In the Garden:
Middle South
June, 2006
Regional Report

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So many flowers, so little time. These annuals, perennials, and herbs are all waiting to be transplanted into the cutting gardens.

My Field of Dreams

When my husband and I bought our 7-acre property two and a half years ago, we saw almost limitless potential in the house, land, and outbuildings. Our first order of business was to convert the house to a small B&B -- a venture that has proven to be more successful than we imagined. During this renovation, I mulled over what to plant in the 4-acre hayfield. After all, I finally had property on which to start the small farm I always wanted -- I had my field of dreams!

So I talked to people, asked questions, did some homework, and decided to grow cut flowers. Why? There seemed to be a good market for them. They would enhance the look of the property for our B&B guests. They don't require the constant care of many vegetables. There isn't the liability associated with selling edibles. And I could start with annual flowers, using inexpensive seed and slowly building the perennial plantings as time and money permitted.

With a little experience under my belt now, I thought I'd pass along some things I've learned, for those interested in growing flowers for your own bouquets or to sell.

Annual Flowers
The best-selling fresh flowers for me are pollenless sunflowers; they're popular with florists and sell well in bunches of a half dozen or so. The seed is relatively pricey, but less so when you consider you can sell each sunflower for a dollar or two. I prefer varieties that produce a single flower, rather than those that branch. That way you get a tall, sturdy stem topped by a large flower. Although branching varieties produce more flowers, I've found that the flowers on the side branches don't last as long in bouquets as the single flowers. Look for sunflowers marketed to cut flower growers for the best selection.

For informal bouquets, I sow plain old bird seed, either black oil sunflower or striped sunflower or a mix of the two. The seed is inexpensive, especially when you buy it in 25-pound bags, and the flowers are beautiful. I sow the seed thickly because crowding produces smaller flowers that work better in bouquets. Plus, heavy sowing means I don't worry too much about birds feasting on the newly sown seed and small seedlings. The flowers drop lots of pollen, though, so most florists don't want them.

As much as I like unusual flowers, I've found that people are most attracted to bold, bright colors, and for that you can't beat zinnias. Cosmos are beautiful but the flowers are fragile and easily bruised, and the plants tend to flop.

Tall plumed celosia is a winner in fresh bouquets, and supposedly it dries well, though I didn't have good luck last year. Tall ageratum -- a taller version of the low-growing bedding plant with similar fuzzy flowers -- is a winner. Each plant produces a remarkable abundance of flowers all summer long.

Fillers, such as baby's breath are nice, but I like to add something unusual, too. My favorite is jewels of Opar (Talinum paniculatum), which has airy stems adorned with tiny pink flowers followed by orange seed capsules. I also use chartreuse dill flowers to fill out bouquets.

Perennials
Annual flowers give the most bang for the buck, producing flowers all season long. Perennials have shorter bloom periods, but some, such as dianthus, foxglove, and delphinium, start flowering early in the season before the annuals take off. Other good perennials are purple coneflower, bee balm, globe thistle, and yarrow. A combination of permanent raised beds with perennials, and temporary rows of annuals, seems a good fit for my venture.

Bulbs
I grew hundreds of glads and acidanthera last year, but it was so rainy that they either rotted or the blooms had water spots. So I'm cutting back on these this year. I've got some lilies right now, and this fall I'll plant lots of spring-flowering bulbs in raised beds so I can get my season off to an earlier start next year.

Foliage and Herbs
I try to add colorful foliage and fragrant herbs to all of my bouquets. Good annual foliage plants include coleus and Persian shield (Strobilanthes), both of which wilt after cutting but then usually perk up. I've also added branches cut from my purple smoke tree and 'Black Lace' elderberry for striking bouquets. Sage, rosemary, and basil offer fragrance and attractive foliage. Purple-leafed basils are especially beautiful and a perfect backdrop for jewel-toned zinnias.

My biggest challenges so far have been weather and weeds. Frequent rains mean the low-lying fields get soggy, and delicate petals get spotted. Try as I might, I can't seem to do anything about the weather, but I'm experimenting with weed management systems. Last year's system was a bust: I used multiple layers of newsprint topped by straw to mulch beds, but because of the constant rains, the newspaper held in too much moisture. I realized this too late and lost hundreds of plants to root rot. This year I'm mulching annual beds with straw -- no newspaper underneath -- and mowing between the rows. The perennials are in raised beds mulched with bark chips.

I haven't had too many problems with insects ... yet. The worst problem has been on the snapdragons -- some insect I haven't yet identified congregates in the snaps' "mouths," rendering them unusable. I plan to experiment with row covers this year.

It's a lot of work to grow cut flowers on even my very modest commercial scale, but then again, spending evenings outdoors in the flower gardens isn't such a bad way to pass the time. And carrying buckets of flowers into stores never fails to draw smiles and warm greetings. After all, only the grumpiest among us can walk by a sunflower without smiling.


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