As a flower farming family, there is one season in particular that we look forward to. We relish in that first true fall day when the heat has broken here in zone 6a, and spending time working outside is rather enjoyable!
The fall season starts well before September 22 with planning and ordering the supplies that will be needed to hit the ground running. It is the time of closing our selling season, watching our beloved blooms pass through the first frost and our task of removing and composting what isn't wanted so that we can plant what we affectionately call cool flowers (shout out to #LMZ @thegardenersworkshop).
True to our field, there is no one correct way, but there is a pretty steadfast timeline one must follow in order to reap the benefits in the Spring of your cold hardy planting. We live and die by "6-8 weeks" on both sides of the annual frost dates. In our USDA plant hardiness zone of 6a, our expected first frost is October 16. Many of us aren't quite expecting the temperature to swing from the highs of summer to frost so quickly, but this date is an average established across the readings of the past 30 years and it has been accurate enough for me in the past 6 years to set my calendar to it.
Becoming a flower farmer brings with it a host of benefits, but one in particular stands out and that is you become well acquainted with how nature and your plants mature through the natural seasonal cycle. I also have the honor and luxury of foraging responsibly for native plants and this year in particular, on the faithful drive home I went from full production mode, to the close of the season. We had an extremely dry Summer season and the foliage foretold of a dry fall. The plants were tired and eager to be done with their reproductive task. It can be a hard passage for those of us who enjoy the beauty of lush blooms, but I promise all of us are tired from the hands on labor required daily in farming. We all take a collective breath knowing rest is soon. But not that soon!
This is where many of us make the first mistake in the productivity of our next growing season. We are so wrapped up in the midst of the summer heat and the pace of fulfilling orders after months of work, we overlook August 16th. This date marks the 8 week seed starting date for fall planting. It's important to spend time determining which of your chosen varieties require the extra growing time indoors prior to planting out to overwinter in your fields. We won't get into depth here, but there are several slow growing cool flowers that will benefit from starting "early".
We have seen a rise in the number of specialty crop growers focusing on flowers in recent years. COVID changed all of our lives and had a global impact on the floral industry. Not long ago, we enjoyed the labor and bounty of generational farmers who specialized in growing annual and perennial flowers that were sold regionally and to some extent, across the country. As commercial aviation and economics of scale shed light on growing internationally as a means to increase profits, there was a rapid shift from local growers to large commercial international farming. We began importing almost entirely and local farmers faded into the past. Much to my personal dismay, many acres of heirloom peonies and other perennials were plowed under by new owners looking to grow yet another corn field.
Today is a new day, and a surprise for many. COVID opened the door yet again and beckoned for the local grower and professional farmer to get back into the game. So, with the flush of new growers (Yay!) AND the disruption in transportation, I advise anyone interested in growing to order their supplies early! It is common for in demand seeds, bulbs, corms and rhizomes to sell out fast and furious. Don't miss out! I primarily purchase in bulk from suppliers such as GeoSeed and Johnny's, but there are outstanding online suppliers who specialize in heirloom, rare and or native varieties that we seek out each year.
Looping back, if you've planned and ordered early, you will be in possession of a crop plan for the upcoming season (or at least have the inputs necessary). What seeds need those additional two weeks of growing time? What can be started six weeks prior to the first frost, and what can be direct sown in your growing spaces during those time frames? Is light needed for germination, or does it need to be covered and how deep? What is the optimal temperature for germination and how many days will pass before you can expect to see tiny sprouts? These are important factors. If you are having trouble seed starting, look to these variables and make adjustments. Seeds want to grow, but you have to give them the correct growing environment.
I am fortunate to have a climate controlled growing room specifically for seed starting, but with soil blocking you can re-purpose spaces in your home to serve this purpose. What is soil blocking? Check out this resource https://thegardenersworkshop.com/product/seed-starting-made-easy-online-course/. This is her paid (very reasonable) course that covers seed starting, but she also has a link to free resources covering all things cool flowers, soil blocking, field preparation and more. I highly recommend. I am an alumni of her online farming school course, and also recommend for those who are serious in taking a real step into the profession. There is a wealth of information across growing and business that is geared specifically to those who are just starting out. She is a leader in our industry, but only one of many that can be found online and through membership in the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG).
While there are several ways to start your seeds, my purpose in choosing soil blocking is twofold. It is a significant space saver and is the most efficient method when considering input costs such as the quantity of seed starting mix needed, etc. I made the initial one time purchase of the Seed starting kit here - https://thegardenersworkshop.com/product/kit-starter-soil-blocking/. To this day, I still use the aluminum seed pan and all of the components included. It's the way to go. But you can also purchase the 3/4 inch small blocker which truthfully is the size needed for almost all of the seeds you will be starting. If you want, you can place the larger seeds in a traditional seed tray. I purchased brown plastic lunchroom trays off of Amazon (https://a.co/d/4w73XaX) that fit the size I needed for my built in shelves. There are different sizes so do a quick assessment of your what works best for you. My seed starting mix consists of peat moss, compost, greensand, rock phosphate and a bit of cinnamon to keep the growth of algae at bay (works for me). There will be another post that goes into the recipe, but in the short term, you can find a good recipe here (https://thegardenersworkshop.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Seed-Starting-with-Blocking-22n-for-web.pdf). On a sigle 10x14inch tray, I can start 120 seedlings and it makes all of the difference in managing clutter in your workspace when you save space using soil blocking. More to come on soil blocking in another post.
For the purpose of today, we are going to skip back to the timeline. I give you full permission, from someone who didn't follow these recommendations early on, to close up shop! As in all forms of professional farming, there is a season for every step necessary for the success of the next growing season. When August arrives, or your 6-8 week calendar notice alerts you, start the seeds! You will most likely have the opportunity to sow another round in very early Spring (mid to late February) but be mindful that planting requires that you have open and prepared beds that were covered and are waiting for you out in the cold.
The week after we officially close for the season we are in the fields pulling out the warm season annuals, pulling up our landscape fabric used for weed control, checking and replacing soaker hoses and drip tape and making plans for securing compost and the sulfur pellets prescribed by our K-State lab soil report. For us, we have a HOT soil, off the charts in nitrogen and the sulfur lowers the pH level hopefully to something more beneficial. It's not a one time fix. We take soil samples annually and work over time to amend the soil. We also partner with someone locally that specializes in vermiculture. He supplies us with worms, worm castings, compost tea and this year, we are testing some Korean natural farming practices including a simple rice water for foliar feeding in certain areas. These are all exceptional steps for the professional and home gardener alike to use to reinvigorate the health and biodiversity of your soil. All are within reach and there are many great articles and videos available for you to get started exploring.
The primary site I farm is part of the historic district here in the First City in Kansas. Leavenworth is steeped in our American history and the piece of land I tend to is no different. With that said, the site is also the location of several long gone residences, which I assume are mere feet beneath me underground. The ground has been compacted after years of residential activities and hasn't been the host of the native grasses and species once established since the mid 1800s. We are so proud to be part of the legacy of this site and to welcome back life long since missing.
With this said, we bring in compost and lightly till the amendments into the beds. Then it's time to lay the water sources back down, the fabric and replace the staples and sandbags that hold everything in place. It's a feat, but one worth doing as we struggle with intense perennial weed pressure. Each bed has holes burned into a spacing grid that fits with what we grow. While we plant lisianthus into 6 inch spacing, there are some perennials, such as achillea, that I space 9-12 inches apart to accommodate growth and air circulation. All of these components are part of your growing plan and important to consider when choosing high value varieties to grow. Make the most of your space and also your growing profit potential!
At this point, I'm usually thrilled that I have transplants hardened off and ready for planting. We are dangerously close to our first frost and I'm eager for these tiny seedlings to establish their roots. Each day a bed goes undone is a day that direct seeds aren't germinating in the soil and seedlings aren't rooting in the remaining warmth of autumn days.
This time also introduces floating row covers. If I have completed the planting of a bed, and we are forecast nighttime temperatures in the lower 30s, I will go ahead and lay down a single layer of Agribon Ag-19. This is a lightweight row cover, available widely, that provides light frost protection while still allowing for sun and water to penetrate. When all planting is completed, I put the field to bed with a blanket of this fabric, anchored with 15 pound sand bags spaced every 5 feet on each side. It's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to anchoring things that blow away. On too many occasions we have had to retrieve fabrics blown blocks away and put back down when it's blowing and frigid outside. Go ahead and put in a few extra long staples and sand bags and enjoy the peace of mind.
While I choose varieties that are cold hardy for my zone, I do experiment with varieties that are a few zones warmer and may struggle with the occasional below zero degree stretch. The Ag-19 or Ag-30 does a great job protecting our fields, minus low tunnels, for what we grow. One exception is the ranunculus, which will receive the low tunnel treatment this year.
We top water, using either a misting or fine showering wand as we get the direct seeds established and drench using the freshly made compost tea (best if used within 72 hours of completion). It may be a silly pleasure, but I love knowing that the seedlings and the soil are getting a big dose of goodness to use during the hard days of winter ahead.
Now, won't the seedlings freeze to death? Excellent question. We have become so accustomed to the retail schedules of big box stores and nurseries catering to these schedules that we have forgotten the long held knowledge of the natural rhythms of varieties that need for periods of cold stratification in order to germinate in the spring. The concept of cool flowers, and the science behind cold hardy plants is one our great grandparents were fluent in. It is also why we choose to grow agrostemma instead of the heat seeking zinnia at this time of year.
These plants love the cold and they love it up to the zone they are cold hardy to. For example, if something is hardy in zones 3-7, you are covered in zone 6. But, if you stretch it and grow something that is only hardy in zones 8-10, there is a big risk that the extended freezing temperatures will kill what you are trying to grow. We can try to use tools like tunnels, structures and frost cloth, but we might be best working with varieties that thrive not struggle in our zones. They will spend the winter, if started early enough, establishing a robust root system and at the very earliest moment, come spring, will start developing top growth.
When comparing many fall versus spring planted annuals, you will find a more developed and productive plant that began life in the fall. I've found that here in Kansas, with our somewhat unpredictable seasons, we CAN predict that there will come a week that rapidly turns and stays hot. For the small flower planted in spring that has just come to bloom, you may not get as many cuttings off of that stem comparatively before it goes dormant due to the heat and humidity. As flower farmers, that bed space may be better saved for warm tender annuals that have been started 6-8 weeks prior to the LAST frost date, or April 19 in our zone. Struggling stems are less profitable compared to getting these tender annuals established and producing as early as possible.
We love cool flowers and fall farming. It's a beautiful season to be outdoors and savoring life in this way. As a mother to a young son, we can spend our days in the dirt with the occasional bug discovery break. We make our way home in the late afternoon and enjoy time resting with the family. I encourage you to give it a try and let me know if I can answer any questions by following Birdsong Blooms on your preferred social media platform.
Best of the season,