Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee

I was honored to help host 2015’s first Grower Intensive Conference in my Region. For those of you who were there, thank you for coming to Georgia. For those of you who missed it, we missed you too and will be looking for you next time. I wanted to share some of the details in this episode of my Southeast Regional Report.The process of planning a conference is involved, much more so than I ever knew. Do you know that the process starts a year in advance? On a cold March day in 2014, with snow falling softly outside the ASCFG main office in Oberlin, the Board of Directors set about making plans for this great organization.

. One of many items on the agenda was planning the 2015 conference lineup. There are so many things to take into consideration when planning a conference. Questions like:  We need a location with several farms to tour, somewhere within a reasonable distance from a major airport, with a great and affordable meeting space, close to awesome speakers, centrally located within the Region, during a time of year when growers are not so busy growing, and it doesn’t hurt to be a place people want to go. So, just a heads up, if you think you live in an area that could meet all of those criteria, by all means let your Regional Director know. We may be coming to a city near you! ASCFG’s Executive Director, Judy Laushman, our Managing Director, Linda Twining, and the planning committee spent much of 2014 planning all of these components to make an awesome conference.

Wined and Dined

We started the event with a welcome reception complete with fabulous hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar. Ready to “Pump you up” were Mimo Davis of Urban Buds and me as emcees. Luck had it that two days before the conference we had an ASCFG board meeting so all of the board members (the experts) were in the house! We had some really great questions posed with super responses from board members, and other ASCFG members and attendees offering answers and suggestions! We learned special little tidbits like did you know that 7:00 a.m. is too late to cut cerinthe? And that it is better to cut it after it is thoroughly hydrated, like after a rain? We also found out that euphorbia can cause serious problems and in some cases, just one drop of the latex on your skin can cause a rash, the severity of which depends on how each individual reacts to it.

One of many items on the agenda was planning the 2015 conference lineup. There are so many things to take into consideration when planning a conference. Questions like:  We need a location with several farms to tour, somewhere within a reasonable distance from a major airport, with a great and affordable meeting space, close to awesome speakers, centrally located within the Region, during a time of year when growers are not so busy growing, and it doesn’t hurt to be a place people want to go. So, just a heads up, if you think you live in an area that could meet all of those criteria, by all means let your Regional Director know. We may be coming to a city near you! ASCFG’s Executive Director, Judy Laushman, our Managing Director, Linda Twining, and the planning committee spent much of 2014 planning all of these components to make an awesome conference.

If the white, milky latex touches a cut or sore or squirts into your eyes, you are courting trouble of major proportions. Some flowers just aren’t worth it! This and tons of other great information were imparted at this fun reception.

I also realized during this reception just how diverse and amazing this group is. We have members who are just starting out all the way to growers who have been farming for over 30 years. We have designers who love to source local flowers as well as farmer florists who do it all. We have experts in the field at the university level as well as horticultural suppliers. So it seems that there is no topic for which this organization cannot provide an expertise in; how lucky can we get?

The Good Stuff

I am pleased to announce that we had 29 states represented at this conference!  We had folks from as far off as Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, all the way to Idaho, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and everywhere in between. Tennessee members took the cake with the most from one state. The ASCFG is tasked with the job of educating its members and that is the main reason for organizing these conferences. We had wonderful, knowledgeable and inspirational speakers sharing their expertise with us.

As far as having the conference at The Georgia Center on the campus of UGA, you know what they say: “Location, location, location.”  Following is a great description from member Tom Parker of Parkerhouse Flowers, New Jersey. “It was nice to stay in one room so you didn’t have to run to get a seat at your priority session. I could see and hear everything clearly and the seats were very comfortable with each workspace individually lighted. You could even plug in a phone or notebook, if necessary. The speakers were all very interesting and I learned a lot.”

We started the conference with the awesome Rita Anders of Cuts of Color. She wowed us with beautiful images of her top ten flowers. They include: Karma dahlias, sweet peas, ranunculus, anemones, snapdragons, larkspur, sunflowers, lisianthus, zinnias, gomphrena, and celosia. She offered tips about all of these flowers along with sources, wholesale and retail prices, harvest and postharvest advice. With ten greenhouses and row after row of field grown cuts, she has gotten this flower thing down pat.

The next presenters were Dr. John Dole and Dr. Alicain Carlson. They told us everything we needed to know about postharvest procedures.  I think I FINALLY understand the difference between holding, hydrating and vase solutions. Here is it is:  Holding solution has an acidifier to properly lower the pH, a biocide to keep the water clean, and carbohydrates to feed the flower. The hydrating solution helps with water uptake and has the acidifier and biocide only. The vase solution has just the carbohydrates to feed the flower. I also learned that a few flowers like lisianthus and marigolds benefit from afternoon harvest, because they have a higher carbohydrate content in the afternoon. One of the important take-home messages was “If you would drink out of your harvest buckets, then they are clean enough for your flowers too.” So would you drink out of your buckets?

Our next presenter was Dr. Peter Hartel, soil microbiologist. By the time he was done he had us all excited about soil health, soil history, soil components and just what it going on with soil! He explained that because soil is part of a tripartite relationship with soil microorganisms and plants, soil is alive, dynamic, and the most complex of all habitats. He embraces this complexity through a new term, soil health, and showed that a healthy soil is every bit as beautiful as a specialty cut flower.

He shared a quote from the Bartram’s Travels, published in 1791: “The soil is a deep, rich, dark mould, on a deep stratum of reddish brown tenacious clay,” a description of soil somewhere between Savannah and Athens, Georgia. Sadly, none of that soil remains; it has all been eroded from tillage farming. He is deeply passionate about soil health and his passion was contagious. He explained why there are so many problems with soil health, now it is our job to correct that problem. Time to get some dirt under your fingernails, y’all.

Elizabeth Dean of Wilkerson Mills Gardens inspired and entertained us with her vast knowledge of woody cuts. We all loved her wit, and interesting woody variety suggestions. She started off her session with a picture of her farm telling us that it was, “The temple of costly experience.”  I think we have all learned that lesson at one time or another. She shared a host of suggested woody and perennial cuts to offer variety when we did not have other flowers in season. She suggested flowering branches in the spring from such beauties as Chionanthus virginicus (fringe tree) and Cornus florida ‘Plena’ (double-flowered dogwood) among others.  Another great suggestion was for vining plants such as honeysuckle ‘Belgica’ as well as the fragrant Clematis armandii ‘Armand’ (white) and ‘Apple Blossom’ (pink). She suggested numerous beautiful blooming shrubs to use as cuts, and shared some liner sources:  www.manorview.com,  www.griffithpropagationnuersery.com,   www.heritageseedlings.com  Elizabeth also referenced the books Manual of Woody Landscape Plants and Woody Ornamentals for Cut Flower Growers and Florists. Her session was so chock full of information it blew my mind!

Travis Hootman and Alexa Wright, both completing research at NCSU, gave us tons of information on comparing planting densities, succession planting, disease and breeding. These studies were supported in part with an ASCFG Research Foundation Grant. Travis indicated that in his studies, while a higher planting density gave more flowers, there was also more severe incidence of disease with most flowers studied. Also, transplanting zinnias gave a greater yield than direct seeding, while the opposite is true for cosmos where direct seeding gave a larger yield. While direct seeding of sunflowers yielded a larger flower head, fewer stems were harvested than with transplanted sunflowers. So, if you want larger sunflowers try direct seeding and a wide spacing. If you want average-sized sunflowers, try transplanting with a closer spacing.

While most of us are familiar with Benary Giant, Oklahoma, and Zowie, research and breeding goals include developing zinnias which include disease-resistant, and drought- and heat-tolerant cut flower types. Be on the lookout for zinnias with these traits in the future.

Our final session was a demonstration of wreath making with Donna Mills of Floral and Hardy Flower Farm, using a wreath machine from Maple Ridge Supply. She said having this machine has really increased her income from November through December, with 300 wreaths made and sold this past season alone! The process was simple using this machine and she was able to assemble a wreath in about 15-20 minutes. She usually uses an 8” wreath form for her standard front door-sized wreath.

She uses native species and common evergreen species such as eastern red cedar, Leyland cypress, Carolina sapphire, boxwood and magnolia to make absolutely gorgeous wreaths. She gave us important tips like soaking the completed wreath in a kiddie pool to hydrate, and to always have an extra wreath machine spring on hand because it will break at the most inopportune time. Donna also suggested not using pine as it does not hold up for long. She shared lots of beautiful pictures of wreaths she has created. To end this fabulous day of awesome speakers we had a special surprise for one lucky person. Maple Ridge Supply donated a wreath machine for the ASCFG to give away. The lucky winner was Abby Barber.

Tours in the Mist

It was absolutely gorgeous on the day of the speaker sessions, with blue skies and 70 degrees. As Murphy’s Law would have it, on the tour day it was misty rain all day, but we all still had a really great time and saw some absolutely awesome farms. We started off at Woodland Gardens in Winterville. Celia Barss, farm manager, lead us on a tour of greenhouses, high tunnels, Haygrove tunnels, fields, and the processing building.  They grow 95% vegetables and fruit and 5% flowers. Woodland Gardens is certified organic and uses products such as McEnroe potting soil for starting seeds, and feather meal to fertilize. She also says that they have been using the same seedling trays for 12 years; Winstrip trays are hard to come by, but worth it. They use landscape fabric to help with weed suppression and get several years out of the cloth. At the end of each season they roll it up and dip it in diluted hydrogen peroxide to disinfect. Celia runs a tight ship and everything, I mean everything, was in order, including perfectly straight, beautiful rows of lettuce and celery, and tomato plants with not a single bit of disease. The beauty of this farm was inspiring.

Our next stop was 3 Porch Farm in Comer. This farm belongs to Steve and Mandy O’Shea.  These two are so very innovative; in fact all products on their farm are grown and stored using solar power, then delivered using carbon-neutral vehicles which run on vegetable oil from local restaurants. They use only the good oil, none of the fast food restaurant oils work in their vehicles. See, even their vehicles have good taste! They have all sorts of cool nooks and crannies including a neat rustic little design studio, a covered potting shed, a little greenhouse, some hoophouses and a cabin in the woods.  They proudly discussed their new bed shaper and plastic mulch layer. It has saved them hours of back-breaking work. They are using biodegradable plastic in line with their earth-friendly practices. They were such a sweet and welcoming couple that we were all so happy to be there on their farm tromping through the mist and mud.

Next stop, Watson Mill Bridge State Park. This beautiful site borders 3 Porch Farm and boasts the longest covered bridge in the state. Sadly, we had so many other places to see that we did not get to see the bridge itself.  But we did get to enjoy a floral demonstration by Jennie Love of Love ‘n Fresh Flowers in a cozy pavilion in the park.  It was nice to get into the dry for everyone, enjoy a nice lunch, and hear Jennie share her wealth of design knowledge with us.

Jennie says she likes to design as she goes and works by inspiration. She started her design with a beautiful urn called the Chelsea vase, donated by Accent Decor. Jennie does not use any type of foam in her design works so she showed us two techniques for keeping the arrangement stable. One is the use of chicken wire inside the vase, another is a taped grid across the top of the vase. She harvested some beautiful blooms for her arrangement from 3 Porch Farm including ornamental ‘Crane’ kale, ranunculus, smilax, as well as a few hellebores. She suggested matching the vase with the color palette of your flowers to create a “symphony of color.”  Another tip when designing is to hide the edge of the vase with flowers and greenery. We all thoroughly enjoyed watching her create this beautiful piece and bombarded Jennie with tons of questions during and after her presentation.

Our final tour was to Davis Floral in Dewy Rose. Michael and Lisa Davis graciously led us on a tour of their three-acre greenhouse. Davis Floral started in 1964 as a greenhouse tomato operation, then transitioned to chrysanthemum, snapdragon, and carnations as cut flowers. Sadly, as so much flower production moved outside the U.S., Davis Floral transitioned to propagating annuals into finished crops for garden centers in the Atlanta area. They heat with large boilers that feed hot water through pipes under the greenhouse benches. Their greenhouses were full of beautiful geraniums, hydrangeas, and lots of other annuals.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

To sum it up, I believe I can speak for many when I say it was great meeting new friends, wonderful to see old friends, and connect with other flower nerds. While I learned so much from each of the speakers and the tours, I also learned so much visiting with other growers and designers over lunch, between sessions, and in the lobby. This group is unique in that everyone is so willing to help, to share, to impart helpful tips, and share the love of growing.  I have come to learn that each and every one of us has a flower story. Some have vast expertise while others are just getting started. While some of us have acreage to grow flowers, others have a small urban space or even a backyard, while some are designers who want to source local flowers, we all have a common interest, sharing the love of beautiful, long lasting local flowers which are unique and vibrant.  See ya at the next conference.

Tanis Clifton

Happy Trails Flower Farm

Tanis Clifton Happy Trails Flower Farm Contact at [email protected]