Are you thinking about selling wholesale to florists? Learn tips and tricks to succeed with this farm model. Four flower growers share their strategies for nurturing a profitable farm-to-florist business.
Florists are breaking records in their businesses, thanks to events of the last two years. Pandemic lockdowns and rescheduled events have combined to create unprecedented demand for flowers. At the same time, supply chain disruptions have more florists scrambling to find local flower farmers. It’s a perfect storm of opportunity for flower growers. The trick is knowing how to leap into the waves without wiping out.
For growers like Dave Delbo, owner of Dave’s Flowers in Catawissa, Pennsylvania, busy florists have pushed his sales to new levels. “The last two years have been record sales for us, but not a drastic increase over the years before, maybe five to 10 percent,” Delbo says. He’s been selling his specialty cut flowers to florists since the late 1980s. His current customer base is about 45 florists, with 90 percent of them brick and mortar—what he calls “old school florists.”
Christian Ingalls, founder of Daisy Dukes Flower Farm, is three years into flower growing in Papaaloa, Hawaii. She runs a wholesale business that caters primarily to florists. “I started with twelve 60-foot rows in 2019, and now I’ve grown to three-quarters of an acre,” she says. She can’t keep up with demand from her florist clients—every single stem is taken.
In Waverly, Nebraska, Jamie Rohda, owner of Harvest Homes Flowers, sells to a combination of event, and brick and mortar florists. “We had a 60 percent increase in gross sales from 2020 to 2021,” she says. “One hundred percent of our florist clients had their best year ever in 2021.”
For 21 years, Karen Yasui has raised flowers on a Century Farm in Bedford County, Tennessee. Her business, Petalland Flower and Herb Farm, uses organic practices. She grows crops that “no one else is offering locally, things that don’t ship well. For me, 2020 was the best year I’ve ever had.” Her wholesale florist business felt the pinch brought on by COVID event cancellations, but she’s anticipating a busy season this year.
The market is definitely strong, and opportunities are there for enterprising flower growers. The question is: What do you need to know to succeed in selling wholesale to florists?
Why Florists Like Local Flowers
The freshness factor with locally-grown flowers is something that simply can’t be beat. “The advantage of local flowers the way I do it is that they’re delivered in water,” Yasui explains. “They’re never put dry into a box and shipped.” Delbo agrees. “Florists see the product they’re getting right away. They’re not ordering blind and possibly getting something that’s been in a cooler for a week and getting moldy.”
Ingalls harvests to order each morning, with stems picked by 4:00 a.m. She works this way for two reasons: first, to beat the scorching Hawaiian heat, and second, because she’s a full-time first grade teacher. “I actually drop my standing orders at florist shops between the farm and school,” she says. “Those clients know they’re getting literally fresh cut flowers.”
In Nebraska, where Rohda grows, everything floral is shipped in. “We don’t have big flower markets here. My florists are used to getting everything in a box. When my flowers arrive in buckets, picked at the right stage, processed and ready to go, they can start using them even as I’m standing there. Last summer a client showed me dahlias they had ordered that arrived packed in a box. They were crispy—like something I’d put on my compost heap.”
Be a Floral Teacher
There is one caveat to delivering fresh-picked flowers to florists: Be prepared to educate them on the particulars of your blooms. “There’s a learning curve with fresh materials. One crop at a time, a florist needs to learn how to use what you’re growing. With something like a sunflower, there aren’t big differences in using locally-grown versus what’s shipped in. But you could be growing something a florist stopped using because they couldn’t get quality stems through the wholesale chain,” Rohda explains.
Examples she cites are dusty miller and tuberose. “With dusty miller, you can’t ever let it dry, or it won’t hydrate again. My crop is never dry.” To convince a florist who had sworn off dusty miller to try her crop, Rohda gave him a bunch to take home. He’s bought it ever since for wedding work. She encountered the same thing with tuberose. “Florists had quit buying it because it wasn’t picked at the right stage,” she says. “They really need a few buds open for them to continue to open.”
Sharing information with florists is one of Ingalls’ keys to success. “You have to tell them what needs to be inside and what works outdoors in our heat. Explain if flowers go in the cooler or need to stay out, like zinnias. Beautiful basil foliage lasts two or more weeks, but not if it’s put in a cooler. Florists don’t always know this,” she shares. “Being humble and super real is critical with your clients. They’re trusting you for product they’ll be using in extremely expensive and elaborate weddings. They need to know the product will last and be beautiful.”
Know how long your stems last by testing them. “Stick a few stems in a vase or in a block of Oasis foam so you can evaluate vase life,” Delbo says. “That way you can give your florist clients the right information so they know how best to use the flowers. Things that hold up for only four to five days are still great for event work, but not the best for everyday arrangements, where florists need flowers that last longer.”
Strategies to Win New Clients
Connecting with florists is an area where many flower growers new to the wholesale market find themselves unsure. Ingalls describes it as a “gaping hole” in flower-growing information. The technique that Delbo has used consistently—and with great success—through his 30-plus years of selling to florists is cold calls.
“I have always loaded up my truck, driven to florists and asked if they wanted to buy flowers. Of the 100 to 150 flower shops I’ve visited through the years, only has ever one refused to come out and see the flowers,” he says. And that’s the trick: getting the florist to come to see your flowers. “If I can get them to come to the truck, they buy,” he adds.
But there’s more to Delbo’s approach: He’s methodical in the way he introduces himself and his flowers to potential clients. “I show up in the middle of the season with a truckload of peak-season product—we’re talking a wide variety of flowers. They can’t say no to that,” he says. After that, though, the real work begins. “It’s important to be consistent. Show up at the same time on the same day of the week for each customer. If you say you’ll have something for them, make sure you have it.”
Citing a similar tactic, Rohda adds that “florists are such visual people. Winter marketing via email isn’t great. Just show up with the product.” Once you start selling to a florist, be sure to translate what scale you’re at. “They’re used to buying from a wholesaler who has everything. It’s not a problem if you tell them what you have and what they can expect. One of my biggest events clients contacts me first and finishes her order with the floral wholesaler.”
Ingalls stresses that it’s important to realize that there’s likely “already a culture and history of flower farmers selling to florists in your area. Understand who you are as a player in the field around you.” For instance, if someone is already growing sunflowers, don’t make that your signature crop.
She has found that the best way to get known by florists is to establish yourself with a brand identity. “I have one color, one logo, one vibe—black buckets with my sticker on them. It makes me stand out. I used Instagram posts to become visible and showcase my flowers. I played with the flowers, trying them out in arrangements to help me get to know how they do. It’s visual and florists responded. The flowers really sold themselves. Once you have those clients, really follow what they’re designing and get to know their colors and textures.”
How you present your flowers to your florist clients is important. Yasui suggests exploring traditional grades and standards for cut flowers. Search this term online and you’ll find several resources that describe how wholesale flower growers prep their flowers for market. “Florists are used to standard bunches, and many times new growers don’t present their flowers that way. It can put off a florist,” she shares. “But at the same time, not everything can be bunched and not every florist cares. Some want curvy flowers or unusual things. For new flower growers, though, it’s better to aim for a professional look.”
Delbo packs most of his flowers in 10s or 5s, with fillers sold by the bunch, which “is basically a guess,” he says. “My bunch sizes vary throughout the year and even year to year, depending on crops and performance. The bottom line, though, is that a florist sees what they’re getting when they buy from me.”
Cutting your flowers at the right stage and conditioning them properly are other keys to success with florists. “I think approaching them with what they’re used to buying, in terms of form, makes a huge difference. You want the florist to know that it’s grown by someone who knows what they’re doing,” Rohda adds.
Ingalls’ dual career drives her to do things differently. “For me, every decision comes down to time and money. I don’t bundle anything. Every stem I sell is in a five-gallon bucket—period. My clients love it,” she says. “It’s so important to know your customer’s style. I can sell the same five-gallon bucket to different florists and the look is so insanely different in the final product.”
Another trick she stresses relates to stem length. In Hawaii, destination weddings dominate, and floral crowns—known as haku or po’o—demand short stems. “I ask every single person who orders from me what stem length they’re looking for,” she adds. “It depends on what they’re using it for and what their style is. They might not need long stems.” With direct-to-florist sales, you can easily market short stems, which means you’re selling more of the flowers you’re growing.
Ingalls also leaves more foliage on her stems because it helps to fill out bouquets. “Florists are good at making money. The pieces that are taken off can be used in arrangements or saved for haku. Why not conserve and use more instead of just stripping it all in the field where it goes to waste? Sell everything you grow.”
Refine Your Crop Mix
When selling to florists, focus on a crop mix that offers diversity in texture, bloom, and color. “Anything that’s fresh and local you can sell to florists, even things that are short. Just be sure to price accordingly—you can’t charge top dollar for a short stem,” says Delbo. “Crops that sell well for me include sunflowers, Matsumoto and China asters, lisianthus, and delphinium. Color-wise, you can always sell white and light-colored flowers to florists for weddings and funerals.”
Ingalls also aims to hit the colors everyone wants, which means “pinky, peach, and blushy tones. Those aren’t just for weddings,” she says. “If your flowers are heavy in those shades with some pops of color and then some foliage and fillers, you can sell to florists. Then there are certain things I can grow that no matter what the wholesaler can’t compete with on sheer beauty, like maroon Daucus.”
Snapdragons grow year-round in Hawaii’s Zone 12b. Ingalls calls it her “gateway flower. I have sixteen 60-foot rows of just snapdragons, and they’re completely sold out. I can always put those into a grower’s choice bucket, which is the wholesale product I sell the most. Having a reliable crop like snapdragons in enough color combinations means that everyone will want it and order it from you. That creates a staple that a florist knows they’ll always get from you.”
That’s one of Ingalls’ secrets to building a business. Focal flowers are hard to grow in Hawaii, but having a hot commodity like snapdragons or eucalyptus—something florists know they can always get from you—keeps the business humming. She actually uses her florist grower’s choice buckets as a place to “dump” extras. “Florists get my primo stems, too, but I’ve created this grower’s choice bucket that I sell—and florists love. If I have a million lilies going off, I can dump them into the grower’s choice.” Ingalls has standing year-round weekly orders with multiple florists for her $300 grower’s choice buckets, which she delivers twice a week on her way to school.
One of Yasui’s favorite products is a curated bucket. “I have one long-term client who will say this is my event color scheme, send me a mood board, and tell me to bring her $100 of whatever will fit that scheme. I like having a little leeway on what looks good each day in a color range,” she says.
At her farm, Yasui has invested in shrubs and perennials. “Every year I try to plant a few more shrubs. I’ve been adding spirea, which is so good for weddings, smokebush, and Hydrangea tardiva, which blooms in late summer. I finally figured out how to pick viburnums—in real tight bud for the blooms to hold up,” she says. Other favorites feature heirloom beauties: mock orange, pearl bush, Japanese kerria, weigela (from her grandmother’s yard), and deutzia with its gorgeous white blossoms.
“I lucked into some of these shrubs, being on a 150-year-old farm. I’ve made the most money on autumn olive (Eleagnus umbellata). Florists love the foliage, which I cut in May and June, before the beetles start biting the leaves,” she shares. Yasui refines her crop mix each year by going through her ticket books and tallying her top 10 sellers, which she plants more of the following year. “I like a lot of variety, and you have fewer pest problems if you mix it up. But within that, I’ve honed my mix according to what sells.”
Each year Rohda also lists her flowers and the dollar amount each brought in. “I look at the bottom of the list and consider if I should get rid of the low end of things that might bring in only $200 per year. Maybe I should give that space to something more profitable,” she says. For new growers selling to florists, she suggests narrowing your variety list. “Focus on growing less variety so you have more quantity of the crops you offer.” Remember that you don’t have to provide everything your florist clients need; they can always source things you don’t grow through other avenues.
Don’t neglect the opportunity to try something in the off-season that fits your growing model—and that florists would like. For Delbo, that includes bulb gardens. He starts in January with small 4- and 6-inch potted spring bulb flowers that he forces early for florists to sell. The list includes tulips, hyacinth, mini daffodils, and scilla. It’s popular with just one area of his market, but those florists jump-start the season for him. His wholesale cut flowers kick into gear in May.
What about Pricing?
For new flower growers selling to florists, probably one of the toughest things to figure out is pricing. Start the process by knowing your costs, and then uncover some wholesale prices, locally if possible. Most wholesalers send out a fresh sheet every week, and if you have an account or relationship with the business, you can sign up for that. You can also look at the Boston Terminal Market for an idea.
Delbo has an account at the local wholesaler, Dillon Floral Corporation, for picking up supplies, such as wrapping paper or tissue paper for the holidays. “I also use that account to get a look at prices. When you’re at the wholesaler, walk into the cooler and look at flower quality, stem length, how things are bunched and prices,” he says.
He also has another in with the local wholesaler: His wife works there. “I also sell to Dillon, mostly sunflowers or anything else that comes on really well that gives me extra,” he says. “I don’t grow the volume to sell everything to them, and frankly I’d rather get the top wholesale price from florists.” Delbo says he’s probably doubled his wholesale prices over the last 10 years.
Despite the fact that Rohda keeps her prices steady through the season (to help her bookkeeping), she says, “Pricing is a moving target. I’ll ask florists what they’re paying for something, and if something isn’t moving, I’ll offer discounts on quantities. For example, if it’s $15 a bunch but not selling and I have tons of it, I’ll give a discount if they buy more quantity—maybe a buy two bunches, get one free deal. I don’t lower the price. I aim to move the product,” she explains.
Yasui hasn’t raised her prices in the last two years, but plans to, especially with the price of gas. “Most wholesale prices have gone up at least 15 percent in the last year,” she says. While some growers charge a mileage fee, Yasui’s Nashville clients are 60 miles away, and she can’t add $1 per mile fee like other growers do. Instead, she establishes minimums for orders. “For Nashville customers, I have a $200 minimum. Not everyone has to order that much, but at least one person does. For florists who live closer (30 minutes), the minimum is $50,” she says. “It might sound arbitrary to them, but it’s time on the road, gas, vehicle wear—there’s a lot that goes into it.”
The theme for Ingalls on pricing is to keep it simple—for herself and clients. She charges $3 a stem for wholesale lilies (she doesn’t count buds), $2 a stem for focals (dahlia, anemone, ranunculus) and $1 a stem for fillers and foliages (includes zinnia, cosmos, eucalyptus). “Customers will ask me to pick $100 in purple tones, I put together a bucket, and they have an idea what they’re getting,” she says.
With her streamlined approach, Ingalls prices orders as she cuts, puts totals into her calendar on her phone, and the information is handy for billing. “My flowers are within a dollar—up or down—of any wholesale list anywhere,” she adds. “I keep it simple for time and efficiency. My goal is to get stuff off my farm and into people’s hands. With all that’s happening in the world, people want beauty more than anything—and that’s what we have to offer.”
Advice You Can Use
If you’re considering selling your flower directly to florists, it’s a good idea to network with other growers and learn from their experiences. We asked these growers to share any wisdom that might help new farmers. Here’s what they had to say.
Dave Delbo, Dave’s Flowers “The way to make money is to go to large cities to hit busy florists—they’ll buy more product from you, along the lines of $100-$150 per week. In a larger city, you’ll also spend less time driving between florists. You might have four or five florists in a 2-mile radius. Back in the 1980s I started out selling to smaller florists in small towns. I could have done better with the elite florists of the larger cities.”
Christian Ingalls, Daisy Dukes Flower Farm “Trust your own gut instincts. Don’t do what you don’t need to. I don’t separate my dahlia clumps looking for every eye. I just cut them in half or quarters and replant. It saves time. Also don’t hesitate to throw in five to 10 stems of randomness for florist clients—things they would never ask for, like ‘Blushing Lanterns’ (Silene vulgaris) or Jewels-of-Opar (Talinum paniculatum). They’ll use it and then come back and ask for it again. Introduce new crops in your own designs on Instagram. Florists will respond to that.”
Karen Yasui, Petalland Flower and Herb Farm “It can be hard to bring new crops into production. It takes time to switch gears when fashions change. When I first started, I couldn’t sell a pink flower in the fall. With the internet, brides have become conformists and all want blush. Staying ahead of color trends helps. Also keep good records. Florists often want to know how many of a certain color flower I’ll have on a specific day. With perennials I can predict by going through my sales tickets. The amounts are harder to judge. You never know if it’s going to be a good year.”
Jamie Rohda, Harvest Home Flowers “I always tell people not to go into debt for this business, but I wish I would have invested in some time-saving equipment or tools early on. My golf cart comes to mind. How many hours would I have saved if I’d had it sooner? Of course, I probably didn’t have the money to do that. Take advantage of all the resources available for learning now. When I started out, you were doing good if you could find a book to read. But don’t get so caught up in learning that you never plant anything. You learn most by doing it.”
Julie Martens Forney
Julie Martens Forney is an avid gardener and freelance writer who’s been writing about flower and plant production, horticulture research and consumer gardening for over 30 years. Contact her at [email protected]