Growing and Marketing Cut Flowers

All About Flowers

by Efuru Bandele, Farmer; and Owusu Bandele, Associate Professor

The production and marketing of cut flowers can be a profitable undertaking for small-scale growers. In fact, between 1990 and 1996 the sale of specialty cut flowers (excluding roses, carnations and chrysanthemums) increased by $95 million (Voigt, 1997). Flowers can be grown by themselves, or can be rotated with vegetables.

Last year, we started a four acre organic farm. Currently, we have slightly over two acres in production. We raise a variety of vegetables along with an assortment of cut flowers. We grow everything on our farm organically, including the cut flowers. However, most cut flower growers are not certified organic farmers.

Cut flower production offers several opportunities and advantages:

  • It is a way to diversify your operation
  • It can be an excellent income supplement
  • Flowers can be relatively easy to grow and inexpensive to produce
  • Flowers can add beauty to your farm and home
  • There is a good market for cut flowers
  • You can grow varieties which are not readily available in retail outlets
  • Flowers can attract bees and other beneficial insects
  • Growing flowers can be therapeutic for growers with health problems

Sources of Information

If you are considering cut flowers production, you must first gather information concerning both production and marketing. Production information can be obtained from a number of sources including:

  • Farmers and farm tours
  • Farmers markets
  • Cooperative extension service personnel and research scientists
  • ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer For Rural Areas) (1-800-346-9140)
  • The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers
  • Seed catalogs (such as Johnny’s Seeds)
  • Books (such as The Flower Farmer by Lynn Byczynski)
  • Conferences and workshops (such as the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference)

Before starting our business, we visited several cut flower operations on farm tours. Most of the operations that we visited were mixed operations, which produced both cut flowers and vegetables. We also contacted the cooperative extension service for information. We were fortunate because one of the extension agents that we contacted was also a cut flower grower at the time. ATTRA later sent some excellent information.

Producing Transplants in the Greenhouse

We grow most of our cut flowers by using transplants which we produce. Using the transplants increases your chances of establishing a good stand. It can also give the flowers a jump on the weeds. Flowers can also be grown in the greenhouse during periods when it would be too cold for them to grow outdoors. The greenhouse also allows you to have a crop earlier in the spring. Plantings should be staggered to insure a continuous supply of flowers.

We constructed an inexpensive greenhouse by using the following materials:

  • Ultra violet treated greenhouse plastic (100 ft by 24 ft)
  • Rebars (2 feet)
  • Schedule 40 PVC pipe (1.5 inches by 20 feet)
  • 1 by 4 inch lumber planks
  • Felt stripping
  • Cement
  • Discarded storm door

Total cost of the greenhouse was under $300. The actual dimensions of the greenhouse are approximately 50 feet by 14 feet. The plastic came in a 100 foot roll. We have the option of saving half of the plastic for the future or constructing a second greenhouse of the same dimensions. The rebars were anchored in the ground with cement with approximately six inches above ground. The PVC pipe was then arched over adjacent rebars. The tension created with the arched pipes helps keep them in place. However, you can drill a hole at the bottom of the PVC and secure it on the rebar with wire. We also attached the arched PVC at the top with one inch PVC which ran the length of the greenhouse. Duct tape was used to make these connections. The arched bars were approximately six feet apart.

A used storm door was placed at one end of the greenhouse which was opened during warm days. The plastic at the other end of the greenhouse was folded back to provide ventilation during the day. The felt stripping and planks were used to secure the plastic. A heavy duty stapler attached the plastic to the planks. Cinder blocks were placed around the bottom and on top of the planks to avoid lifting by the wind.

Because of a mild winter, we did not have to heat the greenhouse. We will use kerosene heaters in the future as the need arises. During the summer months, this greenhouse would be too hot for production. We replaced the plastic which will be used next season with shade cloth for transplant production in the summer.

Fertility and Cultural Practices

Because we are organic growers, we do not use synthetic fertilizers. We are still experimenting with the growing media for transplants. Currently, our growing media consists of three parts of vermiculite, one part perlite, one part peat moss and one part manure. We also add small amounts of blood meal and bone meal.

We plant on raised beds in the field to insure good drainage. Flowers are irrigated using a drip irrigation system which can run off of a regular faucet. Rabbit manure is a big part of our fertility program because it is readily available to us. We also use compost which we produce from leaves, crop residue and table scraps. Occasionally, we foliar feed plants with a fish emulsion spray using the back pack sprayer. Conventional growers can consult the extension service for recommended fertilizer rates.

We have not had much of a problem with insects or diseases thus far with the flowers.. The zinnias and sunflowers have developed occasional fungal leaf spots, but affected leaves can be easily removed before flowers are bunched. Organic growers can use natural occurring sulphur and copper compounds for disease control when needed. Conventional growers can consult the extension service for recommended fungicides.

We have had occasional problems with leafhoppers on sunflowers and cucumber beetles on several flowers, but damage has not been severe. We have used a rotenone/ pyrethrum insecticide and a garlic/hot pepper mixture when needed.

Flower Selection

Several references give good information regarding flower selection and the selection of varieties (Greer and Rugen, 1997; Byczynski, 1997). You can also contact your county agent for local information. During our first year, we planted the following flowers:

  • Sunflowers
  • Zinnias
  • Cosmos
  • Gomphrena
  • Marigolds

Sunflowers are quite popular. They can be sold as single stems or in bunches. They also can be arranged in mixed bouquets. Some cultivars of sunflowers produce large single flowers while others produce clusters of smaller flowers. They also come in a variety of colors. It is good to plant a mixture of the different types. Zinnias which come in an array of vibrant colors also sold quite well.

Cosmos and gomphrena are good fillers although we occasionally sell bunches of these by themselves. We also add marigolds to mixed bunches. Wild flowers such as verbena and goldenrod can also be used to fill the bouquet. Be sure to test wild flowers to make sure that they do not wilt too rapidly.

During our second year, we added the following flowers to our plantings:

  • Straw flowers
  • Celosia (cockscomb)
  • Yarrow
  • Bachelor buttons

We have also started some eucalyptus plants from seeds which we will use as fillers. We also plan to produce some edible bouquets that include nasturtium, calendula and other edible flowers.

Harvesting and Postharvest Handling

It is best to harvest early in the morning. Most growers who sell at farmers markets harvest the morning before market day, and keep the flowers in a cool place until they are ready to bring them to the market. Some growers recommend that flowers be allowed to sit for several hours before handling. Some flowers such as sunflowers have a tendency to drop the petals shortly after harvest if the flowers are fully mature. Therefore, some growers harvest sunflowers before petals are fully open. Flowers should be kept in water up to the time of sale.

Many growers practice "deadheading". This involves removing mature and over mature flowers from the plant before the flower produces fruit and goes to seed. The idea here is to encourage the plant to put more of its energy in flower production than in the production of fruit and seeds. Therefore, production of flowers is prolonged.

Marketing

We sell most of our flowers at the Red Stick Farmers Market in Baton Rouge, Louisiana or the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans. In fact, we were the only cut flower producers at the Red Stick Market last year, but this year a total of five growers are selling. The Crescent City Market has slightly more cut flowers growers. The cut flower growers do well at both markets, often selling all of the flowers that they bring.

Size of bunches vary. Some sunflower bunches may contain seven or eight flowers while the zinnia bunches could contain more. Prices of the bouquets generally range from five to eight dollars depending on size and vendor. A variety of wrapping material is used for the bunched flowers including newspaper, butcher’s paper, floral paper and sleeves Some vendors also sell individual stems. Sunflowers, for example, can be sold for $1.00 to $1.50 a stem. In addition to the farmers markets, some growers also sell to fruit stands, supermarkets and other retail establishments. Growers can also service restaurants and other businesses on a continuous basis.

It is important to establish good customer relations at the farmers markets. Be knowledgeable about the flowers that you grow. Also, provide customers with information regarding the proper care of flowers, such as changing water. Some growers provide a small package of preservatives with the bouquets. Others recommend that customers add a teaspoon of sugar and bleach per gallon of water to extend the life of the bouquet.

Conclusion

Growing cut flowers can be a profitable business for the small scale producer. People like and will buy flowers. They can add beauty to your farm and home. Flowers can fit in both organic and conventional systems. You can tailor the size of your operation to the amount of time that you wish to devote. Many flowers are relatively easy to grow and seeds are not too expensive. However, harvesting and bunching the flowers can be time consuming. As with any new business, you should first establish your market. We recommend that you start small to see what works for you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Valuable information is available from the extension service, the internet, workshops and conferences, and, of course, from other growers.

References

Byczynski, Lynn. 1997. The Flower Farmer: An Organic Growers guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

Greer, Lane & Rugen, Chris. (1997) Field-Grown and Dried Flower Production and Marketing. Fayetteville, AR: Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas.

Voigt, Alvi. (1997) Domestic major cuts no longer major. The Cut Flower Quarterly, p 1.

Source: United States Department of Agriculture

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