at least a portion of the season to warrant those maintenance efforts means losing the income that piece of ground could have produced.
“If you put a perennial in, then that space is done,” she said. This is especially true of floral perennials such as Ninebark (physocarpus genus), she continued, because many of its varieties “require an ever-larger space as they mature.”
Kosok’s advice on woody perennials segued directly into Bahiyyah Parks’ presentation on growing perennial cut flowers. Known for her peonies, both cut and plants, Parks, owner of EcoBlossoms in Upper Marlboro reiterated Kosok’s caution about carefully weighing where and what amount of space the flower farmer should devote to perennials. Though Parks did acknowledge, “A lot of flower farmers treat perennials as annuals.”
Parks then gave a brief tutorial on how she prepares her raised beds to combat her biggest challenge in raising and producing perennial plants.
Her method takes the soil for the pathway area and flips it grass-side down on the bed, which “doesn’t need a wood frame, she said. “It just needs to be higher than the ground to ensure the bed drains and dries out faster” than the adjoining pathways.
Parks also explained that to keep down the weeds and eliminate the weeds, she uses newspapers and cardboard in her pathways and on her beds, and then covers lit with wood chip mulch or leaf mold. “Perennials really don’t like grass,” continued Parks, “even in your pathways, because it works to smother the perennial plant’s roots.”
Parks ended her presentation with a number of tips on her specialty, growing and harvesting peonies for the cut flower markets. Although most flower farmers understand you should wait two to three years before you can harvest a peony plant, Parks emphasized, “it means you want to pinch off all the buds” during that period to ensure the plant is devoting its energy to growing the plant and not flowers.
After a lunch break, Kosok and Parks were joined by Cristina Flores of Flowers x Flores for demonstrations of different aspects of cut flower arranging. Flores, a floral designer, who, as a member of the ‘slow flower movement’ “sources her flowers from the nearest farms possible,” also grows flowers as a partner in Three Part Harmony Farm.
Before her demonstration, she talked about some lessons she had learned from working with brides on the floral design side of her business. As with Kosok and Parks, Flores emphasized the importance of educating one’s customers on what is, and often, is not, possible with fresh cut flowers.
Dave Dowling, a nationally known flower grower from Montgomery County, who recently served a second term from 2016 to 2018 as president of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers and currently represents Ednie Flower Bulb in New Jersey, rounded out the afternoon with two in-depth presentations on first, cut flower perennials, and second, the benefits of using high tunnels in cut flower farming.
Thanks to Dowling’s years of experience in the industry, his presentations offered a comprehensive look at not only the different perennial cut flower varieties flower farmers should be considering for their farms, but also some unique flower farming information.
For instance, during his discussion of Digitalis, a tall spiky cut flower with multiple florets going up the stem, Dowling cautioned “cut flower farmers “shouldn’t have beehives on your farm because on spikey flowers, the florets fall off after they’re pollinated.”
On high tunnels, he encouraged attendees to strongly consider making the investment thanks to their ability to extend a flower farmer’s season on both ends. Even for those attendees who could not yet afford that investment, Dowling reminded the sold-out workshop’s packed room, “You can grow a lot of cut flowers in just a little space.”
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