Transitioning from professional gardener to flower farmer
I discovered my passion for gardening after we purchased a century old house with long neglected, hidden gardens. It was serendipity when I stumbled upon a seed company selling heirloom annuals and perennials. I fell in love with the beauty, grace and charm of these antique flowers. Little did I realize that was the beginning of a gardening career which has now spanned over 20 years.
In 1994 we began our family nursery which specializes in the growing of heirloom plants. It wasn’t long before I was planting English-style, cottage gardens for various clients throughout Central and Northern New York. During these past two decades, I have designed and planted everything from tiny gardens to a courtyard garden at a castle. However, I have always had this niggling feeling that I was meant to be a farmer.
Our daughter’s 2014 wedding gave me the shove I needed to jump in. She wanted me to not only create all her wedding flowers but to grow them as well. We borrowed a field, put up deer fencing, tilled, prepared the soil, and planted. Happily, since I was only growing for this one event, it was a success. It was then I decided to launch a cut flower business and my internal battles of gardener vs. farmer began!
The size was the first major decision. I always tell my garden clients only to plant what they can easily maintain — not in June when they are enthusiastic but in August when it is hot and tedious. I should have paid more attention to this lesson! We started with two beds each 50 feet long. My intention was to make them three feet wide, but that just didn’t seem like enough space, so I planted them at four feet. By July I could no longer reach the center of the beds, so those plants remained uncut and untidy.
Staking was another challenge. Somehow, there never seemed to be enough time to get everything staked once it was growing. Besides, it all looked so pretty! That is it looked pretty until the first big storm blew through. Trying to pull six foot high cosmos back up to standing straight definitely taught me the importance of staking ahead of the growth.
After two years of ‘controlled chaos,' I knew that if we were to continue with this venture and if it was to be successful, I had to enter into a more serious farmer mindset. This season we began with one primary goal and that is efficiency. Every change or idea we implement we now ask ourselves — "will this make us more efficient?"
We reconfigured the field to be made up of five beds, each 60 feet long by 3 feet wide. We put down landscape fabric between the beds so there are two foot wide paths which no longer need mowing and it keeps me from the temptation of making the bed "just a little" wider. The insides of the beds are now easily reachable which enables us to harvest a greater number of flowers. These beds provide us with more than enough flowers to do a farmers market each week, some small events each week (dinner parties & special bouquets) and a number of weddings throughout the summer.
Another big change for us this season was the addition of drip irrigation. As much as I love to water (the best way to really get to know your plants), I could not spend the hours it was taking.
We also staked all the beds immediately after planting. We used uniform metal stakes in heights of 4, 5 and 6 feet depending on the potential plant height. We ran wire fencing along the stakes, running it higher as the plants got taller. That kept the plants standing upright which makes harvesting so much easier and keeps the paths open.
These changes were costly and very time-consuming at the beginning of the season, but the advantages we have gained have been invaluable. If there are any future flower farmers out there, I would strongly suggest starting small so you can keep it manageable. It is so easy to become overwhelmed by all there is to do. By keeping it manageable, you will gain confidence and skills and be able to expand as you are able. I would also strongly suggest irrigation, a staking method that works for you and a layout of your fields which keeps everything organized and orderly.
I have to laugh at how far I have come in the past couple of years. Those rows of flowers now make my heart swell with happiness, and my tidy layout gives me as much joy as any of my romantic cottage gardens.