one big step

Last year I began to seriously consider the fact that my business had a bit of an identity crisis.  When I began Stems my intention was for it to be a flower farm selling to florists and at farmer’s markets, maybe an occasional wedding. Well that occasional wedding turned into a nearly every weekend occurrence and it soon became evident that I was running two separate businesses. It eventually seemed like a good idea to officially make it two separate businesses. And after much deliberation Wood Violet was born. Being that the wood violet is Wisconsin’s state flower it seemed an appropriate name for a business that is focused on using locally grown blooms.

Why in the world would I walk away from a name I have spent years branding? Well there is the accounting aspect. I am hoping to actually be accountable to myself for the flowers that I am growing and using. Realistically I know that it is not going to happen this year. I am hoping that if I can get the systems in place and scrape by this year, that moving forward I should have two sister companies which are both fending for themselves. Now this really can be done by setting up Quickbooks properly and without creating a different entity.

Which leads to the main reason, the big motivator behind taking this plunge was marketing. I was having a hard time targeting my audience. I realized I had a few different audiences with varying degrees of overlap. I have done fine with marketing the farm. But I have decided that I need to make more money and I feel like a flower shop is more feasible than a farm for my life right now. In these parts no one calls a farmer for flowers in the winter time, or even in the late fall. People also don’t generally call a farmer when they want fancier wedding flowers. So there you have it I decided to really push the limits of my sanity and begin another business.

There is a third reason for this new business and it may not be a good reason by itself but given my supporting arguments I will mention it. I really am excited for a new beginning. Stems has sort of consumed my life for the past few years in good ways and in bad ways. I feel like my own personal momentum behind this new venture is greater than if I just opened up a shop under the same name.

OK fine, there is another reason. Since this is apparently a denial free post we’re going to jump right in there and put it all on the table. Gramps is not getting any younger and when he goes I do not know what will happen to the farm. I do not know if I will be able to buy part of it. I do not know if I will want to buy part of it. I do not know if I will want to pick up and move it all somewhere else. This uncertainty used to cause me a great deal of anxiety but I have made my peace with the situation. That being said there may come a day when the flower growing part of my business ceases to exist (and that day is likely to coincide with the loss of my last grandparent). I think separating the two aspects will make that day a little easier…. Easier as far as the business is concerned. I’m not sure anything will make it easier on a personal level.

a look back: year seven

2014 was year number seven for me as a business owner and cut flower grower. It was not like I had hoped it would be. None of these years were as I had hoped that they would be. I have heard that year seven really is where things start to get easier. I have also heard (usually in a more hushed tone) that year seven is where a lot of businesses loose momentum. That was me last year, lost momentum and I did not seeing it coming. Though I probably should have realized that since I had already been stretched to my limit the year before, there would not be room for more stretching.

I should have hired help at the beginning of the season but I did not. By the time I realized that I would have to turn away business because I physically could not handle anymore, it was too late. There was no time for finding or training an employee and by the end of July I was exhausted. As in what am I doing with my life, I could work at Starbucks and be a lot happier. Well we all know that’s not really the truth but I was seriously fed up with my situation. For the first time since I started my business, it did not grow from the previous year. It stayed the same. It would have made me panic had I not been so exhausted, I sort of felt defeated. I love to grow but I don’t love the heat and humidity of July, I don’t love sunburns or bug bits. I don’t love my 45 minute drive to and from the farm. I especially don’t love not earning a living wage. I mean a girl has got to eat!

You know what does pay a decent wage for me? The design work. Which I like. I really like it a lot. I don’t much care for all of the office work that comes with it but you have to pick your battles. So that was it. I had decided to quit growing flowers and just be a designer. That’s right, it was August and I knew I could not continue to live my life this way. I was done.

So that was that, the decision had been made…. But if I was going to be a designer a whole lot of peonies sure would come in handy. And if I’m going out there to tend to my peonies I may as well plant some iris. And I do love ferns. And I did have a bunch of hydrangeas out there already. And I could plant a prairie…. This situation really snowballed on me. In September, less than a month after I had decided to stop growing, I had spent $5000 dollar on plants and shade structures. It was at this point that I realized maybe I needed a 12 step program.

I put in a lot of perennials and I put them in landscape fabric. I ordered some more for this year (plants and landscape fabric.) By the end of this spring I should have about half of my field in landscape fabric with perennials and woodies. This was the plan that I had started the year before and it was still a good plan, I just need some help in executing it. Also I need to make some money in the off season.

So clearly the solution to my problems was not going to be quit growing flowers. I decided that the solution to my problem was going to be to start another business… hmmm… and I better hire a couple of helpers. Yes that was the choice, to separate the farm and the weddings into two different brands. My hope is that this will have a huge impact on my marketing and my identity as a designer. Stay tuned… big things are coming this way!

building a shade structure

I finally decided to invest in some hydrangeas 3 or 4 years ago, well I had a good amount of flowers that were not usable because they didn’t get enough shade. So I decided it was time to build a shade structure, I decided this two years ago but we finally put it up last summer. I also decided that since I was putting one up, maybe I should just put two up. Now I have a space for all sorts of shade loving stuff: ferns, astilbe, hostas, even mint likes a little shade.

I had seen a few different set ups at other peoples farms. The most common seems to be a caterpillar tunnel with shade cloth over it. I felt like that design would involve buying a lot of stuff and lead to some wasted space in my tiny and overcrowded field. The design I was more interested in was one I had seen that came from a ginseng farm. Posts in the ground with shade cloth flat along the top. So I made a couple of inquiries with people using some form of this set up and here is what we came up with. FYI, I’m not sure that it is any better than a caterpillar but it’s what we did.

We used 10 foot long sections of 2 inch conduit (not fence top rail) and waited until the day after a good soaking rain. Then we pounded it 3 feet into the ground with a post driver. The shade cloth I have is 80 feet long so we put in 3 posts per side spaced 40 feet apart. Then put the eye bolts in since they get in the way of that post driver if you put them in before. We did not set these posts in concrete, it’s probably not a bad idea to do so, but we are going for cheap and easy. We chose to provide downward tension with cables and ground anchors. Seemed easier on paper but a tractor with an auger and a bunch of cement is probably easier. We don’t have a tractor with an auger, and there is already stuff planted here so a tractor would not fit without crushing my plants. So manual labor it was for us (and I keep saying us but it was mostly Nich.)

All six posts were secured in this way. We used 30″ long auger style earth anchors to secure the cables. We get a lot of wind out there so we wanted to make sure that these things wouldn’t pull out of the ground. The anchors came from Growers Supply, they are heavy but we’re only about a four hour drive so shipping was not prohibitive. All of the rest of the hardware and cable came from, we chose the coated cable since it’s a little nicer on your fingers.

We ran cable around the perimeter for clipping the fabric on, as well as zig-zagging from post to post to hold up the shade cloth and keep it from sagging. I choose those plastic clips to make it easy enough for me to get this cloth on and off every year, it’s easier with two people but can be done by myself. You can see that the sun does come in on that south bed, the degree will change throughout the season. Likewise there is shade on the bed that is not covered to the north. I planted shade lovers in the middle bed which always gets shade and plants that like the shade but don’t need it in the beds on either side.

We chose the aluminet since it is physically lighter and it allegedly keeps things cooler, it is more expensive. These concerns were really more related to the choice for covering the hoophouse, but since this is what I was buying I bought a couple extras for the shade structure. And it really is light, I can easily handle that big piece of cloth by myself… if it’s not too windy.

We built two of these structures, which are 80 ft x 14 ft, which was decided by the fact that I had two extra pieces of shade cloth in that size, which were taped with grommets every 2 feet. So here is the cost breakdown:

  • 2 shade panels: The invoice is too hard to find but I think it was about $800-1000 for both with shipping, we used a local supplier but it wasn’t a stock item so they were shipped anyway.
  • 12 posts and eye bolts/hardware for the top of the posts $250 at Home Depot and a local hardware store.
  • 12 ground anchors and those plastic clips $170 (including shipping) from Growers Supply.
  • A big spool of coated cable and all of the rigging hardware $215 from, we might have cheated a little on this one since we still had a some of these things leftover from the hops trellis project.

So about $800 for each structure and it took two of us a little over two days to complete.

growing hops

Yes we grow hops on our flower farm. We love them. They are a beautiful addition to floral designs and Nich likes to brew beer, so we fight over them every year. Our answer to this dilemma was to plant more hops! It all started about 5 years ago with a couple of rhizomes from a friend who thought we should grow some. So we did. The next year we planted a few more, and then a few more, and then…. We now have 22 different plants, all different varieties, growing in a line next to the hoophouse. Here are some of the lovely outcomes of our hops production:

Plant the rhizomes in the spring (like now) and we always spring for the jumbo roots. We have gotten some from a local home brew shop,, Great Lakes Hops, and an organic producer Thyme Garden. They all have great info on their websites but one of the best websites for when and how much individual varieties produce is Beer Legends. Another fantastic resource for us has been Gorst Valley Hops. They offer intense workshops and have done lots of research on growing/producing and what not. Rumor has it that they are going to be selling plants that are certified disease free, which is great because nobody else does that and we did get in a disease last year from a previously reputable source. Sounds like this is becoming more common with the growing popularity and demand for plants. The vines are actually bines, but I am going to call them vines because I always think bines looks like a typo. They are aggressive plants and need to be thinned and pruned during the season to keep them in check. We select about 4 of the nicer looking sprouts to keep every spring and then pinch out the other sprouts, you have to do this every week because they keep on coming. It slows down in July.

They are heavy feeders and drinkers, if you want pretty green cones you better make sure they get plenty of water. We have an irrigation line on them and feed with a granular three times per year as well as a good dose of compost in the spring. They grow about 20 feet high by their second year, you can grow them horizontally but they may require a bit of help. We set up this weenie trellis the first year which broke and then we tried a couple of other things in the next year but it was apparent that we needed serious support. And if you want to grow 20 plants you would need a lot of room to go horizontal. Black locust is the tree of choice for this because it is abundant in these parts, it is very rot resistant, and it grows tall and straight. So we went into the woods with Gramps, his tractor, and a couple of chainsaws and we came out with three 25 foot long posts. They went about 4 feet into the ground and were set in cement. Wire cables are attached to the top of each post and run down to ground anchors to keep the whole thing from toppling over. Those plants get tall and bushy and on a breezy day… well, the guy lines are a good idea. Wire cable also runs along the top and bottom with coir rope attached for each plant to grow up. Yes that is a twenty foot extension ladder and yes it makes me nervous. You have to go up every spring to tie the ropes and every fall to cut the plants down.

You won’t harvest much the first and second year. There will be some cones that you can pick but leave the leaves and vine in place. Much like peonies you need that plant to feed the root system so that you get nice plants in the future. By the third or fourth year you should have vigorous plants and it is then OK to cut the entire plant when you harvest.

I like to harvest when they are pretty and green, which is too early if you want them for beer brewing. It’s about a 2-3 week window before they begin to lose their vibrancy and get a little papery, which is still pretty… but not as pretty. With all of our varieties I can have hops for design use from about mid-July through September, maybe early October. So what are some of my favorite varieties? I will have to update this at the end of the season after some of these plants come into their third year but for now they are:

  • Cascade: this one is easy to find, you can probably pick one up at your local garden center. It is vigorous and produces tons of cones on appropriately sized side branches.
  • Nugget: produces big beautiful cones. I know some people like Chinook for this but I prefer the shape of Nugget.
  • Saaz: it is a European variety which I have heard complaints about it not growing very well here. I think it produces lovely cones and produces early. It is not as vigorous as others but it work for me.

A few issues/lessons learned:

  • They are prone to some viruses and downy mildews. Allegedly most of these should not be a problem for your flower crops but I don’t trust that. We thought we had some hops downy mildew and sent in a sample, turned out to be wind damage and probably also not enough water. Whew! What a relief. The leaves were not attractive and had to be removed but most of the cones were fine. We also though we had a virus on one…. and we were correct. The plant had to be destroyed and removed.
  • Japanese beetles can be a problem but we are already used to that. Not much you can do but pick off the unattractive parts
  • Spider mites, we got them bad one year. It was the year of the horrible drought which was also the year that soybeans were planted in the adjacent field. Most hops were not usable but we have not had that problem since.
  • They are heavy feeders! We planted these about 2 feet from the edge of my hoophouse. There were dahlias in there planted about 5-6 feet away from the hops. They did not perform well and some looked a bit chlorotic by August.
  • Use new rope every year. Even if you are able to get the hops off the rope intact that rope will not be able to support those heavy plants next year. It will come down with a strong wind three weeks before they are ready for harvest on a day when you really don’t have time to deal with it… hypothetically speaking of course.

Here is a link for an IPM guide, it’s a big one but if you really want to know something about IPM on hops this is the place to look.

building a cooler

Last year we bought a house, really it was 2013 but right at the end of the year. So we had the task of building a new cooler last spring and someone suggested I write a blog post about. Well here it is and I am going to apologize for the fact that it is not a very riveting story.

Here is why I love my Coolbot cooler and intend to build another one… it’s way cheaper than a regular walk in. A friend of mine is a florist and she just had a new walk in cooler installed. She went with the typical rooftop unit type, the electrical work and cooling unit alone cost her somewhere in the neighborhood of $7-8000. A Coolbot and a window air conditioner cost about $700-1200 depending on your taste in air conditioners. I know there are people out there who say that these things are not the correct humidity for flowers. Perhaps that is true. I have been using this type of cooler for 5 years and haven’t had any issues. I usually keep a bucket of water in there and if I am concerned about a particular item getting a little dry I cover it loosely with a plastic bag.

Her are my instructions for how to build a Coolbot cooler:

  1. Go to the website
  2. Read the info on their website regarding what type of AC unit to buy.
  3. Read through their info on how to insulate properly.
  4. Follow their plans and instructions to build your own cooler. Seriously they have thought of everything. If you run into problems go back to the website, I’m sure the answer is there. If not, give them a call and they will help you!
  5. Gather all of your supplies, find a handy person, and get to work. Someone who is familiar with a hammer and 2×4’s is necessary for this step.

A couple other bits of advice: Make it the right size for your situation. Bigger is usually better, unless you want to fit your car into the garage… in which case measure your car before you start to build. Also don’t leave untreated/unpainted wood in there for shelves and what not. It will absorb moisture and get a little moldy. Also cover the floor with something you can mop. Happy building!

Project total about $1000 for 4×8 cooler box (not including the ac unit and coolbot):

  • $550 for the double layer of 2in pink board
  • $150 for lumber
  • $200 for the door
  • $100 for hardware and spray foam

welcome 2015

It sure has been a while since I updated this blog. Last year was a long and busy one, I had little time for reflecting until about September by which time I was unhappy with a whole lot of things which I was reflecting about. I did very nearly decide to quit growing flowers as a profession. I have been sorting it all out over the last few months and I will be making some big changes to my business, and thus my life, this coming year.

In short I did not decide to quit growing flowers but I did decide to scale it back a little. And by scale it back I mean that I will be growing more this year than I did last year. You see I still have some more sorting to do. Or maybe I am just slow to learn my lessons. My plan is to hire some help and get my personal life back to some degree. So here is what is currently happening:

I have got lots of baby plants growing in my basement getting ready for the spring. Hopefully spring will arrive in a timely fashion this year. These are all about three weeks old, some are so small and slow, I should just order plugs and save myself the trouble. Things like eucalyptus, poppies, campanula. But then I look at the price of the plugs and say I can do it myself. Well now my grow room is nearly full and I need to start another 15 flats next week.

may showers

It finally rained last night and a whole lot today too. They kept on saying it was going to rain last week and it really didn’t, which sort of caused me to fall behind in my office work. So I breathed a huge sigh of relief when it started to come down last night. Not only is it giving me a day to catch up with inside work but it has been couple of weeks since we got any measurable rain at the farm and the ground was starting to dry up. I have transplanted so many things in the last couple of weeks and a good soaking is just what they need. What have I been planting you ask. The list is long: lisianthus, snaps, stock, bells bupleurum, sweet peas, dusty miller, campanulas, grasses, dianthus, scabiosa, and more stuff I can’t think of right now.

It finally got warm last week and so many perennials and shrubs are coming up and leafing out. There will be a lot happening in a couple of weeks, inside the hoops and out in the garden. Right now I have anemones and ranunculus in the hoop and fritillaries, narcissus, and tulips outside.



The to do list seems endless right now. There are still so many transplants to get in the ground, more seeds to start so I’ll have flowers late in the summer, irrigation lines to set up, weeding to do (yes, so much weeding), and my first wedding of the year is on Friday.  Yikes! At least Mother Nature took care of the watering for me today.