Marketing and Production Basics of Field Cut Production By John M. Dole and Lane Greer

There are a multitude of factors to consider when deciding if outdoor cut flower production is for you. Here, we examine the many facets of this type of production to help you make the right choice.

Commercial, field-grown cut flower production encompasses anincredible array of plant materials, including fresh, dried and preservedflowers, stems and berries. A large portion of fresh and dried cuts in NorthAmerica is grown outdoors. Cuts are marketed through a variety of channels— some summer-only, others year-round. Proper selection of plantmaterials can allow year-round production, although harvests will be limitedduring the winter in temperate climates.

The season starts with woody trees, shrubs, vines and bulbsflowering in the early spring. Perennials and biennials begin floweringmid-spring in the south and late spring in the north. Annuals make up the bulkof production during the summer, supplemented with perennials and woody plants.By fall, the annuals are winding down, a few fall perennials will be flowering,and woody plants with berries or other decorative fruits can be harvested.Woody plants with decorative stems are harvested during the winter when theyare leafless.

Marketing channels

Due to the highly perishable nature of their product, freshcut flower growers must develop an intensive marketing strategy. Local, nichemarkets are often the best choice for small growers. Selling to local floristsor other retailers is one of the best marketing strategies. Fifty years ago,florists grew their own product, so there was a greater variety of flowers.This is no longer the case, and now, florists are clamoring for fresh,hard-to-find, hard-to-ship items.

Although direct marketing to consumers can offer the benefitof higher prices, this strategy requires additional time and expense. The rangeof possibilities for direct marketing includes farmers’ markets, bucketshops, pick-your-own and subscription selling. Of these, farmers’ marketsare probably the most common marketing channel.

Wholesale markets require larger volumes of flowers andgrowers receive lower prices per stem. The greatest benefit of wholesaling isthat a grower has an established market for the product and relatively littletime is spent finding individual customers. Few small- to- medium-sized growerssell exclusively to wholesalers, however, because of the low prices received.Growers thinking of selling to a wholesaler should visit them to see what kindsof products they offer. Because wholesalers do most of their business in themorning, they will have more time for talking with growers in the afternoon.One important point to clarify with wholesalers is transport: Will thewholesaler pick up flowers from your door, will you deliver to thebuyer’s door or will you ship?

Growers may find it advantageous to develop a mixture ofmarketing avenues. For instance, a grower may decide to sell fresh cut flowersto retail or wholesale florists and at the farmer’s market. This way,growers can sell long stems to florists and shorter stems to buyers at the farmer’smarket. Selling at the farmer’s market would also increase short-termcash flow, since wholesalers usually pay their accounts only once a month.

Growers may choose to dry their crop when prices for freshcuts drop. Drying flowers requires extra labor and storage space. These costsshould be factored into deciding whether or not it is advantageous to dryflowers. However, dried flowers are not as perishable as fresh, and they may bea good choice for growers located far from the marketplace. Remember to makethe decision to dry a crop before it is harvested — low-quality, oldflowers that remain unsold from the fresh market will result in low-qualitydried flowers as well.

Site selection and production systems

The best locations for cut flower production are sunny,relatively flat, with well-drained soil. The site should be accessible at alltimes, even after a heavy rainstorm, as flowers will need to be harvestedregardless of the weather. On the other hand, the site should have water forirrigation and postharvest requirements. While air movement is necessary toprevent or reduce disease problems, the site should also be protected fromexcessive winds that can damage the plants and flowers.

Production can be in rows spaced far enough apart for atractor or rototiller to pass between. The row system is limited to specificcrops because of the difficulty of supporting the crops and of the highpotential for dirt and other debris to splash on the foliage and flowers.Consequently, most field cut production occurs in 2.5- to 4-foot-wide beds withtwo or more rows of plants within each bed. The beds should not be too wide, orthey will cause difficulty when reaching into the center of the bed to harvestflowers. Beds are often raised 2-8 inches high to encourage drainage and allowquick drying after a rain. Beds can be mulched before or after planting withplastic, landscape fabric or organic materials to reduce weeds and water loss.Support can be provided with plastic mesh stretched between posts, usually metalt-posts, spaced in pairs every 20-30 feet along the bed.

Aisles should be wide enough to allow people to move betweenthe beds without damaging the plants, which tend to grow and lean out into theaisles. If there is sufficient land, aisles can be made wide enough to allow asmall vehicle to enter, decreasing the labor associated with carrying harvestedflowers. 

Soil Preparation

The soil should be amended with fertilizers and organicmatter prior to planting and a soil test should be collected and submitted to alab for analysis. A local Cooperative Extension Service office may be able toprovide information on collecting and sending in soil samples. Based on thesoil test results, the soil pH may need to be raised with lime or lowered withsulfur (see Table 1 below). Nutrients may also need to be added to raise thenutrient level up to the desired rate (see Table 2 above). Soil tests should betaken at least annually as soil pH and fertility can vary between years.Inadequate nutrition will reduce cut flower yields and quality. However,excessive fertilization wastes fertilizer, may pollute the ground or surfacewater and can damage plants.

Supplemental fertilizers, either organic or inorganic, maybe needed later in the production season, especially in the warm climates wherethe season can be six months to a year long. Supplemental fertilizers can beapplied as dry fertilizers or can be dissolved in water and applied through theirrigation system (fertigation). Generally, fertigation is less labor-intensiveonce the fertilizer injector is incorporated into the irrigation system.

Unless your soil is the perfect sandy loam, it will probablyneed to be amended with organic matter. The addition of organic matter can curemany problems — it can loosen and increase the aeration of heavy claysoils or increase the nutrient and water retention of sandy soils. A variety ofdifferent sources of organic matter can be added, including compost, covercrops, manures, straw, hay, silage and wood chips. Organic matter can beapplied in the fall after the fields are cleared, in the spring prior toplanting, or as a mulch during production to reduce weeds and water loss.

Manures need to be composted or aged prior to application orapplied several weeks prior to planting. Straw, hay and wood chips may alsoneed to be composted prior to use as they can temporarily deplete the soil ofnitrogen as they decay. If applied directly, a little extra nitrogenapplication may be needed. Also, be sure that all organic matter is weed-free.If you accidentally introduce one or more weed species to the farm, you may befighting them for years.

Cover crops are a relatively easy method to add largeamounts of organic matter to soil. Cover crops can be planted in the fall afterthe annuals have been removed or in the spring after the winterannuals/biennials, such as larkspur, have been harvested. Cover crops can andshould be planted on any areas that will remain unplanted for a lengthy periodof time. The alternative Á is to allow the area to grow up in weeds,which will make weed control difficult when the area is later planted. Aislescan also be planted to a low cover crop to reduce weeds. A number of legume cover crops, such asalfalfa (Medicago sativa), cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata), crimson clover(Trifolium incarnatum), hairy vetch (Vicia villosa) and Austrian winter peas(Lathyrus hirsutus), fix nitrogen, which is added to the soil when the covercrop is incorporated.

Field establishment

Field plantings can be established through a variety ofmethods. Direct seeding can be used with species that germinate and growrapidly. Plants with large seeds, such as sunflowers and zinnias, do well whendirect-sown. Some species, such as larkspur and ammi, also do not transplantwell and are best direct-sown.

Many growers use transplants to establish their plantings.Transplants can be purchased ready to plant from suppliers or can be grown in agreenhouse. Purchased transplants reduce the hassle of propagating your ownplants, which can be especially important with some difficult-to-propagatespecies, such as lisianthus (Eustoma). However, purchasing transplants maylimit the number of species, cultivars and colors available and delivery is notalways timely. Transplants can be grown or purchased in a variety of plug orcell sizes. Small plug sizes are generally less expensive but may need to beirrigated frequently after planting in the field. In addition, small plugs willeasily outgrow the flat if not planted promptly and can be difficult toirrigate properly in the greenhouse. Larger plugs are more expensive butestablish in the field more easily and can be held in the greenhouse longerbefore they need to be planted.

Perennial cuts can be established by means of divisions orrooted cuttings. Dormant divisions can be planted soon after arrival from thesupplier or held in a cooler or cool location until they can be planted.Nondormant divisions and rooted cuttings should be planted as soon as possible.

A variety of species produce bulbs, corms, tubers ortuberous roots that can be planted. Some species are not cold-hardy and the bulbs must be dug up in the falland stored in a cool location over the winter until replanted in the spring.Other species can remain in the ground and be handled as other perennials.

Although not cost-effective, potted perennials, shrubs,vines and trees can be used. Usually a few plants are purchased to test thespecies, and if successful, large numbers of plugs, divisions or rootedcuttings are purchased or grown.

Plant spacing

Optimum plant spacing varies greatly with the variety.Plants that become large are usually planted in two rows per bed, occasionallywith plants staggered, while smaller, single-harvest annuals such a plumecelosia may be spaced only 4-6 inches apart with up to 10 rows across the bed.Generally, tight spacing increases yield and profit per square foot of bedspace but decreases yield per plant and air circulation. Thus, if initial plantcosts are high, wide spacing may allow you to maximize the number ofharvestable stems per plant. In addition, wide spacing increases aircirculation and may prevent or reduce diseases. For some species, close spacingcan increase stem length, which may be particularly important with species thattend to be too short. However, close spacing does not increase stem length forall species.

Annuals are generally spaced anywhere from 4 x 4 inches to18 x 18 inches apart. Perennial spacing ranges from 12 x 12 inches to 24 x 24inches, and woody shrubs and trees are spaced 2-6 feet apart. Remember, mosttrees and shrubs are harvested heavily enough to keep the final plant sizesmall.

Irrigation

Cut flowers are generally a high-value crop and irrigationwill probably be necessary, regardless of the climate. Irrigation systems arerelatively inexpensive and pay for themselves in reduced labor and increasedyields and quality within a few months to a couple of years. Generally, thepreferred irrigation system is drip tapes. After planting, irrigation driptapes can be laid; one to three tapes per bed are used depending on the soiltype and irrigation needs of the crop. With row cultivation, one drip tape canbe used per row or double row (two rows closely spaced together). Handirrigation with a hose and nozzle is time-consuming, which results in highlabor costs, but may be necessary for the first irrigation after planting toensure that young plants with small root systems receive enough water. Overheadsprinkler irrigation is cost-effective but is generally limited to when theplants are young. Later in the season, overhead irrigation may splash soil onthe foliage and flowers, knock plants over and increase disease problems. Yourlocal cooperative extension office or irrigation supplier may be able to assistin designing an effective and inexpensive irrigation system.

Weed control

Weed control is often the most time-consuming andlabor-intensive component of field production. Large numbers of weeds in theproduction area will reduce flower quality and quantity and increase the labortime and cost of harvesting. Weeds also make insect and disease control moredifficult, increase irrigation requirements and, of course, provide seeds forthe next batch of weeds later in the season. A variety of methods are availablefor controlling weeds, and the typical farm will use many of them.

 

Timing. Regardlessof the weed control method, timing of the field preparation is importantrelative to when the foliage canopy of the crop closes. In other words, whenthe bed or rows are covered with foliage, the light reaching the soil isreduced and weed seed germination and growth slows. If using manual weeding orcultivation, it is important that the last cultivation occurs as close to plantingas possible. If the field is prepared too early in advance of planting, theweeds will begin germinating and growing. Thus, you will need to begincultivation soon after planting. However, if you plant immediately afterpreparing the soil, the plants will begin to grow and develop a canopy,reducing the number of times cultivation is required. Often there is not enoughtime to prepare a field and plant it soon afterwards. One way around thisproblem is to prepare a large area when convenient and lightly cultivate theareas to be planted immediately before planting. Do not cultivate too deeply,as that will bring up new weed seeds that will germinate.

 

Hand weeding. Manualweeding by hand or by hoe is the age-old method of weed control. It iseffective but time-consuming and expensive in terms of labor costs. A smallamount of manual weeding will be required in any operation, such as at the endof rows or around the base of plants growing in plastic or landscape fabric.However, other methods of weed control should be used wherever possible. Avariety of hoes are available that can effectively cut and remove weeds withoutdisturbing the roots of cut flowers.

Mechanical cultivation. Mechanical cultivation can rangefrom a walk-behind rototiller to a tractor-mounted cultivator. Mechanicalcultivation can be used to cultivate the aisles between beds or rows of crops.The aisles must be wide enough to allow the equipment to pass without damagingplants and prevent the cultivator from being close enough to the crop roots todamage them. In addition, mechanical cultivation must be done before the cropis too tall to allow the tractor to pass by.

 

Flame weeding. Inflame weeding, a hand-held or tractor-mounted propane burner emits a flame thatis passed over the weeds. The weeds die from being seared by the hightemperatures, not by being burned. Young weeds and broad-leaved weeds areeasiest to kill with flame weeding. Flame weeding can be especially useful withdirect seeding, as the young weeds generally emerge first and the area can beflame-weeded prior to emergence of the cut flower seedlings. Effective flameweeding requires an experienced operator but can be efficient andcost-effective.

 

Herbicides.Herbicides are available in two types: 1) preemergent herbicides kill weedseedlings as they push up through the soil; and 2) postemergent herbicides aresprayed on the weeds and kill either the portion of the weed in direct contactwith the herbicide or are taken up by the weed (systemic), move through theplant and kill the entire weed. Systemic, postemergent herbicides areespecially useful for controlling perennial weeds and those with undergroundrhizomes or storage organs. As with all chemicals, herbicides should be appliedcarefully to prevent accidentally poisoning the person applying the chemical orinjuring the cut flowers.

 

Mulches. A varietyof mulches can be used to prevent weeds from growing. Organic mulches, such asweed-free hay, have the advantage of improving soils after they areincorporated at the end of the year; however, they can be time-consuming tospread on the field. Plastic mulches are useful in not only controlling weedsbut also increasing soil temperature in the spring. Punching holes in theplastic and disposal of the plastic at the end of the growing season must beconsidered. Landscape fabric is expensive initially but lasts a long time inthe field or can be reused. With all mulch types, you will probably still needto weed around the base of the plant.

Fall and winter preparation

In the fall, remove dead annuals and fallen plant material.Prune out diseased portions of perennials and woody plants. Do not cut backperennials until the middle of winter when the tops are completely dead. In thefall, mulch tender perennials if necessary to protect against the cold. Mulchcan also help retain soil moisture and provide organic matter. If fall andwinter are dry, be sure to irrigate occasionally; on the other hand, manyperennials rot easily during the winter if they are too wet.

 

Additional resources: Association of Specialty Cut FlowerGrowers, MPO Box 268, Oberlin, OH 44074; (440) 774-2887, ascfg@oberlin.net,www.ascfg.org. This national organization caters to field and greenhousespecialty cut flower growers. Specialty Cut Flowers, by Allan Armitage (1993,ISBN 0-88192-225-0), has detailed production information on many specialty cutflowers. The Flower Farmer, by Lynn Byczynski (1997, ISBN 0-930031-94-6), hasgreat production information, especially for beginning growers, and profiles ofcut flower businesses.



John M. Dole and Lane Greer

John M. Dole is an associate professor and Lane Greer is a graduate research assistant in the Department of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C. They may be reached at (919) 515-3537 or via E-mail at john_dole@ncsu.edu.



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