Two years after Deadhead: The Bindweed Way to Grow Flowers, comes the more in-depth All Pollen, No Petal: Behind the Flower Farming Dream. You'll find grower tips and advice on how to negotiate the chaos of the flower farming boom, as well as look into the Deadhead Employee/Employer Handbook to unwind the worker/boss relationship. Get your copy by clicking on the cover image.
If you're on Facebook and are a grower, please connect with our group, Deadhead Cut Flower Growers. We've archived pictures and short descriptions of species we grow and those we failed at growing, and post short pieces specific to cut flower farming there. If you do join, please keep posts relevant to others and lengthy enough to convey information--there's way too much trivia on the internet and we'd like to not add to the confusion.
It’s that time of year for flower farmers to answer the question: plugs or seeds?
If you’ve already invested in grow lights, pads, pots, and soil, and if you already have the expertise to plant, irrigate and monitor tens or scores of species of flowers, no doubt you’ve already answered that question. If you haven’t, let us talk about it.
Successful germination is risky and so much is riding on your success or failure. From the outside it looks so simple, plant some seeds, water them, tend them and voila—plants! But you need to seriously consider the entire process which is much more complicated.
Some of the first things to decide and then start investing in are choosing a soil mix, using seedling trays or soil blocking. One of the most important decisions is seed sources, not all seeds are created equal. Don’t rely on pretty packaging and killer photos, buy seed from a reputable source. (We bought sweet pea seeds from a very popular website but had very poor germination which resulted in a very substantial loss in sales and disappointed our clients who have relied on our sweet peas for years.)
Flower seeds come in all shapes and sizes and so can be planted too deep or too shallow. Watering is a huge issue and every seedling requires specific watering and fertilizing needs. Temperature is another factor and again various seedlings have various needs, what is too cool for one may be to hot for another. Another major variable is light, artificial light or natural light? What happens if you plant under natural light and have two weeks of overcast cloudy days? This too has an effect on the strength and vigor of your crop.
Many years ago at an ASCFG conference a brilliant woman and expert farmer spoke about germination. Early in her presentation she stressed that if you are willing to be a slave to your seedlings, tending, watering and hovering EVERY day, multiple times a day for 8 to 12 weeks (more for some species, particularly perennials) watering them correctly, see every appearance of fungus or insect, then by all means germinate. But if not, take the stress and uncertainty out of your life and buy plugs!
Anything you can do, you can do right or you can do wrong, and at every such fork in the road, there’s a possibility of making mistakes. If you buy plugs from a reputable source, they too can make mistakes, just like you, but you’ll find that they don’t make many—that’s how they stay in business, by being reputable and consistent.
Cost Comparison Seeds vs Plugs
Trays or blocks
Fungus & insect control
*Labor. What is your time worth? A flat of 200 plugs may cost as little as twenty dollars, perhaps as much as three times that for perennials. If you were to grow those by yourself, what would you be paying yourself for your time, spread across eighty plus days? I’m willing to bet its way below minimum wage.
If you love growing your own, don’t let us discourage you, as that’s a profit we can’t measure. If you’re growing something that’s unavailable and you just have to have, by all means continue to do so. But if you are new to growing we implore you to limit the points of possible mistakes you can make while planting, irrigating, and waiting—don’t worry about buying seeds, soil, containers, grow lights; don’t fret about whether you watered this morning or not, or if you left a vent open or a light off; buy plugs, eliminate some stress and eliminate some costs.
And gain some profit.
While we deadheaders of Bindweed Farm admit to being neo-Luddites, we give up our backwards stance toward technology and magic (wait, aren’t they the same?) for one piece of equipment that has saved us countless hours and three or four hired hands over the years: the tape layer, a simple piece of equipment that installs drip irrigation at root level, thereby keeping surface moisture to a minimum and limiting weed germination.
Since we live in a desert climate where summer rains rarely total more than a couple inches and sometimes don’t occur at all, most of our weed problems start in the spring when the soil still possesses moisture from winter snows and cool weather supports an environment perfect for germination. If we take care of these early weeds later work gets minimized, but if we happen to get a heavy thunderstorm another flush of weeds soon follows. Just as rain follows the plow, weeds follow water, so if you surface irrigate—whether it be with sprinkler, by flood, or with drip tape—you’re just inviting any surface seed the moment to shine it’s been waiting for. Watering underground, we deprive those seeds of the conditions they need. When the surface appears wet it generally means the roots have been irrigated, so we turn the water off. The soil at germination zone level dries out in a matter of a few hours. Though the underground irrigation technique won’t be as dramatically helpful in a wet climate, it has to be an improvement over surface use since every drop of water less on the surface is one less available to weeds.
Surface drip tape placement has a couple other drawbacks, too. Wind moves tape wherever it wishes unless it’s in use, full of enough water that only hurricanes can move it, and the sun stretches empty tape which then shrinks during cooler nights, rarely (if ever) returning it to its original place but instead making interesting detours and oxbows through the field. That tape’s not going anywhere when it’s underground.
For those who’d like to build their own attachment, here’s a diagram of ours (drawn by friend/neighbor/orchardist Marv Jones). If you have a knack for fabrication, this is an opportunity for you to go into business as it’s an item any drip tape user wants (or after reading this, WILL want). You may want to improve our model by changing the spool feed. Ours was built to keep costs to a minimum, so the spool support rises directly above the shank. Unfortunately, this means the spool unrolls in front of the tubing rather than directly above it, so there’s a little wear and possible damage to the drip tape as it slides over the toolbar that the tape layer bolts to (we just cover the possible dangers in duct tape every spring and have never had a problem yet). If you move the spool support so the tape feeds directly downward into the tubing you eliminate this problem, but you’ll need a sturdier frame to hold the tape roll.
Email and we are happy to send you a jpg of this mechanical drawing and detail photos. Just click on the contact page.
Who’d’ve thunk it—a Bindweed Farm Flower Growing School? Given the great reception of Deadhead: The Bindweed Way To Grow Flowers, Ralph and Jeriann are scheduling a Growing School on their farm in 2018 for beginning and intermediate growers.
If you've been dreaming of starting your own cut-flower farm or are ready to make the jump from hobby/master gardener to cut-flower farmer, we are here to help you. The Spring session is a two day farm intensive May 17-18. We envision a maximum of eight students to allow for hands on tutoring. (We love getting our hands dirty and can't wait to get you in up to your elbows!) While the full curriculum list has yet to be finalized, this session will coincide with the goings-on at the farm providing lots of hands on stuff. Once each class has been filled we will work with you and your needs/concerns to tailor the session.
Planning your farm (layout & logistics)
Planting (plugs & seeds)
Weeding (tips & tools)
Processing and Post Harvest Care
Applying irrigation—underground drip tape
Cost of the Spring session is $500. You can hold your spot by submitting $50 to Deadhead Cutflowers, with the full amount due April 1. Contact Deadhead at 208-785-4687, email email@example.com or via our website Deadheadcutflowers.com for more information or to register. (To prevent unfair and direct competition, a non-compete form will be required that precludes selling within 150 miles of Blackfoot, Idaho. Sorry if this prevents anyone from attending.)
Tulips are our first crop of the season and in typical Bindweed fashion we plant big, between 20,000 to 30,000 bulbs each year. The first blooms are ready in early spring, before Easter, long before the frozen snow covered ground outside has thawed and we continually have tulips available through Mother's Day. We extend the typical tulip season of three or four weeks to ten or twelve, providing a steady supply for an equally steady demand. We do this through succession planting
Even if you don’t succession crop you can lengthen your harvest season by choosing early, mid-season and late varieties, moving from Impression Series (early season bloomers) to Maureen, Avignon and other late blooming tulips so that bloom times come over a period of three to four weeks. If you have a cooler, you can keep late bloomers yet another week or even two so your market window swells.
To make an even longer season that lasts over ten weeks you need a roll-up hoophouse and a greenhouse to move the market period back. Since tulips need a 14 week period of cool temperatures you’ll want to make sure the ground temperatures in your house stay below 45 degrees for that long, so take soil temperature readings during the winter before you decide to plant. If you live in zone 5 this shouldn’t be a problem, but warmer areas might want to check, as the heat generated by a sealed greenhouse might keep soil too warm to stimulate blooming.
Tulips planted on our farm in late September to late October will invariably begin emerging under plastic about February first. We turn on the heat at that time to make sure leaves don’t freeze, but we don’t heat above freezing as we like to keep energy use low. Six weeks from the moment we start heating the first tulip blooms. If you aren’t afraid to use fuel for heating, you can raise your minimum temperatures to 45 or even 50 and get tulips to bloom 4 weeks after emergence.
An unheated hoophouse with rollup sides provides an area to bridge the gap between early greenhouse tulips and those planted outside. Hoophouse tulips won’t begin emerging quite as soon as those planted at the same time in a greenhouse and will grow more slowly. They’ll bloom as the greenhouse tulips finish if you’ve chosen early and late varieties carefully so that late greenhouse tulip blooms move into early hoophouse flowers. The hoophouse tulips, since they aren’t protected with heat on cold nights, may suffer some damage to the leaves and as a consequence may be more susceptible to fungal problems on dying foliage, but we’ve seen them take thirteen degrees with no damage to the bloom. If you expect a nasty night, harvest any tulips showing color as these are more susceptible to damage. The hoophouse tulips should finish blooming just as your outside tulips enter the harvest period.
You can get tulips even earlier by buying pre-cooled tulips, but we’ve never wanted to begin our season that early so we haven’t tried it. The winter tulip market may be just as good as the spring market, particularly if you choose to target Valentine’s Day, so if you’re up to winter sales give it a try.
If you have any questions check out Part II in our book, Season Expansion has loads of information on extending your season. If you have specific questions feel free to ask us, you'll find all our contact information on the contact tab.
Few cut flower crops match the tulip’s boasts: universal market appeal, quick return on investment, low input requirements, and virtually no pest pressures. A French tulip bulb costing a quarter and planted in October fetches a dollar to a dollar and a half in March when harvested, making it a much better financial investment than buying Enron stock or pursuing a philosophy degree.
While tulips, to a casual flower buyer and even to many designers, seem omnipresent in supermarkets and flower shops, the wholesaler industry has yet to inundate the market with French type tulips, varieties that dwarf commonly offered varieties in bloom size and stem length. Most consumers, confronted by a French tulip for the first time, express an instant wonder that translates immediately into purchase. Who could resist a spring flower as big as your hand?
A French tulip bulb is only a few cents more than a tulip bulb, so why don’t big suppliers forego the smaller for the more desirable French type? It may be that the flower’s size makes it more fragile during transport and bulkier (thus costlier) to ship, making it a perfect match for local growers able to handle product more gently for shorter distances and times.
When we tell people we plant twenty-five thousand tulips every fall, they inevitably think of their own planting experience: dig a hole, plant a bulb, cover it, repeat. No wonder they’re amazed at the number, we’d be amazed too if we actually had to plant that way. Luckily we use a more efficient method, instead of digging twenty five thousand little holes we make four big ones—each three feet wide by 85 feet long, six inches deep, holding close to six thousand bulbs.
Tulips rarely encounter insect damage since they grow in cold weather and bloom before pests flourish, but like all bulb crops they’re susceptible to soil-borne fungal disease, bacteria and viruses. To provide a semi-sterile environment for the bulbs in order to limit root problems we put a shallow layer of potting soil in the trenches before planting, then cover the bulbs again with the same sterile medium to ward off disease. Occasionally we even dip bulbs before planting in Root Shield or fungicide, depending on how vivid our memories are of the last disease outbreak.
After planting and covering the tulips shallowly we scatter some basic fertilizer on the soil since there’s a lot of bulbs with a lot of growth to undertake, then thoroughly soak the medium by hand with a water wand (sometimes peat based media wets poorly and slowly so check as you go by sticking a finger through the medium—you may be astonished that what appears almost muddy is desert dry beneath the surface), then lay drip tape, three or four lines to a bed, turn on the water, after which we cover up completely with the same soil we dug to make the trench. Filling the drip lines limits how much they can shift during the back-fill process.
We irrigate heavily after planting (four hours) since the media drains well and the bulbs require a lot of water, then check in two weeks and often irrigate again. Every two to four weeks through the winter we give another short irrigation, depending on conditions—outdoor tulips likely require no irrigation through the winter in cold climates like ours, while those in houses utilize moisture due to the warmer soils so need replenishment. Fourteen weeks from planting, more or less, greenery emerges in the greenhouse and the heater gets switched on, the thermostat set just high enough to prevent new leaves from freezing. In six weeks the first tulip will flower.
The Deadhead 2017 Informal Book Tour (Meandering Northwestern Swing) kicks off October 14 with a stop in Missoula, Montana and continues northwest to Mt. Vernon, Washington, slips down to Oregon and all parts therein through the following weeks. If you’d like us to stop at your farm (or farm-in-progress, or even farm-in-imagination) we’d like to see you, too, so drop us a note.
If you’re on the way (within reason) we’re definitely up for a visit. If you're not in this area but would like us to consult with you about flower farming, we’re happy to skype, email and are open to a fee-based site visit to help defray our traveling costs, just give us a call or drop a line on the contact page. Hope to see you soon!