When you're propagating for profit, OK, just isn't good enough

Propagating new plants.

It’s the bit of flower farming that everyone loves, that everyone anticipates at this time of year, and can’t wait to get round to.

Healthy Sweet pea seedlings

Healthy Sweet pea seedlings

But the difference now to before I was flower farming, is that I need these seeds to grow. I need those cuttings to take, I need that divided perennial to produce flowers this year. Ok, isn’t ok…. They all need to be good or excellent.

Dividing a sedum, but not too small as I want flowers this year.

Dividing a sedum, but not too small as I want flowers this year.

  • When you’re growing for profit, getting it wrong means

  • Less plants / higher attrition

  • Spaces in your beds that weeds can grow in

  • Low efficiency

  • Flowers that don’t meet the grade

  • and potentially - Unhappy customers.

Underwatered Daucus, those top 3 plants just won’t make it!

Underwatered Daucus, those top 3 plants just won’t make it!

You need to be able to root out any plants that aren’t doing well, and throw them away….. They won’t do you any favours.

Gasp…Horror. throw a plant away. If that’s what you’re thinking now, then dismiss that gardener thinking. You want the best quality plants, so Ok just isn’t good enough.

This week’s online workshop is about propagating and growing to make you profitable, so if you want some more hints and tips to ensure all your propagation hits the mark, registration is open here

Subscription flowers - Does your business offer them?

When I first started my flower business in 2013, my original business plan had me selling the majority of my flowers as subscriptions to local people.

I’d been researching on the internet, and had found American flower farmers in particular had CSA (Community supported agriculture) models which had customers buying Shares in advance to get flowers delivered to them over a set period of weeks. The idea being that they shared the bounty, but also some of the risks of the flower growing. The idea of a regular amount of money and knowing how much I need to grow in advance appealed.

After asking around my customer base, none of them seemed to like that idea, so I modified it to a home grown subscription service, with me creating a large vase of flowers each month, (and a wreath in December) which I delivered, and recycled the vases each month. I called it my Year of Flowers.

An April Year of flowers bouquet (2nd April 2015)

An April Year of flowers bouquet (2nd April 2015)

The first year, I had 2 customers, the 2nd year 3, but that seemed to be the maximum, the year after it went down to 2 again. At £360 a subscription, that still wasn’t to be sneezed at, but with little interest I moved on to selling in different ways, and didn’t really promote it much.

But at the same time in my area Freddies Flowers was invading. Freddies Flowers is a “homegrown” flower delivery company. Supported by big business, and with huge investment, but aiming to appeal to an audience that would like to buy from a smaller business, and fronted by “Freddy”. They promote flowers that are “Fresh from the grower so they last ages” (Which my customers took to mean from local British farms). Their clever marketing strategy had young gentlemen Actors door knocking in my area to promote their weekly delivery service. I knew this as I was told by a customer “I told them we had a lovely local grower and didn’t need them!” In space of 2 months I was told about them 4 times by customers telling me how wonderful it was that there was a flower delivery service of local flowers, and they were so easy to buy from, and they had wonderful flower arranging instructions, so it was simple to arrange the flowers to their “recipe”.

At the time they were charging £20 for a box of about 10-15 stems of flowers, that could be put together in a vase to form a simple arrangement. I even had a customer of mine gush on Facebook about how wonderful it was to have all British Flowers, - when actually they weren’t - I was incensed (mostly because I hadn’t got in with better marketing myself) and wrote this,

Beginning of April Flower arrangers bucket, one of the first I sent out.

Beginning of April Flower arrangers bucket, one of the first I sent out.

What they had found, and tapped into, that I hadn’t, was that my local customers wanted to buy for themselves, not just as presents. That the price of the “Year of Flowers” was too large in one go for all but those really having a special treat, and that a weekly or monthly price seemed more bearable to them. They also liked arranging the flowers, although most of them had no idea how to do that, so the weekly FF videos were perfect for them.

So I created “Flower club” to let my customers have a go at arranging flowers in a “no rules” “non judgemental” group, and I made a 6 week flower arrangers subscription bucket, which at £150 was almost the same price as the £20 per week. That year my subscriptions doubled to 6!

I then had a friend tell me that she would love to buy her friend a 3 bucket subscription, but she’d like one a month - could I do that? So last year I introduced a 3 bucket subscription, a 6 bucket subscription, and a subscription for my Friday flowers (£10 seasonal bunch or £15 market bouquet). All delivered on my way home to those locally.

They were exactly the same varieties of flowers I’d been selling before, but without me having to do the work of putting them into a bouquet, or wrapping them. While my bouquet sales went up by just 7% last year, the Subscription flowers went up by 656% (Yes I did double check that figure!)

I’d obviously found the right subscription offers for my customers at the right price points.

High summer subscription bucket. A mix of shapes and types of flowers but to a colour theme

High summer subscription bucket. A mix of shapes and types of flowers but to a colour theme

Not only did these customers spend an average of £40 more in a transaction than those buying a bouquet. But, they were also to be found regularly in my lists of workshop, flower club, and bouquet sales customers. Meaning that subscription customers were particularly loyal.

So how is that altering my planning for the coming season? Well obviously i’d love a 656% increase again this year…

But i’m going to concentrate on making sure that those locally know that I offer Fresh, locally grown flowers, that I can deliver to their door for them to make into arrangements themselves, and that they have a farmer/florist who runs a flower club that they can come along to to learn how to arrange the flowers.

Will this information help you find the right price point for you to offer subscriptions to those locally to you?

Should I be planting out in January?

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been planting out lots of plugs onto the field. It’s something i’ve been asked about, - “Why are you planting now?” but the reason is, - The plants are ready, the ground is ready, and isn’t frozen, and as a flower farmer, you need to do everything you can now, because you’ll always be busier tomorrow!

Row of larkspur.jpg

Larkspur is one of those crops. The Annual delphinium is a little bit hit and miss for me. My soil means it doesn’t get huge, but it’s worth me growing a row of it for late June/ early July flowering.

Blue larkspur.jpg

A lot of people direct sow these seeds, and it certainly self seeds itself well on my field BUT It’s a slug magnet, so if it self seeds itself it will be eaten over winter before it gets to flowering size.

It’s most vulnerable period is just after germination, so if you learn to spot Larkspur seedlings, you can whip them out, - pot them up, and use them as spares.

just germinated seedlings that have been whipped out of the field to be cosseted in a greenhouse for a while.

just germinated seedlings that have been whipped out of the field to be cosseted in a greenhouse for a while.

When sowing from seed, I have better success with Autumn sowing, and I tend to sow Larkspur slightly later than the rest of my seedlings in Autumn. This needs quite a strong nerve as Larkspur takes about 3 weeks to germinate, so it means i’m normally pricking out in November when other things have been planted out, or are already filling their modules. I then leave it in the greenhouse until early spring, when their roots have filled their module trays and are ready to be planted out. Because I know i’ll lose some even by doing it that way, I plant these slightly closer together than I would normally.

larkspur module tray.jpg

Our December and January have been mild, so the root balls on these modules were perfect for planting out earlier in the week. (and it’s the root-balls that really matter, not how much top growth there is)

a perfect root system, and a module that isn’t too dry or too wet, and comes out of the tray easily to plant

a perfect root system, and a module that isn’t too dry or too wet, and comes out of the tray easily to plant

So should you be planting out at the moment?

Well the answer will depend on

1) Is your ground ready to plant and not frozen or waterlogged?

2) Have you beds that are prepared and ready to receive plants?

3) Have you got autumn sown hardy annuals or perennials that are ready to be planted. If they are rooted through their module/ seed trays, and 1) and 2) are yes, then they are better off in the ground than in the greenhouse.

Continual personal development (CPD)

In some lines of business CPD is a requirement of continued employment. Topping up your knowledge, going on courses, conferences and training days is expected and factored in.

floristry workshop.jpg

When you work for yourself, you actually need even more continual personal development than if you are employed, because you do all the different parts of the business.

The Work, The Customer service, The Marketing, The Billing, The Communication AND, you’re in charge of keeping yourself inspired at the cutting edge of fashion and knowledge.

So, when you’re manically busy setting up and running your own business how do you manage to do that?

Talk to people - even a cup of coffee with local business owners may help

Networking - in person and online - formally or informally

Go to workshops -

Get trainers to come to you

Do online coures.

This year i’ve already booked myself of a “Day out” at Green and Gorgeous, to be inspired by Rachel and Ashley. I’ve joined a local networking group, which has already introduced me to a venue, some workshop partners ,and lots of potential customers.

I’ve booked Georgia from the Sussex flower school to come and do a training day with my staff, and I’m updating my marketing skills with an online course. Plus i’ll be in the audience at the Flowers from the Farm conference in February.

brand clarity page.jpg

Would my business continue to grow without me doing these training courses?

Personally I think the question for me, is would I want to continue in business if there was no growth personally for me.

How are you investing in your personal development this year?

What to grow?

seed catalogues.jpg

It’s the time of year when seed and bulb catalogues are dropping through our postboxes. This photo of catalogues taken just before Christmas is now out of date as the new ones stack up. But as flower farmers and florists how should we be choosing what we grow?

Is what we like a good enough reason?

It’s probably a good place to start, but if we don’t take into account

  • our customers

  • our soil and situation

  • and how profitable we can be growing each item

then we’re not flower farmers, we’re just gardeners.

Attrition V Wastage

What if every seed grew perfectly?

What if every seed grew perfectly?

For a flower farmer, the ideal would be that everything that you planted would grow, and you’d sell everything that it produced.

I’m sure that there’s some snorting with laughter happening out there as you read that sentence, because it’s one of those “if only” situations!

BUT, how can you realise what might be happening to make your equation fail, and what can you do about it?.

First you need to know what Attrition and Wastage are.

Attrition is everything that stops a plant getting to the point where it might make a harvestable crop.

It could be Pest and Disease, Growing conditions or Lack of experience.

Perfect seedlings being given the right amount of light, water, and growing medium.

Perfect seedlings being given the right amount of light, water, and growing medium.

Wastage is what happens when a flower gets to the point where it is harvestable, but it doesn’t make it off the farm

it could be Poor Quality, Lack of orders, or you may have grown too much, of the wrong thing.

A whole row of Ageratum produces a lot of stems each week. If they don’t all get sold, they are wastage.

A whole row of Ageratum produces a lot of stems each week. If they don’t all get sold, they are wastage.

Both Attrition and Wastage are bad. They are energy drainers/ time wasters, and they make your work hard without giving you an end result.

Our next The Business of growing flowers module starts on the 3rd December.

We’re going to be looking at that holy grail of

“Growing more flowers for less work”

You can sign up to the module from Monday, so email Claire for more details or to register your interest

Do I need to grow Chrysanthemums?

At the other end of the season from Tulips, Carol Siddorn of Carol’s Garden has written about these end of the season beauties.

Photo by Emma Davies

Photo by Emma Davies

There has been much talk about Chrysanths, and with a great Flowers From The Farm group buy coming up, I started to think about which and when to grow them.

I grow quite a few, and have done for many years, but the quantity, colours, & style has changed over the years. I started growing them for myself, then for Christmas, then for autumn bouquets and now for weddings and wholesale event florists.

So, should you grow them?

Chrysanths are daylight dependant flowers. This means that they will flower according to the number of hours darkness or daylight they receive. Literally, like clockwork. The response to darkness varies with variety, so they are grouped according to their flowering period. Early varieties will generally flower from early Sept to mid Oct in the UK, intermediates from mid oct to end November, and Late varieties from mid Nov to end December. These timings are what I have found here, in NW UK, but may differ for you, even within the UK. You can’t alter this flowering period by heat or feed, only by manipulating the hours of light (or more accurately, the hours of dark) they receive.  This is how All Year Round chrysanthemums can be grown anywhere in the world - by maintaining appropriate growing conditions and then shading or lighting the crop to flower at exactly the time they are needed. 

late cream chrysanth.jpg

For the later flowerers, you need to consider the weather in the UK, and whether you are able to protect the flowers from rain, wind and frost. The plants themselves are quite hardy and may survive frosts (but not wet), but the flowers will be damaged by frost. Any flowers outdoors in wind and rain will get wet and are then almost impossible to keep upright. Even indoors, they need good staking. We had a hard frost mid October this year and the flowers already blooming in the tunnel were spoiled, but the tight buds lower down were ok, and are now flowering in the milder conditions we’re having in November.

Allouise Pink

Allouise Pink

So, if you can only grow outdoors, you can only reliably grow the early varieties. And these will, most likely, overlap the flowering period of dahlias.  So maybe go for different shapes and colours than the dahlias you grow, to ring the changes into autumn. There are some beautiful, soft shapes and muted colours, that dahlias just don't do. I especially love the Allouise series, although the heads on these can get quite big.

If you have unheated, covered space eg polytunnel or cold glass house, you can try the intermediates too - so long as you have a market for them in mid oct to end Nov. This opens up a much wider choice of colours and shapes…..limiting your selection becomes the problem here!

Heather James

Heather James

You can only realistically grow the late varieties if you can offer frost free protection to mid/end December. I’ve never been able to do this in NW UK in an unheated greenhouse. They might flower, but the quality is poor, and disease is a major risk.

So for me, I will grow a small range of outdoor early varieties, and some intermediates in the polytunnel for late Oct - Nov flowers, after the dahlias have finished. I won’t be trying the late varieties again, sadly. Unless I get a heated glasshouse……

Do you need Tulips?

By Paula Baxter Mill Pond Flower Farm

Do I need tulips? Hmm, let me think about that one…

spring tulips.jpg

Last Spring, (or arctic freeze as it was in reality) our tulip blooming was mixed in its success. We have half the crop in the polytunnels and the other bulbs outside in the field. The early bulbs were through in good time, came to a halt when the temperatures dropped well below freezing for a couple of weeks and then flowered as expected, although they were a month late. The mid-season varieties started to emerge in the middle of the extreme weather, developed flower buds, waited and waited, then bloomed poorly with the flowers spotted and damaged. At first, I was concerned it was tulip fire, but on consulting other growers and tulip experts, the conclusion appeared to be that the weather and swings in temperature had caused the damage. However, the flowers were poor quality, unsaleable and ended up burned just in case. So, on to the late season bulbs. By the time they bloomed the weather had dramatically improved and they shot through, flowering with gusto, although over a shorter period of time. We sold all the tulips that were good quality but it was a stressful time. We had our first tulip on 30 March and the last ones were cut on 15 May and sent to RHS Chelsea for the Flowers from the Farm stand. 

At Mill Pond Flower Farm our main customers are wedding and event florists. They need particular colours and shapes for specific dates. Tulips are a lovely flower to have, but it’s very hard to predict when they’ll flower so whether they’ll be available for their orders. They’re also very readily available through wholesalers, although they’re not quite the same as locally grown. We allow the blooms to grow to their full size and they’re fully coloured when delivered. We do sell some local flowers but very limited numbers, although we always have brides ordering buckets of mixed blooms to arrange themselves in the spring. 

When it came to bulb ordering time, for the first time ever I really hesitated over spending hundreds of pounds on tulips. I consulted the oracle that is the Flowers from the Farm forum and asked what other growers thought about growing tulips. The response was thoughtful but mixed, between growers who don’t grow them (too expensive, not a good return) to those who couldn’t imagine spring without them. I decided not to go for tulips this year and I bought a whole load of hellebores instead.

Fast forward to last week. 

While planning for next season, we’ve decided to offer limited numbers of flower subscriptions for local flower lovers, a pre-ordered bucket of loose blooms and foliage or an arranged bouquet delivered once a week or fortnight. These will be offered for April and May so we’ll need additional blooms and good variety for buckets and bouquets. Tulips would be good.

And the horror that is Brexit is approaching. It will happen in the Spring and even optimistic predictions are for delays at ports, with imports held up. This might not be so bad for dry goods and electronic items, but for perishable flowers it’s a disaster, and more so for the florist who’s ordered flowers for a wedding in a few days’ time and needs beautiful blooms for the bridal bouquet. The options may be very limited for spring weddings and it would be good to have tulips on our list.

Out came the catalogues and the order is now in, hundreds of bulbs are on their way. We just have to plant them – oh, I may not have mentioned that bulb planting is my least favourite job - roll on the spring and lots and lots of tulips!

Turning up the light for your indoor plants

Turning up the light for your indoor plants

Sweet peas in May

Sweet peas in May

Our polytunnels are in constant use, as soon as a bed is finished or productivity drops, it’s cleared and replanted with the next crop. We’re currently planting out hardy annuals, ranunculus and anemones to grow on through the winter. 

As the days shorten and natural light levels fade, it’s really important to get as much light as possible into the tunnels. The health of a plant is determined by its ability to photosynthesise – to turn sunlight into sugars which is used for all the metabolic processes. Light energy is essential to make this happen. Sunlight is made from a spectrum of colours. When you see a rainbow, what you actually see are raindrops splitting sunlight into these different colours. Photosynthesis uses predominantly red and blue parts of this spectrum, and not green light

Algae on the polytunnel.jpg

When we have a polytunnel which is covered with algae we create a green filter which allows more of the green part of the spectrum to go through and reduces the red and blue light available to plants and therefore dramatically reduces the ability of the plants to efficiently photosynthesise.    

This week Ray led the charge in cleaning the tunnels. He made a flossing tool (nothing to do with dancing!) from a long length of rope covered in foam pipe insulation and felt, secured with duct tape. We mixed up a cleaning solution to remove the algae that has built up over the summer. We’ve bought a proprietary algae removal solution in the past but when we looked at the ingredients it was basically vinegar, so now make our own using 

Half cup vinegar

Gallon water

Egg cup of washing up liquid

This was brushed onto the cleaner and then we gently pulled the rope on at each side to rub off the algae. A quick rinse with the hose and it was like someone had turned on a light in the polytunnel. Our days are short in Scotland during the winter, only 6 hours of daylight in December and January and cloud cover reduces its quality. The more light we can get in for our plants, the healthier they will be and the more flowers we’ll have in the Spring. Definitely time well spent!

Ray’s polytunnel flosser (patent pending|)

Ray’s polytunnel flosser (patent pending|)

Hellebore Heaven, with just a bit of care now.

Hellebores – do you have some? When did you last have a good look at them? Go and hunt them out and give them a bit of care and attention and they’ll reward you with spectacular flowers in the coldest, hardest time of year. Paula and Claire are great fans

garden hellebore-2.jpg

From Paula at Mill pond flowers up in Scotland

The beginning of this season was exceptionally difficult for UK flower growers. The Beast from the East in March brought ice, snow and howling gales at a time when we hoped to be starting to sell flowers. It killed off shrubs, damaged emerging tulips and called to a halt any thoughts of Spring. Once it was receding and the season began in earnest, 6 weeks late in Scotland, I assessed the damage and hunted for positives. The hellebores were the one plant that withstood the worst of the weather, shrugged it off and got on with flowering, producing bunches of breath-taking, delicate-looking blooms to lift the spirits and get the season properly underway.

From Claire in Surrey

2018 was the year I took earlier wedding bookings than ever before… Unfortunately it was also the year that the season started later than ever before. While I played chicken with the tulips, hoping against hope i’d have them in time, the Hellebores just got on with giving of their best, and flowering their socks off giving beautiful blooms even in the face of cold and rain.

Mid March wedding bouquets

Mid March wedding bouquets

Here’s how Paula recommends you get the best from them

A bit of love in the autumn will prepare the plants well by feeding the developing buds and giving them a boost to take them through the winter. Hellebores love deep, rich humus soil and a dappled shady spot. By the end of the summer they’re usually a bit weedy and shabby looking, so give them a good tidy up and weed or hoe around them. Keep an eye out for self sown seedlings and pot them up if you’re lucky enough to have some new ones emerging. Top up the feed in their soil with some well rotted manure or compost and apply a mulch. I’ve used various mulches and they don’t seem to mind what it is – leafmould, sheep fleece, cardboard – so long as it provides a moisture retentive cover for the soil. Our sheep shearer now has a job assisting a tree surgeon and has begun to drop off the occasional load of wood chip, so this year they’re tucked up under a nice deep layer of fresh chippings and look very smart.

Autumn is the right time to divide hellebores too, so if they’re a good size and you want to increase plant stocks, take a sharp spade and slice up a big plant, making sure that each piece has a growing point. They might not flower so well in the following Spring but should grow on well after that. More hellebores can never be a bad thing, and no matter what the weather throws at you this winter, you’ll know they’re there, just waiting to burst into bloom!

Hellebore flowers early March.jpg