Marketing and Production Basics of Field Cut Production

March 18, 2002 - 11:43

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 an
incredible array of plant materials, including fresh, dried and preserved
flowers, stems and berries. A large portion of fresh and dried cuts in North
America is grown outdoors. Cuts are marketed through a variety of channels
— some summer-only, others year-round. Proper selection of plant
materials can allow year-round production, although harvests will be limited
during the winter in temperate climates.

The season starts with woody trees, shrubs, vines and bulbs
flowering in the early spring. Perennials and biennials begin flowering
mid-spring in the south and late spring in the north. Annuals make up the bulk
of 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 they
are leafless.

Marketing channels

Due to the highly perishable nature of their product, fresh
cut flower growers must develop an intensive marketing strategy. Local, niche
markets are often the best choice for small growers. Selling to local florists
or 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 benefit
of higher prices, this strategy requires additional time and expense. The range
of possibilities for direct marketing includes farmers’ markets, bucket
shops, pick-your-own and subscription selling. Of these, farmers’ markets
are probably the most common marketing channel.

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

Growers may find it advantageous to develop a mixture of
marketing avenues. For instance, a grower may decide to sell fresh cut flowers
to 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’s
market. Selling at the farmer’s market would also increase short-term
cash flow, since wholesalers usually pay their accounts only once a month.

Growers may choose to dry their crop when prices for fresh
cuts drop. Drying flowers requires extra labor and storage space. These costs
should be factored into deciding whether or not it is advantageous to dry
flowers. However, dried flowers are not as perishable as fresh, and they may be
a good choice for growers located far from the marketplace. Remember to make
the decision to dry a crop before it is harvested — low-quality, old
flowers that remain unsold from the fresh market will result in low-quality
dried 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 all
times, even after a heavy rainstorm, as flowers will need to be harvested
regardless of the weather. On the other hand, the site should have water for
irrigation and postharvest requirements. While air movement is necessary to
prevent or reduce disease problems, the site should also be protected from
excessive winds that can damage the plants and flowers.

Production can be in rows spaced far enough apart for a
tractor or rototiller to pass between. The row system is limited to specific
crops because of the difficulty of supporting the crops and of the high
potential 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 with
two or more rows of plants within each bed. The beds should not be too wide, or
they will cause difficulty when reaching into the center of the bed to harvest
flowers. Beds are often raised 2-8 inches high to encourage drainage and allow
quick drying after a rain. Beds can be mulched before or after planting with
plastic, landscape fabric or organic materials to reduce weeds and water loss.
Support can be provided with plastic mesh stretched between posts, usually metal
t-posts, spaced in pairs every 20-30 feet along the bed. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

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

Soil Preparation

The soil should be amended with fertilizers and organic
matter prior to planting and a soil test should be collected and submitted to a
lab for analysis. A local Cooperative Extension Service office may be able to
provide information on collecting and sending in soil samples. Based on the
soil test results, the soil pH may need to be raised with lime or lowered with
sulfur (see Table 1 below). Nutrients may also need to be added to raise the
nutrient level up to the desired rate (see Table 2 above). Soil tests should be
taken 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 surface
water and can damage plants. 

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

Unless your soil is the perfect sandy loam, it will probably
need to be amended with organic matter. The addition of organic matter can cure
many problems — it can loosen and increase the aeration of heavy clay
soils or increase the nutrient and water retention of sandy soils. A variety of
different sources of organic matter can be added, including compost, cover
crops, manures, straw, hay, silage and wood chips. Organic matter can be
applied in the fall after the fields are cleared, in the spring prior to
planting, or as a mulch during production to reduce weeds and water loss.

Manures need to be composted or aged prior to application or
applied several weeks prior to planting. Straw, hay and wood chips may also
need to be composted prior to use as they can temporarily deplete the soil of
nitrogen as they decay. If applied directly, a little extra nitrogen
application 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 be
fighting them for years. 

Cover crops are a relatively easy method to add large
amounts of organic matter to soil. Cover crops can be planted in the fall after
the annuals have been removed or in the spring after the winter
annuals/biennials, such as larkspur, have been harvested. Cover crops can and
should be planted on any areas that will remain unplanted for a lengthy period
of 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. Aisles
can also be planted to a low cover crop to reduce weeds. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  A number of legume cover crops, such as
alfalfa (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 cover
crop is incorporated.

Field establishment

Field plantings can be established through a variety of
methods. Direct seeding can be used with species that germinate and grow
rapidly. Plants with large seeds, such as sunflowers and zinnias, do well when
direct-sown. Some species, such as larkspur and ammi, also do not transplant
well 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 a
greenhouse. Purchased transplants reduce the hassle of propagating your own
plants, which can be especially important with some difficult-to-propagate
species, such as lisianthus (Eustoma). However, purchasing transplants may
limit the number of species, cultivars and colors available and delivery is not
always timely. Transplants can be grown or purchased in a variety of plug or
cell sizes. Small plug sizes are generally less expensive but may need to be
irrigated frequently after planting in the field. In addition, small plugs will
easily outgrow the flat if not planted promptly and can be difficult to
irrigate properly in the greenhouse. Larger plugs are more expensive but
establish in the field more easily and can be held in the greenhouse longer
before they need to be planted.

Perennial cuts can be established by means of divisions or
rooted cuttings. Dormant divisions can be planted soon after arrival from the
supplier 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. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

A variety of species produce bulbs, corms, tubers or
tuberous roots that can be planted. 
Some species are not cold-hardy and the bulbs must be dug up in the fall
and 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. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

Although not cost-effective, potted perennials, shrubs,
vines and trees can be used. Usually a few plants are purchased to test the
species, and if successful, large numbers of plugs, divisions or rooted
cuttings 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, occasionally
with plants staggered, while smaller, single-harvest annuals such a plume
celosia 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 bed
space but decreases yield per plant and air circulation. Thus, if initial plant
costs are high, wide spacing may allow you to maximize the number of
harvestable stems per plant. In addition, wide spacing increases air
circulation and may prevent or reduce diseases. For some species, close spacing
can increase stem length, which may be particularly important with species that
tend to be too short. However, close spacing does not increase stem length for
all species.

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


Cut flowers are generally a high-value crop and irrigation
will probably be necessary, regardless of the climate. Irrigation systems are
relatively inexpensive and pay for themselves in reduced labor and increased
yields and quality within a few months to a couple of years. Generally, the
preferred irrigation system is drip tapes. After planting, irrigation drip
tapes can be laid; one to three tapes per bed are used depending on the soil
type and irrigation needs of the crop. With row cultivation, one drip tape can
be used per row or double row (two rows closely spaced together). Hand
irrigation with a hose and nozzle is time-consuming, which results in high
labor costs, but may be necessary for the first irrigation after planting to
ensure that young plants with small root systems receive enough water. Overhead
sprinkler irrigation is cost-effective but is generally limited to when the
plants are young. Later in the season, overhead irrigation may splash soil on
the foliage and flowers, knock plants over and increase disease problems. Your
local cooperative extension office or irrigation supplier may be able to assist
in designing an effective and inexpensive irrigation system.

Weed control

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


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


Hand weeding. Manual
weeding by hand or by hoe is the age-old method of weed control. It is
effective but time-consuming and expensive in terms of labor costs. A small
amount of manual weeding will be required in any operation, such as at the end
of rows or around the base of plants growing in plastic or landscape fabric.
However, other methods of weed control should be used wherever possible. A
variety of hoes are available that can effectively cut and remove weeds without
disturbing the roots of cut flowers.

Mechanical cultivation. Mechanical cultivation can range
from a walk-behind rototiller to a tractor-mounted cultivator. Mechanical
cultivation 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 damaging
plants and prevent the cultivator from being close enough to the crop roots to
damage them. In addition, mechanical cultivation must be done before the crop
is too tall to allow the tractor to pass by. 


Flame weeding. In
flame weeding, a hand-held or tractor-mounted propane burner emits a flame that
is passed over the weeds. The weeds die from being seared by the high
temperatures, not by being burned. Young weeds and broad-leaved weeds are
easiest to kill with flame weeding. Flame weeding can be especially useful with
direct seeding, as the young weeds generally emerge first and the area can be
flame-weeded prior to emergence of the cut flower seedlings. Effective flame
weeding requires an experienced operator but can be efficient and


Herbicides are available in two types: 1) preemergent herbicides kill weed
seedlings as they push up through the soil; and 2) postemergent herbicides are
sprayed on the weeds and kill either the portion of the weed in direct contact
with the herbicide or are taken up by the weed (systemic), move through the
plant and kill the entire weed. Systemic, postemergent herbicides are
especially useful for controlling perennial weeds and those with underground
rhizomes or storage organs. As with all chemicals, herbicides should be applied
carefully to prevent accidentally poisoning the person applying the chemical or
injuring the cut flowers.


Mulches. A variety
of mulches can be used to prevent weeds from growing. Organic mulches, such as
weed-free hay, have the advantage of improving soils after they are
incorporated at the end of the year; however, they can be time-consuming to
spread on the field. Plastic mulches are useful in not only controlling weeds
but also increasing soil temperature in the spring. Punching holes in the
plastic and disposal of the plastic at the end of the growing season must be
considered. Landscape fabric is expensive initially but lasts a long time in
the field or can be reused. With all mulch types, you will probably still need
to 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 back
perennials until the middle of winter when the tops are completely dead. In the
fall, mulch tender perennials if necessary to protect against the cold. Mulch
can also help retain soil moisture and provide organic matter. If fall and
winter are dry, be sure to irrigate occasionally; on the other hand, many
perennials rot easily during the winter if they are too wet.


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

About The Author

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

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