Adding value with cut flowers
by Tamara Scully
Bouquets are everywhere – in grocery stores, at florists, alongside the vegetables at the farm stand and even the gas station checkout counter. Those hoping to profitably grow and sell market bouquets need to have a plan to distinguish themselves. Crop planning involves knowing what to plant, when to plant it, how to harvest it and how to market it.
Betsy Busche of Spongetta’s Garden in West Winfield, NY, shared some tips and tricks of the trade for those hoping to succeed in growing flowers for market. Busche spoke during the recent virtual Catskill Regional Agriculture Conference.
Busche’s business is field grown cut flowers. Her season is June through early October. Field growing flowers in cold weather areas often means that traditional flowers used in floral design aren’t going to be an option. Selecting flowers which thrive in a shorter growing season and which meet the needs of customers requires an understanding of plant traits, proper managing of the timing, transplanting and harvesting various flowers, gaining efficiency in creating bouquets and developing the ability to market products and generate several income streams.
Market bouquets are a value-added product. When done correctly, they are recession-proof items that can bring in repeat customers, brand your farm and bring in a profit.
“The reason that we’re selling that bouquet…is so that we can make money,” Busche said. “You want it to be big and lush, but you can’t put a lot of money in it.”
Flowers used in a mixed market bouquet need to be vibrant, last for five to seven days in a vase, be inexpensive to grow and take up space. Branching flowers are ideal. Cutting flowers early in the day translates into longer-lasting blooms, as does cutting stems before the flowers are in full bloom. Proper packaging to protect and brand your bouquet is imperative.
Having a steady supply of stems, developing an efficient system for assembling bouquets, avoiding the urge to over-fill bouquets and making a consistent product for your customers is essential. Busche encourages growers to have a recipe for their standard market bouquet – a set number of stems, spikes, disks and cuffs around a center focal point – and to sell that bouquet at a set price point all season.
Offering several set sizes of bouquets (standard, everyday, small and posy bouquet versions, to utilize smaller stems) prevents waste and allows customers who otherwise might not have purchased a higher-price bouquet to buy from you. Stems that don’t make it into a bouquet can be sold per stem as make-your-own bouquets or simply bunched together.
Efficiently crafting bouquets requires good harvesting practices when the field. Stems are stripped in the fields, immediately hydrated in buckets and left in water for at least two hours before working with them.
While selling bouquets at a farmers market or roadside stand can bring repeat customers, Busche’s found that adding several other income streams can be more lucrative. She started a “fill a vase” program, in which she makes arrangements for regular customers (who supply their own vase) on an as-needed basis, and sells bouquets at several area stores.
She also runs a CSA. The CSA members’ upfront money allows her to purchase the seeds and equipment she needs to get growing each season. The CSA also ensures that she has a bottom line of regular sales. The CSA bouquets are worth a minimum of $20 – sometimes a bit more – which is the same price as her 18- to 24-stem market bouquets.
“I do my CSA bouquets first,” Busche explained. “They are the ones who are rewarded for trusting me.”
Flowers used for mixed bouquet sales cannot be fussy and have a high-cost to grow. They should be relatively free from pest and disease pressure, have good stem height, can’t be toxic or dangerous and be prolific. Some flowers are the wrong shape for market bouquets, and some blossoms don’t hold up well after picking. Flowers for market bouquets need to be hardy and be able to tolerate time without water as customers transport them home.
“If you want flowers in June, for the most part you are going to need to plant them the fall before. When you are [fall] harvesting for this year, you need to be planting for next year,” she said.
Hardy annuals can be spring planted as early as possible and provide flowers for July bouquets, while succession planting tender annuals as soon as soil temperatures are above 50º will provide blooms for late summer and autumn. “Succession plant, so you always have fresh plants and fresh flowers,” Busche said.
In August and September, bouquets are made from the same annual flowers, succession planted so the harvest lasts for four to six weeks. Hardy annuals for July bouquets can often be cut back to force a second bloom in late September. Perennials can be used in market bouquets too.
To ensure you’re growing enough plants to produce the number of stems you’ll need each week, you have to know how many bouquets you plan on selling. You’ll want to calculate the number of stems of each type of flower you’ll cut per day, and figure out how many plants of each type you’ll need to grow to obtain the needed number of stems per day. Different plants produce flowers in various formations. While you can cut several stems from some plants, others produce a single stem at a time. Others grow in clumps with a plethora of stems.
Garden plans for each season are needed to lay out where each plant goes and to determine how many will fit per row. Spacing depends on the growth characteristics of each plant species. Busche plans in blocks of 10 feet, which can then be replicated multiple times in larger beds in the field. Keeping records is important.
A plant’s location in the garden depends upon pest pressures and whether the area needs to be fenced, the plant’s need for support structures such as netting and maturity dates.
“I try to finish things all off together,” she said, so that she can finish cutting an entire bed at one time.
Plants need to be adapted to your soils. Whether or not you have irrigation can be a factor. Fertility is important throughout the season. Allowing some plants to self-seed can work, but “the reality is, what you’re supposed to be doing is cutting everything,” she said, so there shouldn’t be too many seeds maturing in the field.
When planning the market bouquet garden, color and scent shouldn’t be overlooked. Bouquets with one or two scented (but not overpowering) blooms tend to sell well. Color palette is personal, but also seasonal, Busche said. She’s found that reds and bright yellows don’t sell well. Pastels, purples and pinks often don’t sell in autumn.
Cut flower bouquets are value-added products. Pricing should not compete with that of supermarket bouquets, which are filled with easy-to-grow imported flowers. Only 20% of flowers are grown in the U.S., with almost 80% of that coming from California.
“We have fewer and fewer traditional florists. The push is for high-end wedding designers and everyday flowers coming from a grocery store,” Busche said.
The vast majority of those everyday bouquets are not sourced locally. Locally grown bouquets can fill a niche for customers seeking a local alternative and a connection to the farm. Done right, there’s a profit to be made in market bouquets.