Sitting here by the fire surrounded by seed catalogues, as usual trying to resist the lure of too many new varieties and colours, it seems like a good time of year to reflect on timing. We grow a lot of varieties in a relatively short season and attempt to extend it at both ends with hoophouses and early branches and bulbs. We still really have to get it right for the main 16 weeks in the middle!
Wedding flowers make up 25% to 40% of our revenue so getting the timing right is pretty important. About 20 years ago a good friend came to me with an idea: she had two children being married that July, and wondered whether I would plant a few rows of flowers in my then large vegetable garden, to cut from for the celebrations. It sounded like a great challenge and it was the beginning of my ever-growing cut flower business, innocently started with two little rows and now about 3 acres of perennials, woodies, bulbs, annuals, and greenhouses. It actually turned out very nice that first summer, and not without surprises, something that I have kept in mind ever since.
I suppose the most important thing to know when you are starting out is what blooms when naturally in your area, even before you have an established garden. What would you find in the gardens, fields and ditches around you during the different weeks and months of the year?
I always keep the above in mind when meeting with couples. Regardless of their colour scheme or theme, we must work with what is or can be made available on their wedding date. My initial consultations ideally take place at least 3 months, and sometimes a year or more, before the actual wedding date. We look at pictures and discuss colours and designs, and if there is something to see in the field we take a walk outside. Some people need reassurance that the farm is established and “legit” before booking. I like to send brides home with something small every time, even if it is only bunch of pussy willows.
The best scenario is if they are here on or around their date a year ahead of time, so we can make an actual test bouquet of what will most likely be in bloom for them. The timing definitely starts during the initial consultation, for example: “Sorry, dear, peonies are not a September flower, but this is what dahlias look like!”
Many of you may have noticed that (young) brides for the most part have little or no experience with flowers and are truly grateful if you sound like you know what you are talking about. They usually are greatly influenced by trends and/or what friends or acquaintances have done. There are so many decisions to be made, and I suppose we local flower growers must also see ourselves as taking on an educating role as to what it entails to use locally grown flowers for ones wedding.
Although it takes a lot of time, I always book another consultation with the couple, ideally on the Monday or Tuesday right before the wedding date. For this I encourage the couple to invite whomever they would like to join them in their walk through the fields to “pick” their actual flowers. I explain that not only is it a wonderful experience but we may at that point encounter some of those famous “surprises” and add something really cool at the last minute! At this point I always explain that circumstances beyond our control may cause certain flowers to not be available, and we might have to make some substitutions. Most brides are fine with this as it is part of the “local” experience.
Over the years the walk-through has become a lovely tradition, and we have had up to 10 people in the field at any one time: couples, bridesmaids, mothers, visiting relatives, and even babies.
I have learned my lesson, and now I make a point of sitting down the minute the bride leaves the initial consultation, no matter how busy I am, and make notes of all the flowers she liked, the containers we talked about, and just my general sense of her expectations. The last few years I have tried to have someone who works with me join in on the consultations, as two sets of ears are very valuable for picking up details. After the walk through the fields I make detailed lists of the flowers that were picked out for the bride, bridesmaids, bouts, etc. For the larger containers we are not as specific. Most couples are fine with the guaranteed size, container, style, and colour we will use.
I do at this point keep the size of their vehicle in mind if the flowers are being picked up. Initially I was so scared of not being able to come up with the goods at the right time. Maybe it’s a combination of age and experience, but through careful planning you can be sure that every bride will be satisfied!
These are my notes on timing:
• Always sell flowers you know are available for their date.
• Get organized well before the spring rush hits, and write things on calendars.
• Plan on more than you need for the wedding. You can always add the extras to your market or wholesale bouquets.
• Time annuals to be started from seed with an extra two weeks, and stagger seeding to make sure you won’t be caught out by unforeseen weather.
• Try lots of new varieties every year—see “surprises” above—and keep careful notes on when they were seeded, planted out, and started to produce.
• Keep notes on when perennials are in bloom. In my garden at least, those dates are pretty steady, even in exceptionally warm springs.
• Know and grow the trendy flowers and colors; this is important for those last-minute wedding bookings.
• Experiment a lot with holding blooms such as lilies in bud. The perfect time to bring flowers out into room temperature depends on situation and variety and time of year.
• Keep varieties in mind when planting fall bulbs for spring weddings. I like to grow lily-flowering tulips, but these could be too late for early May.
• If I need a certain colour of tulips, I will plant 2 or 3 different types of, say, light pink varieties, just to be sure there will be lots! I grow all my tulips in the ground and pull them in bud. I hold tulips and daffs for up to several weeks in bud in the fridge, dry wrapped in newspaper.
• There is much manipulation possible for woodies with cold storage in bud and timing the blooms on demand. They won’t necessarily last as long, but if they last the wedding day you’re laughing. Last year, we had a bride set on apple blossoms. All our trees started to bloom really early, so we picked in bud two weeks before the wedding, kept them at 33 degrees in the cooler, and they were beautiful on her (hot) day in late May. I have also stored hydrangeas and lilacs for up to two weeks in the cooler. I have forced forsythia in a crazy cold March in my bathtub by running the hot shower on the branches a couple of times a day. Not to be recommended if you share a bathroom with many others! Oh, the lengths we flower farmers go to.
• For late summer and fall weddings, I rely heavily on my hoophouses, once again putting in more that I need, although one could go overboard on this. For example: I planted 12 tithonia (Mexican sunflower)plants inside for a late September wedding last year, and they grew 6 feet tall with hundreds more blooms that we needed. Two plants would have more than done the job! Oh well, it was calming spending early mornings deadheading those “trees”, and pretty spectacular to show the bride on her walk-through day. Plus it was pouring rain that day, so we spent quite a bit of quality time among the tithonia!
• Know your neighbours’ and your friends’ gardens; when you’re really stuck it is important to be able to source even a few blooms to make it happen.
• Always do your morning walk through the fields with weddings in mind, and make sure harvesters know which are the special flowers that are being saved for which date. We do quite a bit of pinching and deadheading with that in mind.
• If all else fails, call your local wholesaler or florist!
I had the idea for this article because the question I am most often asked by anybody who knows about my business is: “How in the world can you give brides the flowers they want right in time for their wedding day?
The above answer is not a short one, but not an impossible one either.
I love growing flowers, I love making brides happy with my flowers, and I hope to do it for many years to come