Let’s Talk Mother’s Day!
I hate seeding trays in the dog days of summer but I love having buckets of flowers in early May. Mother’s Day is our single largest bouquet sales day year after year, and the more flowers we have available, the more bouquets and the more profit.
Even if we miss Mother’s Day, May seems to be the new June for weddings, and the more flowers any time in May, the better. Before I learned about fall-seeding cool flowers (thanks to Lisa Ziegler and her practical and complete book Cool Flowers), I seeded trays in January or February, and had lovely blooms mid to late May, just AFTER Mother’s Day. In zone 6b-7, by seeding fall AND midwinter, I can have successions that last from April or early May through June and even into July, and by then most all of the warm-season annuals have kicked in. If I miss the January-February seeding, June can be what I call the “green time” when I have lots of green but not much blooming.
If I’m being honest, I don’t do as much seeding for fall transplants now as I could, because buying plugs to plant in early to mid-November guarantees I have a good product to go in the ground. My attention to my plug trays in the heat of summer just isn’t what it should be. Most of my fall planting goes into our unheated high tunnel, but could be planted in the field with similar, though later, results. Those trays that are going outside rather than under cover, I start a week or two earlier as they’ll be at the mercy of worse weather, and a larger plant seems to do better outside. And planting some plugs under cover and some in the field gives another natural succession. Weather is the one thing we flower farmers can’t control, and that can speed up or slow down spring crops, but for us this year, we had a cold winter and a cool spring and still had plenty of cool flowers by an early May 8th Mother’s Day.
Most of our cool flowers are grown in a 30 x 72’ unheated high tunnel. We find we get best and earliest results under cover but fellow ASCFG member Savanna Hobbs of Rainbow Roots Floral Company in nearby Maryville, Tennessee did all her fall planting in the field with no cover, and had agrostemma blooming in April, and several of her direct-seeded and transplanted flowers blooming by early May. If a high tunnel isn’t available, row cover tunnels or low tunnels in the field are possible but add to the workload, but at least most of that work is in the cold months when there is a little more time.
An early bloom date is important, especially in early spring when there’s not much flowering besides anemone and ranunculus, but we’ve found fall-planted flowers also have longer and stronger stems. And while I love anemone and ranunculus, it’s hard to make a large bouquet with small flowers only, and with flowers of similar shape.
Through trial and error, we have found our best transplant date to be early to mid-November, which puts our seeding date about 6 weeks earlier. The trick is to find the date for your climate that will allow your transplants to develop a strong root system but not get too big. Even though our first frost date is mid-October, we often have so much warm weather through the winter that the plants put out too much new growth more likely to be damaged by cold temps in late winter or early spring. We leave the sides open on our hoop unless the temps dip into the 20s, and find that gives us less insect pressure and keeps the transplants a better size. The larger the plant, the more likely we will have to add low hoops inside the high tunnel to protect the tender new growth, and if plants outgrow the low hoops, we even have more work, and we’re lazy so we try to avoid that.
My favorite crops to fall plant are snaps, sweet peas, campanula, and poppies. I also plant lesser amounts of agrostemma, bells of Ireland, and ammi because while they’re good fillers I can’t afford to give them too much valuable hoophouse space. I will also put these fillers in the field and they’ll come a little later, but still earlier than winter planted.
Snapdragons are my most profitable crop to fall plant. By planting several varieties including ‘Chantilly’ through ‘Butterfly’, I get so many predictable blooms every spring and all but the ‘Butterfly’ generally bloom by early May. ‘Chantilly Light Pink’ is always the first to bloom and just the right color for Mother’s Day bouquets.
Fall-planted sweet peas bloom not only earlier but on longer stems. As our southern temperatures heat up, sweet pea stems shrink to almost unusable lengths by mid-June, but April stems can reach 18’. We usually yank the plants by July but with fall planting we have enjoyed 3 more weeks of sweet peas than when winter seeded. Their fragrance, texture, and color variety earn them the high tunnel space. I used to direct seed but mice damage forced me to grow in pots or trays, then transplant. I have transplanted as late as December with good results.
Campanula is another that benefits from early planting. Even though campanula is daylength sensitive we have had ‘Champion’ blooming the first week of May. This year we grew ‘Champion II’ and it did not flower until mid-May. I prefer the regular ‘Champion’, so if I can find trays it will grow it next year and will do some of various colors from seed.
Iceland poppies come early April and continue to bloom through Mother’s Day for us. We grow small amounts as their vase life best suits just adding a poppy or two to a bouquet, but adds such a lovely effect it earns a bit of space.
Bells of Ireland is my favorite filler, and adds interest and bulk to bouquets. I seed my own trays for fall transplants as I need smaller quantities of this, with each plant throwing many usable stems. I try to add a winter seeding of bells that will bloom later in May; after that disease hits and snipping the spotted leaves becomes problematic.
I asked my Ohio ASCFG friend Mary Slingluff of Avalon Gardens Farmer Florist if she fall transplanted, and she referred me to the very helpful webinar on Johnny’s website, Overwintering Flowers: How to Extend Your Growing Season with Cold-Hardy Annuals. Johnny’s has been trialing fall planting into unheated high tunnels in zone 5A for four years, and the details are presented clearly and concisely in the main webinar with many shorter videos highlighting their successes flower by flower. They feature 17 crops to overwinter with their top 5 being snapdragons, sweet peas, foxglove, dianthus including carnations, and ammi. They transplant into the tunnels mid-October which is also after their first frost date.
Adjust your planting time to your zone, and give fall planting a try if you haven’t already. There are so many things to consider about fall planting that I haven’t covered here, but hope this at least gets us all thinking. After rereading Lisa’s Cool Flowers and watching Johnny’s webinar I’m even more excited to fall transplant, and will be adding several new varieties to my lineup. Cool weather will come again, I promise, and the more flowers we have before the heat hits the better for the flowers and the flower farmer!
And the good news is, Mother’s Day is the latest it can be next year at May 14th so even more blooms will be available. Happy Planting and Happy Mother’s Day!