Viability of Begonia Foliage for Floral Design and Viability of Strawberries for Floral Design

We’re grateful for the ASCFG Grower Grant to trial strawberries and begonias for cutting. Neither project went as planned, but we learned a lot and are excited to share our results.

We wanted to try both projects without using a heated greenhouse, since most of us are growing either in the field or in unheated tunnels, and we wanted the results to be useful to the ASCFG membership. The flooding rains and humidity of 2018 made outdoor growing difficult, and though we did not use a heated space at all, we definitely veered far away from our original grant proposals. Many thanks to the ASCFG for letting us throw our game plan to the wind in order to get some results.

Overall, we had the best success with strawberries, which are easy to grow in variable conditions and produce sellable fruit as well as foliage. Begonias were tough and demand more attention than we can often provide. Please feel free to reach out with any questions on either project at [email protected]

Photo by Seana Shuchart

Strawberries

Our goals were: 1. To discover the best out of four day-neutral varieties for cuts, 2. To test different harvest methods and timings, and 3. To gather feedback from our customers on whether strawberries are a desired item from local growers.

The deluge of rain we got in Maryland in 2018 stunted the berries’ growth; the fruit came on slowly and was very small. We simply did not have luck on our side with this project, but since our mission was to discover whether growers without greenhouses can successfully sell strawberries as cuts, we chose not to move the berries under cover despite the rain. We’ll keep testing the strawberries in 2019, but will use our tunnels with the hopes of getting better results in case it’s another wet year. In the meantime, we learned a lot from 2018’s outdoor trial.

On week 16, we potted up 100 bare root strawberries into one-gallon pots. We used 75% mushroom compost and 25% Pro-Mix. We got 25 plants each of four varieties, some from Nourse Farms (‘Mara des Bois’ and ‘Evie 2’) and some from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (‘Seascape’ and ‘Albia’). All were everbearing strawberries. We put the pots in crates for easier handling, and set the crates on cold frames where they received morning shade and afternoon sun. We gave each pot a little chicken manure fertilizer right on the soil surface.

We got plenty of berries in late May and June, but they were short—on stems about two inches long—and we didn’t feel they were worth cutting for sale. It seemed as though the heavy rain was delaying plant growth. We deadheaded (er, we ate the berries) to encourage more fruiting on longer stems. On week 24, we finally decided to try putting some berries on our availability list: five whole stems about 6” long. We listed them at $10 for 5 stems, or $2 per stem. We put another five stems on the availability list the following week.

To our surprise, given the short stems, they flew off the availability list immediately, both times to the same florist. Other florists expressed regret that they didn’t get to order sooner. The florist who did use them got back to us with rave reviews, and said she wanted us to grow more next season.

More humidity and heavy rain July through October meant that the plants mostly stopped producing fruit. However, we were surprised by how nice the 8” long foliage looked in July, and decided to test it out. It had a great vase life: for about five days it looked as though it had just been cut. We sold six bunches throughout July (10 stems for $7) and again, they flew off the availability list. We could charge more in the future, since it’s such an unusual foliage, perhaps up to $9 per bunch. Two florists bought the foliage; one was the same who bought the berries, the other was a new customer.

In August, we noticed that the foliage had started to trail over the edges of the cold frame in tangled 15-20” pieces. Living on the wild side, we decided to cut it for sale, and again four bunches (10 stems for $10) flew off the list to the same florist who bought the berries and foliage.

The rest of the season, the foliage became mottled and purple-spotted. In the future, we will move the berries into a shaded hoophouse during humid and rainy spells to prevent disease. In mid-November, we moved a third of the crates to an unheated hoophouse, a third to a heated greenhouse (minimum 55 degrees at night), and a third stayed on the cold frames. We’ll be curious to see which treatment works best for next year’s berries.

A note about harvest: the foliage can be cut right into a bucket of water. The vines can be cut as a tangled mass and stuck in water, so long as you let your florists know that they’ll be tangly as all get out. The strawberries are simple: we wet a paper towel and wrapped it around the stems, and then put the whole thing in a plastic clamshell. You don’t need the clamshell though, so long as you cut the berries the same day as delivery, you could just do the wet paper towel and put the berries in an open box or similar for transport.

If we can keep the plants out of extreme weather, strawberries will be a fantastic addition to our crop plan, and I would recommend them to farmers either with or without greenhouses. Florists who do weddings don’t care about ethylene issues since the flowers need to look good for only a day. Unique little touches like a strawberry or an unusual vine are game changers for many of our customers, who are looking for ways to differentiate in the world of Instagram and Pinterest.

'Silver Point'
'Dark Mambo'
'Silver Swirl'

Begonias

Our goals were: 1. To compare growing half the begonias on a shaded cold frame and half in a shaded, unheated tunnel, 2. To compare three different Jurassic varieties for stem length, leaf size, and productivity, 3. To report on the average vase life of each variety, and 4. To gather feedback from our customers on whether begonia foliage is a desired item from local growers.

Our begonia trial veered off the train tracks almost immediately. We got several hard freezes after our last frost date in mid April, and no amount of Reemay and shelter in the unheated tunnel could save the stunted plants, which need night temps of at least 55 degrees but more ideally 70 degrees in their early stages.

In mid May we gave up and ordered more plants from Ball Seed, but the nursery didn’t have any of our original Jurassic set (‘Silver Point’, ‘Silver Swirl’, ‘Pink Shades’) so instead we got 48 plugs each of ‘Dark Mambo’, ‘Flamenco’, and ‘Escargot’. After receiving and potting up our plants into quart-sized pots in Pro-Mix with about 20% mushroom compost mixed in, we got the suddenly-it’s-really-hot spring characteristic of Maryland. Our unheated propagation tunnel was too hot for the plants even with shade cloth, and the cold frame outside had too much afternoon sun. That’s when we decided to throw our original plan completely out the window in order to save the plants.

Things started to go much better once we moved the plants to the front porch of our house. We put half of each variety in 100% shade, and half of each variety in about 90% shade. The results were clear: every single plant in 100% shade looked healthy by the end of the season, but we lost about one third of the plants in 90% shade.

We watered the plants about once a week during the summer, which seemed about right; they did well being fairly dry most of the time. In August and September, we put some of each variety on our availability list. We cut the stems into mini mason jars. The vase life in water was good (at least 5 days) but not great out of water (less than a day).

Although we didn’t completely sell out of cuttable stems, we came close: six different florists bought them despite their extremely short length of only 4-6”. We charged $14 for ten stems ($1.40 per stem) and sold 15 bunches total, about five of each variety. The feedback was universal: everyone liked them, but they needed to be longer. We found that ‘Dark Mambo’ was the hardiest, and had the longest and most abundant stems.

I would not recommend growing begonias to farmers in Zone 7 or similar who don’t have heated greenhouses; they are too sensitive to extreme temperatures and overwatering.

Huge thanks to the kind people at Plantsmith, a nursery in Oregon that specializes in begonias. Here are some notes that they gave us on begonia culture for cutting:
● Start the plant off right. The first two weeks can determine the quality of the crop.
● Night temperatures should be 70F degrees for the first two weeks.
● Night temperatures after that should be above 55F but plants grower better at a minimum of 62F. Temperatures should be under 100F during day.
● We grow our plants pot tight for half the crop, then space the 6” pots at 10 X 10” or about 1.5 plants per square foot. This will give you very good returns on your bench space.
● Grow in lowered light levels. After two weeks, grow on at 1200 to 1500 foot-candles. In western Oregon, we grow in full light until April 1, then 50% shade until May then 75% shade the rest of the summer. Light levels higher than this will stunt the plant, even if you see no burn.
● Plant into very porous potting media. While Jurassic Rex begonias have stronger root systems than other Rex Begonias, they still benefit from an open, loose soil mix. They hate overwatering. Let soil get on the dry side before watering, but don’t allow the plants to wilt.
● Fertility. Maintain an EC between 1.5 and 1.8 if possible. We constant feed at 160 ppm except in darkest weather when we increase to 200 ppm nitrogen. Something like a 20-10-20 is fine. In winter we feed with a low ammonia fertilizer. Coated fertilizer like Apex or Osmocote can cause problems.
● Don’t grow too cold. Our varieties finish reasonably fast with a 62F night temperature with days around 75F. Higher temperatures will decrease crop time; lower temperatures will increase crop time.