Secrets of the flower farmers

Professional growers share tips on their favorite annuals, perennials and bulbs

Professional growers who supply cut flowers to farmers' markets face the same constraints home gardeners do ― not enough time, not enough space. But cut-flower pros have another challenge: They need to turn a profit. They can't afford to cultivate flowers that are hard to germinate, susceptible to diseases, or meager producers. They need reliable, trouble-free, long-blooming flowers; through experience, they've learned which plants meet those criteria.

With that in mind, we asked growers from California to Colorado to name their top-performing plants. To our surprise, they favored many of the same flowers; their top picks are listed here. The growers also provided their strategies and tips for coaxing as many blossoms as possible out of every bed.

Though all cut-flower growers rely on annuals for the bulk of their crops, most also grow biennials, perennials, and bulbs. Here's how a typical year in a flower field might unfold.

The growing season begins by sowing annuals whose seeds germinate best in cool soil, such as calendula, corn cockle, larkspur, and soapwort. In Longmont, Colorado, Pastures of Plenty starts sowing in mid-February, while in Watsonville, California, Country Essences Flowers sows in fall.

Later in spring, transplants started from seed in flats, such as the biennial sweet William, go into the ground; they will flower the following summer (in mild climates, biennials are set out in fall for bloom the following spring).

When the soil warms up, seeds of summer-to-fall-blooming annuals like amaranth, scabiosa, and zinnia are sown. Tender bulbs like dahlias go in too. Meanwhile, established perennials like phlox, veronica, and yarrow are beginning to bloom.

After the season ends in colder climates, the field is often seeded with a cover crop of annual rye, clover, or vetch to enrich the soil. In mild-winter areas, though, ground rarely goes fallow; growers just clear the fields, replenish the soil, and start over again.

GROWING TIPS

Most plants grown for cut flowers do best in fertile, well-drained soil. If your garden soil is nutrient-poor or heavy, amend it with compost, peat moss, or other organic material before planting.

Most cut flowers like full sun; in the Southwest, however, many plants (especially early bloomers like larkspur) have a longer season if grown in partial shade.

If you can, protect plants from prevailing winds by using trees, tall shrubs, or structures as buffers.

Give plants enough water to moisten at least the top 2 inches of soil. Most growers prefer some form of drip irrigation (often a soaker hose); it's thrifty and also suppresses weeds.

Feed plants well. One Straw Farm in San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico, for example, gives all beds a wheel-barrowful of manure and compost in early spring and also occasionally foliar feeds with fish emulsion or kelp during the growing season.

To keep flowering perennials vigorous, cut them back hard at the end of the growing season; this encourages lots of new stems.

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