What I Learned in 2017

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Well, I haven’t written a blog in 8 months, so I guess the first thing I learned is that I'm waaaay too busy for that during the season! Good intentions, am I right?  The season was beautiful, heartbreaking, impossible, infuriating, sublime, elation, pure bliss, crushing disappointment, deeply sad, and perfect, all at once. It was insane, bountiful, fast-paced and jam-packed, and I’m so proud of what we accomplished on the farm.  A lot of things went right, and a lot of things went wrong, but that’s the life.

Some highlights of our year:

  • Growing anemones, ranunculus, lisianthus, AND heirloom mums for the first time, utilizing our hoop house space, as well as really ramping up our 'Cool Flowers' game.
  • Assisting and teaching at a Floret design workshop - an incredible opportunity that left me with even more flower friends, even more awe for the genius of Erin Benzakein, some essential new design skills, and the opportunity to help others as a “den mother” during the new online workshop.
  • Building and maintaining our roadside flower stand - an excellent new outlet for overflow product.
  • Designing for our biggest wedding ever, including 60 centerpieces and two 4’ wide floral chandeliers.

I learned so much, way more than I’ll be able to get into here, but my takeaway points from this wild year are the following:

  1. Do It Right the First Time
  2. Invest Now
  3. Try Everything. Then, Try It Again
  4. People Are the Hardest Part

I hope this post offers a little bit of encouragement, commiseration, and get-up-and-go for you!

I've also included some variety notes at the end for anyone who wants a deeper dive.

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Do It Right the First Time

Don’t cut corners – and you know when you’re doing it. Early in the season, we tried occultation on a few of our beds - we watered them to get the weeds to germinate, then covered them with black plastic for three weeks to kill all the weeds beneath. At first, we laid the plastic out and just set bricks, boards, and rocks on it to keep it down. This did not work, as our strong spring winds just tore the plastic right out from under those weights, and tore the plastic even when we anchored it with pins. I knew when we were doing it that we should just bury the edges, but I wanted to get it done fast, so I just weighed them down. I ended up doing the job way more than once - replacing that plastic over and over after every strong breeze, and then finally digging the shallow trenches I should have made right off the bat.  So do it right the first time, when you know the right way, and you’ll save yourself tons of time and aggravation.

I knew that the dahlias I potted up in the spring needed more light than was available under the benches. I thought, nah, they’ll be fine, and I never even PLUGGED IN the lights that were already set, much less got the few extra lights I needed. As a result, my dahlias were leggy and weak, and instead of getting blooms earlier, I probably got them later than I did last year, and the plants were not happy.

Similarly, I knew I needed netting on my heirloom mums, but did I put it up? Of course not! The plants shot up, toppled over onto each other, and snapped stems, but all I could do at that point was corral them - this helped, but I know I would have had healthier plants, better flowers, and more of them, if I had take the 5 minutes needed to set up the netting in June.

Another way to do it right the first time is to think about the other end of the process you are starting - are you tying 10,000 knots that will be impossible to untie at the end of the season? Could you tie a slip knot instead that you can untie with one flick of the wrist? What you’re doing right now might save time in the moment, but think of your sad, tired October self and take pity on her. The golden ticket, of course, is a process that is easy now, and easy later. Thanks to Bare Mtn Farm (what an absolutely indispensable resource they are) - I found one of these with row cover and landscaping fabric.  Instead of rolling up the cover, just fold it back and forth like a fireman’s hose, or an accordion. Secure it with two pieces of baling twine - loops and a slip knot - and label it. In the spring, instead of rolling it out (always a pain), you just untie it and pull out the accordion, and it’s a one-person job.  Absolute genius lifesaver.

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Invest Now

 Here are the hoops (obviously not doing much, but I didn't have a picture of the tunnels with row cover - this was when I decided to let the frost come & get my dahlias).

Here are the hoops (obviously not doing much, but I didn't have a picture of the tunnels with row cover - this was when I decided to let the frost come & get my dahlias).

I’ve never regretted investing in something big for my farm, whether it was a nursery or an employee. I know I need it, I’ve thought about it a thousand times, and when I finally pull the trigger I just think - WHY didn’t I do this earlier!?  That was true for landscaping fabric this year and last, and it was true for a couple of things this year - my big fancy shade cloth, and my low hoops tunnels.  The shade cloth was expensive, but it was absolutely necessary for us to grow the gorgeous anemones and ranunculus we had in our hoop this spring.  They would have had shorter stems and a shorter bloom season without it. The heat reduction was significant, which is key because our hoop house does not have roll-up sides for ventilation.

As for the low hoops, wow did they save my bacon. Early in October, we had a steep drop in temperatures and a couple inches of snow. I still had a few weddings left and I REALLY wanted to save my dahlias. So I finally got a hoop bender from Johnny’s, got the conduit and everything else from Home Depot, and figured out how to build a low tunnel. I covered my dahlias with Agribon, over the hoops, and they survived to see another day. The $200 or so I invested in that project was ABSOLUTELY worth it, and I now have tunnel infrastructure for next year - I’m planning to fill a few beds with lisianthus, and they’ll grow a thousand times better under a bit of plastic in those low hoops.

On the other hand, you’ll definitely kick yourself if you don’t invest in something you really do need, before you need it - this year it was row cover. I knew ours were holey, dirty, and not worth much, but I put off buying more because… it wasn’t exciting? When the end of the year rolled around, I didn’t have the row cover I needed for my sensitive crops, and we lost plenty to just a light frost - only because I didn’t get online & press BUY. Better believe I’m stocking up now.

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Try Everything. Then, Try It Again.

 Savannah Charlton mums - just incredible. This one stem lasted 3 weeks in my house.

Savannah Charlton mums - just incredible. This one stem lasted 3 weeks in my house.

 A really fun flower crown I got to make in October with all those mums! Photo by Nelson Esseveld.

A really fun flower crown I got to make in October with all those mums! Photo by Nelson Esseveld.

 Seaton's Ruby - accidentally got this one, but it ended up being a real fave.

Seaton's Ruby - accidentally got this one, but it ended up being a real fave.

 Finally, a giant armload of gorgeous long-stemmed bells. Try, try again.

Finally, a giant armload of gorgeous long-stemmed bells. Try, try again.

I’m stubborn, and I have a hard time giving up on anything - thanks to parents who told me not to be a quitter (that’s a blessing and a curse!).  So when I couldn't get Bells of Ireland to germinate or grow well for the first two years of flower farming, I just kept planting them and I finally figured out a great formula - freeze the seed for at least 2 weeks, soak it for a day, and sow it without covering it, in a shady bed. They LOVE shade! I finally had an excellent crop of bells this year, and I’m not looking back.

But I’m also pretty fearless, and I love to go all in on something I really care about or want.  I REALLY wanted ranunculus. I was convinced that they wouldn’t do very well and might even be a loss for us, but they were incredible.  I never would have known that if I hadn’t tried them - and I’ll never go a season without ranunculus again. We started them in February, pre-sprouting them in potting soil for 2 weeks at cool temps after soaking them in aerated water overnight.  They went in the ground at 6x6 in my hoophouse at the beginning of March, and were producing absolutely incredible blooms by the 2nd week of May.  They bloomed like crazy for 6 weeks, and held in the cooler for over 2 weeks, still perfect for wedding work. We were still using ranunculus in wedding designs at the end of JUNE.

Mums were another variety I went whole hog for this year, and god did I love them! They started blooming in mid-September, and they were SO beautiful and SO long-lasting.  We made stunning arrangements with them for our open house October 22nd - WEEKS later than I expect to have flowers. I actually had them into November, and I’m sure that they would have kept on going if I had kept watering them, but we had to shut off the watering system.  I’m so glad I took the chance on a few cuttings from King’s Mums.

One thing I've never gotten to grow well are China asters - they're always puny and never seem to germinate well - I end up with tiny patches and just a few flowers. But damn it if I don't keep trying because I have these visions in my head of how they'll be next year...there's always next year.

People Are the Hardest Part

 Two people I will truly miss working with.

Two people I will truly miss working with.

And YOU are the hardest of all.

This was the first year that I was managing people, and the entire operation, day-to-day on my own.  It was not perfect, and despite all the successes in flower farming this year, my failures in people management still leave a bad taste in my mouth at the end of the year. I lost three employees this year - one I fired, one quit for personal reasons (those reasons threw the farm into turmoil as well), and the third left for another position.  I had way more difficult conversations than I am honestly capable of handling.

I never thought I would be an employer - it’s a strange thing! It feels SO good some days, and so terrible others, especially when your employees live on the same land and are your friends. Balancing friendship with being a boss is probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a human, and I’m not good at friendship in the first place. I’m not naturally empathetic or intuitive, so feeling others’ feelings and picking up on what is going on is not my strong suit. I got into farming to be with plants, not with people, so management has been my biggest challenge, and it’s definitely a huge weakness for me. I’m pretty darn competent in a lot of areas, but when it come to people, I’m a clumsy, unaware novice.

It feels weird to say that, like saying that I’m bad at walking or something, but it’s true.  I don’t even know where to start to get better, which is a strange and disorienting feeling.  Here are at least a few things I know I need to work on:

  1. Ask for what you need - if you don’t, don’t be bitter that you didn’t get it.
  2. Ask questions. Of everyone. Especially when you don’t want to talk about it.
  3.  Face yourself & your fears: ask for feedback & ­– this is the hard part – accept it. Own up to your mistakes.
  4. Confront bad behavior immediately - especially when it’s your own, and even if you feel your bad behavior is justified.
  5. Care for yourself. You’re the boss, so no one else is going to make sure you take a break, that you eat lunch, that you have everything you need for that delivery, or that you don’t work all night after working all day.  Be your own mama bear.

I wonder if the rest of you out there struggle with managing your employees?  What kind of solutions or strategies have you found? I know it’s a huge topic, but maybe not so huge in a farm-specific context.

Let me know your thoughts on this post! Thanks for reading.

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Variety Notes

We had our best spring ever, thanks to our ranunculus and anemones in the hoophouse, as well as our overwintered and early-in-the-ground annuals. Larkspur, bupleurum, bachelor’s buttons, and many more made our spring excellent.

Godetia, aka Clarkia:  I was really surprised by this plant! It was SO prolific, so much that we could not harvest it on time at all, but it filled out our bouquets beautifully and looks a bit like alstroemeria. We planted the Grace mix from Geoseed, and I loved all the colors. They’re bright, and the only ones I would consider planting separately would be the pure white, or the rose-pink, which has pink streaks in the middle of white petals. We put these out on the equinox along with many other hardy annuals. We did a second and third succession, but all seemed to blow up right around solstice - so it’s probably a day-length thing. The flower bible, Specialty Cut Flowers, says as much.

Bupleurum & larkspur: We had great yields on our bupleurum, especially the patch we were able to overwinter. I’m planting lots more in the fall - in fact, they’re already in the ground.  Our larkspur were also really great - tall, healthy, gorgeous blooms from the Sublime series, QIS, and the Earl Grey variety I got from Fedco Seeds on Floret’s recommendation. Fancy Smokey Eyes was another big winner - just a pale lavender, not quite white.

Canterbury Bells: I had bad germination on these, but the plants that made it were so beautiful, and I absolutely fell in love with the shape of the flowers. 

Snapdragons: OFF the CHARTS. The ones we tried to overwinter were eaten by deer, but our spring plantings were incredible - such long stems, multiple branching blooms, incredible color. My faves were the Opus Lavender, Opus Plumblossom, Madame Butterfly Bronze, and then the Rocket series - Orchid especially. Cherry and Lemon were gorgeous colors as well, with such incredible flower form - strong, long spikes with many florets. Our last planting succumbed to rust, but we're still getting what we can. Definitely need a third succession next year.

Everlasting, or Xeranthemum: Another surprise winner! Adorable little paper flowers that last and last, great for drying, for boutonnieres, crowns, and corsages. Just a tiny patch of 3 feet has lasted us the entire summer. They did take their time, but lord were they worth it!

Stock: We had great results with stock all summer. I’ve always been afraid of it falling over and being short, but the Katz and Canneto varieties have been wonderful and strong all season, despite our heat - so don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t grow stock! They don’t look like the pictures, but that scent is absolutely worth it. I’ve yet to try the Quartet series, but may do so in the spring. Our last round of stock that I was trying to get to bloom for fall pretty much died in the tray - alas!

Lisianthus: It was our first year with lisianthus - WOW. We bought 3 trays of plugs, got them in the ground in April, and were reaping the benefits by the end of July. They are amazing - so prolific, so many flowers I could NOT keep up. In our hoophouse bed, 3 trays must have given us thousands of flowers. We grew ABC White, Mariachi Mix, and Magic Champagne. I LOVED the ABC and all the Mariachi colors. The Magic were great but flopped open really quickly. I’m definitely investing more in this crop next year - including the Roseanne series and the Corelli light pink that I’ve seen all over Instagram.

Rudbeckia: Oh my goodness. These plants are just GIVERS! Planting them early, I was concerned that they were stunted, and sad, but come warm weather, they shot up and gave us the most spectacular flowers - my favorites are the green-centered Prairie Sun, the classic Indian Summer, the rusty Cherokee Sunset, and the short but incredible Sahara, with those peachy, muddy colors. Planting them like cool flowers made an incredible difference - last year, our plants were short & didn’t give many flowers when planted out after last frost, but this year, wow. So worth it - I loved each and every one.  The varieties that didn’t do as well for us were the Goldilocks and Denver Double Daisy - lots of flowers, but poor vase life, and opened really quickly in the field.

Some other standout varieties: 

Castor beans: tall, gorgeous plants with tropical-looking leaves and bright, textural fruits on tall inflorescences. Very weird, but very useful. Trying a variety called 'Carmencita Pink' in 2018.

Celosia: Sylphid and Flamingo Feather are consistent performers.

Gomphrena: the hot G. haageana varieties, like QIS Orange, Strawberry Fields, and Carmine, are stunning, long-stemmed, and excellent for personal flowers.

Nicotiana: I loved the grandiflora variety, plus the smaller-flowers "whisper" mix, and I'm planting WAY more varieties next year. This plant just keeps producing stems like crazy - no successions necessary.

Sunflowers: Still loving the Pro Cut series, along with Soraya (probably my favorite) and Red Hedge, which I think is the best red.

 

March Forth

 Ice, ice baby

Ice, ice baby

Well, March just absolutely flew by - did anyone else see it? So many amazing things are happening on the farm that it’s hard to know where to start - I’ll just start with the good stuff. We are trying to do lots more “fancy” flowers this year, so we have anemones and ranunculus in the hoop house right now, plus plenty more fun things, below.

ANEMONE & RANUNCULUS

I ordered way more ranunculus than I meant to, so we will have a big glut rather than a little trial (I’m not complaining). We soaked and pre-sprouted our corms for both of these flowers, using Bare Mtn Farm’s bubbler technique, and germination is excellent. (If you haven't discovered Bare Mtn Farm's amazing blog and videos yet, you are WELCOME). We planted the babies at 6x6 spacing in the hoop house after adding all-purpose granular fertilizer to the beds, and will be spraying them with compost tea and fish emulsion every 2 weeks.  To space them, I use my homemade planting board, just plywood and dowels, to make perfectly spaced marks in the bed. We mulched the corms with oat straw, to help keep the soil temperature down, because our March was incredibly and unseasonably warm, to the point that I thought we might start seeing the ocean approach our doorstep! J/k we are so landlocked I think we’re safe unless ALL the ice caps melt tomorrow. The oat straw, unfortunately, still had viable seed in it, so I do have to do some weeding. Next year, we may go for white on black plastic instead. I planted my anemone and ranunculus a lot later than most growers, which is scary because they could get too hot, but I did it because I simply don’t have a wholesale buyer right now, and I really want them for May & early June weddings. So, I also bought a really fancy shade cloth for our hoop house, which is supposed to be highly reflective on the outside and keep heat in at night. It’s called “Solara” and I got it from Farmtek. That will be an adventure to install!

The varieties I’ve planted this year are:
Anemone: Galilee Mix, Marianne Panda, Marianne Pure White (all from Gloeckner), and De Caen Mix (from Swart & Co., my boyfriend’s family business - they have a really addictive website, go check it out!).
Ranunculus La Belle: Champagne, Pastel Mix, Scarlet, and Violet.
Ranunculus Amandine: Black, Cream, Orange, Pastel Lemon, Pastel Pink, and Rose.

 Pre sprouted anemone corm

Pre sprouted anemone corm

 Pre sprouted ranunuculus corm

Pre sprouted ranunuculus corm

 My 6x6 planting board, making those perfect holes. Trigonometry, yo! Also, weeds.

My 6x6 planting board, making those perfect holes. Trigonometry, yo! Also, weeds.

 Popping up like lil trees!

Popping up like lil trees!

 Fancy, fancy shade

Fancy, fancy shade

DAHLIAS

Deep in the heart of winter, I ordered way, way, way too many dahlia tubers, to stave off crippling depression. In March, most of them arrived, and I’d open a box to find that I’d completely forgotten that I’d ordered this variety from this company!  Terrifying - I think we are going to have no room for anything but dahlias (again, not complaining).  I store my dahlias in my flower cooler over the winter, with a space heater on a thermostat that will prevent them from freezing if it gets too cold.

For wedding and design work, there is no better workhorse in our garden than dahlias, so I want them all the time. This year, to give myself more dahlias, I’m starting a few early in crates under my benches.  I just lined my harvest crates with newspaper, filled with potting soil or peat moss, and moistened them a bit. They start putting out shoots much faster if I have them on a heat mat. I have a few precious varieties that I only have a few of - those, I’ll take cuttings from, so I plant them upright, with their necks sticking out of the soil , so I can get a good clean cut when the time comes. More about propagation in another blog!

By doing this, I’ll have 8-week-old plants to put in the field by last frost, instead of just-waking-up tubers. I’m super, super thrilled about this, because it means we’ll have all those fluffy, dramatic, perfect blooms even earlier.

I’d list the varieties I’m growing, but that would be insane. Oh, I also bought tuberose from Sunny Meadows Flower Farm. What’s wrong with me?!?! I have no idea how to grow tuberose!

 Under the benches, the tubers still get lots of light!

Under the benches, the tubers still get lots of light!

 Sprouts!

Sprouts!

LISIANTHUS

It will be our first year growing these creatures. Well, ok, our second year, because the first year I tried them from seed and was completely bamboozled. They were the absolute tiniest seedlings I’ve ever seen, and they appeared to grow NOT AT ALL, not to mention the bad germination. So this year I took everyone’s advice and bought plugs from Gro-N-Sell through Gloeckner. (By the way, Farmer Bailey of Ardelia Farm is selling plugs!! I’m so excited and he has all the amazing varieties - check it out!) It was so exciting to get these plants in the mail - they came in this insulated box, with special cardboard spacers between each flat (3 flats to a box). I got 630 plants - eek! But they are all really good looking seedlings and they cost me about $160. Pretty worth it if I get the growing right. We’ll be planting them next week and pray that it doesn’t get too hot. Specialty Cut Flowers, by Armitage & Laushman (AKA the flower bible), says that they will bloom great as long as they have 4-5 leaf pairs before being exposed to temperatures above 70°. Most of my plugs do have that many, so I’m hopeful that the hot hoop will be OK for them. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Varieties: ABC White, Magic Champagne, Mariachi Mix (anyone have any comments? Varieties that have done well for them?)

 Plug 1

Plug 1

 Plug 2, a little smooshed after transport

Plug 2, a little smooshed after transport

MUMS

Woohooo, mums!! I have no idea if these will bloom in time for me to harvest them & use them for weddings, but I HAD to try. I bought 2 each of 11 different varieties from King’s Mums. They cost me about $100 including shipping. I may or may not take cuttings, depending on what space in my hoop looks like. Of course, I could try them in the field as well - anyone out there doing mums outside? Mainly worried about frost before they bloom. It was also super fun to get the mums in the mail - there’s something amazing about opening a box to find a living thing inside. I put them into 2 inch pots immediately, and they seem to love our little nursery.

Varieties:
Mocha (Meant to get Moira, oops), Moonbeam, Savanna Charlton, Norton Vic, Lynn Johnson, Alexis, Seaton’s J’Dore, Coral Charm, Apricot Courtier, Apricot Alexis, and River City.

 All wrapped up like a present

All wrapped up like a present

 Happy in their new homes

Happy in their new homes

COOL FLOWERS

It’s my first year really going for it with hardy annuals in the early spring, following the sage directions of Lisa Mason Ziegler in her book Cool Flowers. For me, the most useful of these species are the greenery, like cerinthe, bells of Ireland, and bupleurum, plus really special flowers like sweet peas, stock, and Icelandic poppies. Unfortunately, I had really bad germ on both my first rounds of poppies (the Colibri poppies I got through Henk Onings, incredibly expensive at $75/1000 seeds!). My third round I seeded after keeping the seed at least a month in the freezer, then setting them on top of mini soil blocks, no heat mat, and with a humidity dome. This worked MUCH better and I’m hopeful for those guys. It just means I probably won’t be getting the big beefy stems I could have if I’d had them out in the ground by now. I’m actually really liking soil blocks for a lot of difficult-to-germ seeds. For some reason, they just seem to like it better!

We transplanted a big round of hardies to the field on equinox, March 20th, which also happens to be about 8 weeks before our last frost - very auspicious! So far, they’ve done really, really well in the cool (and HOT) weather of March. Last night they had their first major freeze, with a low of 20° on top of about an inch of snow. They were protected by frost blankets, and I let the snow settle on top of the blankets to insulate further. The blankets were really weighed down by the heavy, wet snow, but almost none of the plants suffered any damage. I’m hoping that’s the last of the major freezes. One neat thing we did with our frost cloths was to add another support hoop on top of the first, which helps keep the cloth taut and keeps them nice and neat, too. This trick is thanks to Mimõ Davis of Urban Buds farm. For our sweet peas, which were already planted around their trellis, we used binder clips to hold the row cover to the trellis and kind of made a tent over the plants. Does anyone have a better solution for this? It’s kind of a pain.

I have really high hopes for my cool flowers this spring! They’ll help us bridge that gap between early spring flowers and the big flush of summer blooms.

 Lots of creatures in the ground already

Lots of creatures in the ground already

 Double-hooped frost cloth (with holes)

Double-hooped frost cloth (with holes)

 Sweet peas going in the ground on Equinox!

Sweet peas going in the ground on Equinox!

 Binder clips to the sweet peas' rescue!

Binder clips to the sweet peas' rescue!

IN OTHER NEWS

We are trying occultation for our cover crop this year. This means that we till in the cover crop, then smother it with a black plastic tarp until it’s broken down by our magical bacteria and worm friends. This is another tip & technique from Bare Mtn Farm. We’ll see what happens - most years we end up battling the cover crop as a weed all summer, so we’re hoping that this will help us get more utility out of it as a green manure.

Betsy and Mike at the Farmette just bought this amazing vintage '47 GMC, and we’re going to turn it into a roadside flower and food stand. I’ve heard so many good things from other flower farmers about this kind of direct selling, and how much money they make, that I just can’t wait to see how ours goes. Cute awning fabric is on the horizon!

The tulips are up early, and the daffodils are not up at all! I must have planted the daffs too deep and the tulips too shallow. The tulips are also getting ravaged by deer and mostly squirrels.

 Tulips, so early

Tulips, so early

 %&*#$! deer

%&*#$! deer

Our deer problem was really severe in the fall and over the winter, so we had to take that on. We repaired the fence by the mountainside, where most of them come in, and also set up a temporary electric fence on the wedding side - so far, they’ve kept out, except one night we did find footprints and some munched tulips, and the fence was really stretched out, like they’d run into it. This was probably our biggest pest problem and I’m so relieved to have it (knock on wood) solved.

Also, our hoophouse looks like a cathedral in the early morning light, rudbeckia leaves are tiny and fuzzy and adorable, and I got a kitten.

 Srsly what other church do you need?

Srsly what other church do you need?

 So small! So fuzzy!

So small! So fuzzy!

 Also quite small and quite fuzzy

Also quite small and quite fuzzy

I love you, flower farming community! How is your spring going?

Growing and Propagating Succulents

 Magnificent, easy, and prolific.

Magnificent, easy, and prolific.

We'll get to designing with succulents another day - I don't have any good pictures of my process at the moment! In the meantime, we’ll start with growing and propagating, plus the varieties that I’ve had success with, and maybe a few that I covet with all my soul.

Succulents are probably the easiest and perhaps most profitable plants we grow. They are extremely popular for weddings right now, and the trend shows no signs of slowing, so I keep propagating. I started propagating succulents pretty much accidentally, when a leaf detached from one of mine and started growing roots. "Wow," thought I, "It's cloning itself. Genius." So I bought some mother plants from the big box store and my local nursery and started popping their leaves off and sticking them in the soil. Soon I had a whole succulent hive. They cost almost nothing to care for, except water, a little bit of time, and electricity, and they are brilliant for boutonnières, flower crowns, centerpieces, wedding favors, and wearable jewelry à la Susan McLeary, AKA @passionflowersue. They are a bit fussy to work with in design, but we'll get to that another day.

GROWING

I grow succulents under fluorescent lights in my basement, and they seem to love it. They don't stretch, the way they always do if I have one just out in my living room, but I imagine if you have a VERY sunny window they would also stay in their compact rosette form. I use the T5 fixtures that I also use for starting my annuals and perennials in the early spring, on a timer that gives the plants a 16-hour day. 

At first, I was growing succulents in 2-inch nursery pots, the kind that fit 32 per standard tray. These pots are quite deep, and I found that about half the soil was not being used, since succulents have fairly shallow roots. So when I got my new soil blocker, I started putting them in blocks. They love it! I think they actually grow faster. I mix an all-purpose organic fertilizer into the soil before planting, according to the label instructions, but I've also planted them in plain soil with nothing at all in the past and they were fine.  I don't use a special quick-draining cactus soil, because it's not necessary in our very dry climate - I just use a basic potting soil, whatever we have around for our regular starts.  If you live in a moist area, you may find that a fast-draining soil is necessary.

 Succulents growing happily in their 2-inch soil blocks. 

Succulents growing happily in their 2-inch soil blocks. 

 Succulent flowers are kind of a nuisance, but they are super beautiful.

Succulent flowers are kind of a nuisance, but they are super beautiful.

Succulents like it dry, warm, and bright. I water when I notice that the plants are a little bit floppy, that the leaves are not a rigid as they should be. I water my new baby plants much more often than my big plants, which seem to tolerate long stretches without water just fine, but I don’t water on a regular schedule - I just feel it out. I think I could probably wait 10-14 days between waterings. I only ever bottom water my succulents, because my water is very hard and leaves behind mineral spots on the leaves which do not come off, and I can’t have that on the plants I use for weddings.  Every month or so, I add an organic liquid fertilizer to the water and let them soak it up. I try to use a fertilizer with high nitrogen and low potassium - I don’t really want the succulents to flower, because they produce big long fat stems that can deform the perfect spiral shape. However, the flowers are stunning and tropical-looking, and they can add a lot to a corsage or boutonniere. They last forever, too.

Sometimes, a plant will stretch much more than is useful to me. If this happens, I simply behead it and replant it. I just cut the top off, where it’s still looking like a rosette, and nestle it back into a container with fresh, moist soil. It will start to sprout roots within a few weeks. I’ll then remove the remaining leaves from the stem and put them somewhere to start making new babies. If I leave the beheaded stem in the soil, it too will start to sprout new baby plants! These are my “zombie mommies.”

Until recently, I didn’t have any problems with pests. I do see tiny insects nesting in the soil around my succulents’ roots, and I have had some die from root worms, but not many. I’ll just notice one day that the plant is dying, and if I pull it out a bit, sure enough, it just pops out of the soil because the stem is eaten through and rotten.  I just get rid of the contaminated soil, bleach the container, and start over. Some varieties seem more susceptible to this problem than others.

 Eew. You can see the scarring from aphids on this one. Since applying the insecticidal soap though, the center has greened up.

Eew. You can see the scarring from aphids on this one. Since applying the insecticidal soap though, the center has greened up.

 Aphids. Ew. But also, this shows how plantlets can arise from the stumps of beheaded plants.

Aphids. Ew. But also, this shows how plantlets can arise from the stumps of beheaded plants.

Plague of horrors, however! I’ve recently had an issue with aphids eating the new growth of plants - from old ones to brand new babies. It is not nice! They leave gross sticky stuff (honeydew) everywhere, can scar the leaves, and keep the plant from growing. They are tiny little blue-gray dots, and every time I think I’ve killed them, they come back. LAME. I’ve started using Safer brand insect soap, and it does kill them, but they are so sneaky that they hide form it and some always survive. Lady bugs may be next, or neem oil. Anyone have experience with aphids on their succulents?

Other than the aphids, there’s just not much to worry about with these tough, beautiful creatures, and they keep giving and giving.

 Some of my succulents are huge! These ones are about 3 years old, and they have been beheaded and replanted a few times - they just keep truckin’.

Some of my succulents are huge! These ones are about 3 years old, and they have been beheaded and replanted a few times - they just keep truckin’.

PROPAGATING

Succulents just want to take over the world! It seems like all parts of the plant will product a new one, if given a chance - all I do to propagate is create the right conditions and accelerate the process.  It does take a while - about 9 months to a year for a leaf-propagated succulent to reach 4-5 inches in diameter, depending on variety. I use three different strategies to propagate my succulents.

Leaf method: Starting with the mother plant, I choose a fat, healthy bottom leaf (or, I choose many fat healthy bottom leaves all at once). Bigger leaves tend to produce bigger, faster plantlets. Wiggling the leaf back and forth, I move it until it pops off the stem without tearing either the leaf or the stem. Sometimes I fail and hurt the leaf or the stem - some varieties are more compliant than others. When I have my collection of leaves, I toss them into an empty flat and let them have a little light, though they don’t need much. If I’m trying to propagate a very desirable or hard-to-sprout variety, I’ll use rooting hormone according to the package instructions.

It takes at least 2 weeks for the leaves to start making their tiny, red roots. Some plants start making new plants before they make roots, and some never get around to rooting, while others make roots, but never make a new plant! Ideally, you want both. One the leaves start to make roots, I put some moist soil into their flat, so the roots will have something to grab onto while I’m waiting for them to make plantlets. Then, once I see plenty of roots on a leaf with a good sized plantlet, I pop it into a soil block, just nestling the roots down into the block and snugging them in. I keep these flats well-watered until I can tug on the plant and feel resistance from the roots. After that, they’re pretty much home free!

 Little red-pink roots coming off a nice leaf.

Little red-pink roots coming off a nice leaf.

 A wee plantlet settling into its new soil block home.

A wee plantlet settling into its new soil block home.

Stump method: I use this method for plants that are difficult to propagate via leaves - sometimes, they just don’t want to make roots or new plants. I discovered this method back when we had giant pack rats that terrorized our basement - they would bite the heads off my most beautiful succulents and take them back to their shadowy lair. But, soon after, the stumps of these beheaded succulents would begin to sprout tiny new plantlets, right where they had been guillotined. I simply waited for these babies to grow large enough to cut off, and then snugged them down into a new soil block. This method, along with the next one, produces the fastest clones - they are already primed to live and have had the support of the mother plant throughout their development, whereas the leaves have only that one tiny part of her. To cut off a new plantlet, sterilize your cutting implement (I like needle-nosed snips or trimming shears with very skinny points), and snip the plant out near the stem of the mother plant. Make a loose hole in the soil block or other medium and place the stem into it gently, pressing the soil in around it for good contact.

 Here are some out-of-focus plantlets growing from the stump of a rat-ravaged giant. 

Here are some out-of-focus plantlets growing from the stump of a rat-ravaged giant. 

 Here's the rooting hormone I use occasionally.

Here's the rooting hormone I use occasionally.

Sucker method: This is the easiest method and produces great clones. Most succulents, once they reach a certain size, will begin to make suckers, sometimes from the main stem , but often from below the soil line. All you have to do is a little hunting - lift up the lower leaves of your older succulents, and you’ll probably find some babes under their mommas’ skirts, just waiting for a new home and their time in the sun. Just snip them off and plant them in a new soil block. They’ll get growing immediately. make sure you just plant the rosette, no the stretched stem, as they don’t have roots to support any height. New succulent clones from leaves often make multiple plants, as well, and these can be divided to further multiply your stock. Wait until the plants are fairly big, and then snip off the biggest sister - she’s got a lot of energy, while the other sibling can still be supported by the roots she’s already grown.

 This little sucker is coming out of the soil from beneath her momma plant.

This little sucker is coming out of the soil from beneath her momma plant.

 Often, new plantlets will come in pairs, triads, or quartets. They can be divided. 

Often, new plantlets will come in pairs, triads, or quartets. They can be divided. 

VARIETIES

The best rosette succulents are Echeverias and Sempervivums, but there are many other genera that make great succulents for favors and just general enjoyment. I actually think the zebra plant is my favorite, but it’s very slow and not great for propagating.

FairyBlooms is a fun Instagram to follow and they have a great selection in their online shop, though of course I recommend using your local nursery whenever possible.  They also sometimes have the most coveted succulent of all, the variegated “Compton Carousel.” You’ll pay out the wazoo for it though - almost $50 for a 4-inch plant. It’s rare!

I don’t know the names of a lot of my succulents, but I do know a few: here are the ones I currently grow.

 Lilacina - Very productive, easy to propagate, and grow quite large.

Lilacina - Very productive, easy to propagate, and grow quite large.

 Lipstick (?) - not so easy to propagate, but very pretty and worth the effort.

Lipstick (?) - not so easy to propagate, but very pretty and worth the effort.

 Perle Von Nurnberg - easiest and most productive of all, fast to size.

Perle Von Nurnberg - easiest and most productive of all, fast to size.

 Black Prince - Beautiful color, but susceptible to root rot.

Black Prince - Beautiful color, but susceptible to root rot.

I also grow, but don't have pictures of:

Lola

Topsy Turvy

Caribbean/Neon Breakers

and a bunch of others. 

How do you propagate succulents? What varieties do you like? What god should I pray to to save me from this plague of aphids?

 

Mouse Attack, the Marijuana Industry, and Baseball Cards

This post ain’t too pretty, I’ll tell you right off the bat. Hope you like pictures of thermostats!

Well guys, some days you just can’t win. I went into my propagation room this morning to find 3 flats razed by mouse destruction. They chopped my Scabiosa stellata and made holes in the seeds they dug up (they must be geniuses), beheaded my stock seedlings, and somehow ate my tiny tiny feverfew seedlings as well. Grrr! Well, what do you do - just get over it, wipe your tears, and start over. As Mimo Davis, of Urban Buds, said to me at the Floret workshop, “When in doubt, plant more seeds.” So I did, and it made me feel better.  At least they didn’t have a taste for my snapdragons. Anyway I put an awesome electronic trap down there so those furry lil cuties will be dead soon, Jah willing. (Yes, Jah. I’m not a Rastafarian but I appreciate the philosophy).

 Just a good old fashioned dirt party.

Just a good old fashioned dirt party.

 Can you even believe this?

Can you even believe this?

Now on to the good stuff. I wanted to share with you a bit more about our seed-starting setup and how I organize my seeds, because I think it’s pretty nifty. We have a basement grow space with five T5 broad spectrum lights, of the 8-tube, 4-foot variety. We hang the lights over our benches, as close to the seedlings as they can be without diminishing the footprint of the lights too much. Our older room is lined with white plastic to reflect the light back to the seedlings instead of letting it escape into the gloomy basement - these are the tricks you learn from the marijuana industry ;). Our newer space is just slap-dash - I bought new lights this spring and set up the space really quickly, without reflective plastic, and I do notice a difference in brightness. And ideally, we’d have a natural-light propagation house with heat out on the farm, because I do notice that my basements seedlings are quite leggy. The lights are all controlled by a simple timer that I have set to a 16-hour day.

 Space #1, with the white plastic walls and a billion succulents.

Space #1, with the white plastic walls and a billion succulents.

 Space #2, with creepy sandstone foundation walls and very uneven floor. 

Space #2, with creepy sandstone foundation walls and very uneven floor. 

 
 One of the simple timers that controls the lights. 

One of the simple timers that controls the lights. 

 

Speaking of the marijuana industry, another big development is that we bought a whole pallet of potting soil from our local grow supplier. I’m so happy about this - last year we spent $700 on good potting soil and bought it bag by bag as we needed it - but of course, we often didn’t have it when we did need it, and planting was delayed. I think these 60 2-cubic-foot bags will last us at least a couple of seasons, and cost only a little more than what we spent last year.  The brand we bought is Tupur Gold, which is formulated for hydroponic indoor growing, but I like it because it’s super-fine, has lots of drainage (it’s easy to over-water seedlings indoors), and it’s cheap. I fortify the soil with granular fertilizers like Down-to-Earth’s All-Purpose Mix, and then feed the seedlings regularly with liquid nutrients like Age Old Organics Grow. I’d love to hear how the rest of you get enough soil for your regular planting schedule, and if I’m missing out on a great deal elsewhere. I’ve tried to get bulk orders from Johnny’s, but they never got back to me with a shipping quote, waaaahh!

The best part about going to my indoor growing supplier (Way To Grow, in Boulder), is that all the clerks are potheads, and they all think that I’m growing pot. When I say, “I grow flowers,” they’re like, “Yeah man, flowers, heh heh.” (Because, of course, the part of the plant you smoke, and that has the THC, is the flower!) I let them think what they think. Also I’ve never seen another woman in that store - is the pot industry really that male-dominated? Seems like it.

 Yep, that's what part of a pallet of soil looks like.

Yep, that's what part of a pallet of soil looks like.

 Some of the nutrients we mix into our soil.

Some of the nutrients we mix into our soil.

Last year, we built a small nursery inside our big hoop house - my design partner Kim calls it the babushka - which I think means “Grandmother” in Russian, but I think she’s referring to those nesting dolls. The nursery has two giant benches in it, and the top is made of PVC hoops. We covered it with old hoop-house plastic. (We replaced our plastic in the spring of '15 and promptly got a hundred holes in it from a 3-hour hailstorm with golfball-sized stones). The idea with the benches was that we’d use a sump pump to flood them with water from our old aquaponics tank, which is inside the hoop house, thereby bottom-watering all our seedlings at regular intervals. We tried this, but it didn’t work too well, because we hadn’t made the tables perfectly level so the water would spread out evenly under all the seedlings. This year, my plan is to use capillary matting on top of the benches but under the seed trays, to hold the water until the plants can soak it up. I think this will work especially well with soil block trays.

 A hoop within a hoop. And some junk. And our wee tiller. 

A hoop within a hoop. And some junk. And our wee tiller. 

 That little white PVC pipe in the foreground is where the water can flood out. There is a bench on the other side too - it's just covered by frost cloth. Storage solutions...

That little white PVC pipe in the foreground is where the water can flood out. There is a bench on the other side too - it's just covered by frost cloth. Storage solutions...

The nursery is pretty heavily DIY-engineered. The climate controls are a big exhaust fan on one end, controlled by a thermostat, plus an intake fan that pulls cool air from the north side of the hoophouse through both the hoophouse and nursery wall. This works, but because of the placement of the fan, most of the cool air stays near ground level. Trying to figure out a fix for that has been a headache. In the early season, we also place two space heaters, the beefiest ones we could find on sale at our local big box store,  under the benches and control them with timers during the evening. This year I’d like to upgrade to controlling them with thermostats. My favorite thermostats are not programmable, but rather these super basic (and super-cheap) Thermo Cubes, which come in a variety of temperature ranges. For my big box fans that exhaust the hoop house, I have the TC-21, which switches on when the temperature gets above 78°, and off when it gets below 70°. This saves me and my interns from having to plug in and unplug the fans every day. I also have one for the space heater I put in my cooler (does that ever sound oxymoronic), where I’m storing my dahlia tubers, as an “oh shit” measure in case it gets really too cold in there. That one goes on at 35° and off at 45°.

 Exhaust fan. It's actually an attic exhaust fan I think. 

Exhaust fan. It's actually an attic exhaust fan I think. 

 Intake fan. The silver tubing connects to the outside world on the north side of the hoop house.

Intake fan. The silver tubing connects to the outside world on the north side of the hoop house.

 Cold Thermo Cube connected to a space heater.

Cold Thermo Cube connected to a space heater.

 Hot Thermo Cube for our hoop house exhaust fans.

Hot Thermo Cube for our hoop house exhaust fans.

So that’s the seeding setup, in addition to the heat mats, domes, and so forth. What I really want to show you is our super cool seed storage system (well, I think it’s super cool. I don’t know about my employees, or you). I use baseball card pocket pages - you know, those 9-pocket plastic sleeves you would use to hold your most precious collectors’ items. Well, that’s what my seeds are to me, so what could be more appropriate? Not only do the sleeves protect and organize my seeds, they also mean that my seeds take up a LOT less space. I have 3 binders of seeds - 2 for my annuals and 1 for perennials. I’m definitely going to need another annual binder soon, the way I’ve been ordering - eek!

In the beginning, I cut the seed packets open, dumped the seeds into a plastic bag, and then labeled the bag and stuck it in the pocket, but as you can imagine, that took up a lot of time and was tedious and unnecessary. Now I just fold the seed packet in half and stuff it in. Geoseed packets are slightly too big, so I have to cut the edges off, but Johnny’s & Renee’s Garden packets fit perfectly. When I order a lot of seeds or bulky ones like wheat, they get dumped into a bin and are not very organized at all. But I know they’re there. I think (I hope) the binders help my interns and field manager learn the names of the seeds, and their characteristics, since they’re all out there in the open and easily accessible.

 So easy! So organized! Saves so much space! Thanks the Internet for showing me the way.

So easy! So organized! Saves so much space! Thanks the Internet for showing me the way.

 Almost all my seeds in less than 1 cubic foot of space.

Almost all my seeds in less than 1 cubic foot of space.

Well jeez that turned into a long post really quickly! Tell me about your seeding set up, and your seed organization strategies, and how you get enough soil for your business. Are these kinds of nuts-and-bolts posts interesting to you? Am I showing too much of how the sausage is made? Thanks so much for listening to my crazy thoughts and ideas.

Starting the Season

Well, here goes my first blog post - ever! Despite my English major heritage, I haven't been writing much, to my brain's dismay.  So I hope this will help me keep myself sharp, focused, and provide reasons for why I do things the way I do. I hope it's helpful to you too :)

This year, we started our first seeds in the last week of January.  These include varieties like snapdragons, craspedia, stock, rudbeckia, and icelandic poppies, which are call cold hardy and like being cold - or some that just take a long time to get going, like foxglove and campanula. We are trying a technique that Lisa Mason Ziegler wrote about in her wonderful book, Cool Flowers: by starting seeds very early in the spring or even in winter, and planting them out early, we can take advantage of the cool spring weather that allows hardy annuals to flourish, strengthening their root systems and giving them the natural cool to warm weather they need to complete their life cycles. When I found Lisa's book, at first I was really skeptical, and then I was really, really excited. I saw that all these years I had been waiting for things to warm up, when I could be taking advantage of the cool/cold spring weather! It's the first year we are trying these methods, so we'll see how they work out in our Zone 5 garden, where temps can dip to -10°F.  

 Our hand-pump style seeder, for the tiniest seeds.

Our hand-pump style seeder, for the tiniest seeds.

 The first seeds to pop up this year were our ornamental kale, Crane Bicolor.  They are quick!

The first seeds to pop up this year were our ornamental kale, Crane Bicolor.  They are quick!

I like to use a hand-pump style seeder, from Johnny's Selected Seeds,  for these tiny and often expensive seeds. Once you get the hang of it, it's not too difficult to use, and does seems to save some time. As you see, we use heat mats, attached to a thermostat, to give the root zone a lil' bit of warmth to encourage those seeds to pop. I also use acrylic humidity domes to ensure the seeds and seedlings stay moist between waterings. Right now, we grow under T5 grow lights on benches in our basement, which is warm but not too warm. The next big improvement to our farm would definitely be a heated propagation house - right now, we have a nursery inside our hoop house, but it's just not enough space, even so! I feel like we could never have enough seedling space, really. 

This year, I finally put together a proper seeding schedule, relying on my Excel spreadsheets and a few hours of tedious computer work. But now I have a list of everything I need to start each week, including successions, bulbs, dahlias, etc, and all I have to do is trust that my December/January self got it right! (Hard to do - I'm always second-guessing her.) Next time, I'll show you how I store and organize my seeds, along with a more zoomed out view of our seeding area, and we'll see how the plants are getting along. Thanks for reading!