April is one of my busiest months as a flower grower and, as it is in it’s final days this year, I am thinking about all of the things that should be done by now but are not. Not entirely my fault, most of it can be chalked up to the weather. We have been on a roller coaster ride for the last few years so I think I am over the anxiety that it causes (mostly over it.) By now I would like to have a whole lot of annuals planted out. I did get a couple of beds in last week: snaps, stock, sweet peas, bells, calendula, but there are about 20 more flats sitting out there waiting for the ground to dry up a bit so I can till and plant.
I have also been ordering, paying for, and receiving stuff. You know the type of stuff you know that you need but you don’t really have the money to pay for it because it’s only April, but you need it if you want to have a productive season. Stuff like plants, bulbs, shade cloth, landscape fabric, cover cop seeds, market booth fees, a new market table, gas to get to the farm…. It’s enough to give a girl a headache. I try to keep my attentions pointed in the near future and resolve that this fall I will save more money so that I can make it through the long and expensive spring. It is hard to do when you need so many things to run a profitable business, sometimes it’s hard to draw the line. But look at what I got last week, a bunch of bare root stuff. Probably won’t pay for itself this year but hopefully next year I will have at least recovered most of their expense.
And I am still starting seeds, both annuals and perennials. The annual seeding schedule starts to lighten up a bit in the basement and moves into more direct seeding as the weather warms, assuming that it will warm! On my list now are more heat loving plants: celosias, marigolds, gomphrena, grasses, as well as more successions of scabiosa, and snaps. On top of all the actual work of growing the flowers April is a big month for marketing and beginning to sell these flowers. I can grow as much as my heart desires but unless someone actually pays me for them, well, I don’t eat. Tulips and anemones are blooming in the hoop. Ranunculus, stock, snaps and poppies are getting buds set. Mother’s day is coming, people have weddings on their mind, and I almost always feel like I am forgetting something. And that is the madness that is April, every year. It brings new life and excitement along with long work days which are scheduled around the unpredictable weather.
What is going on out there these days? That is what everybody wants to know. It has been a long and cold winter and all of the plants seem to be sleeping in this spring. I can’t really blame them, it is snowing again right now. The weather had been nice and warm for a few days, then rain and now snow. It will warm up later this week and I think that a lot of plants are going to be in a hurry to get up and do their thing. Already I have iris, narcissi, tulips, lady’s mantel, dianthus starting to poke up out of the ground. Lilac and viburnum buds are beginning to swell and I saw a couple of witch hazel flowers starting to open. I think that spring is actually here. I am so happy that we got those hoop houses up last year. Even though spring is late I still have tulips ready to go for Easter.
We planted all of the new hops yesterday in the rain. I think that there are 20 different varieties now. Yikes!
I’m going to start field planting annuals late this week, not too far off schedule despite the slow start. Last week I planted a ton of alliums that I got a good deal on, since it’s spring and my supplier was hot to get rid of them. Mention bulbs on sale to me and I loose my mind. No self-control whatsoever. Another round of lisianthus just showed up as well as some scented geraniums and succulents. Oooh my basement is over flowing with all kinds of good stuff.
Seriously overflowing, I have flats on the floor. Not a great pic but you get the idea. Most of it can get moved to the hoop after tomorrow night’s return to frigid temps. And I am going to fill that germination chamber up with annuals one more time this week, then it’s on to the the perennial project.
This week I feel like spring is actually going to happen. The rhubarb and daffodils are coming up outside and almost all of the snow has melted. I can finally a run a hose over to the hoop houses and get some serious watering done! This part along the back is where Nich’s hops are planted and it had the deepest snow cover as it backs up to a giant empty corn field.
And another sign of spring: tulips in the hoop! SO exciting. I really had been hoping that we would have a normal spring so I could be selling these things by now. I could use the money, April gets a little rough in the financial arena for me. All of my needs for spring are getting purchased with little in the way of income. It makes me anxious.
I have gotten most of the planting done in the hoop houses and I am mostly caught up on my seeding schedule. I have another big round this week then I can start to focus on the perennials that have been patiently waiting in my fridge. I am not sure where I am going to plant some of these but it seemed like a great idea during that LONG winter we just endured. Seriously! It was the longest, coldest, snowiest winter of my life. This is not me over exaggerating, these are facts.
Around here we learned that March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb. Well if they are still teaching kids that today I’ll bet that they are confused. I had to go out and cover up all of my little plants in the hoop house. Come on, it is the end of March! I should not have to cover up cold tolerant annuals inside of a hoop. Forecasted lows in the single digits got me scared and out I went to cover those babies up. And yes I am still watering with melted snow in buckets, though they were mostly frozen this morning.
Also on my schedule for today was to catch up with my seeding plan, which I mostly did. I’m feeling pretty darn good about that. There are few items that I have just decided to skip for one reason or another. And I have had to modify some of my plans since it looks like I probably won’t be planting out in the field for at least three more weeks (probably more). I had it on my schedule to start seeding into my paper chain transplanting system but that requires the ground to be in good shape (not too wet, not too dry) and most of what I am planning to plant probably shouldn’t sit in those trays for more than four weeks. The one exception is my lisianthus. Not seeds, transplants, only crazy people start seeds. I fill up that flat very loosely with my potting mix and then I just smoosh the little plants on top. The cell size is about the same as the flats that they arrive in but a little deeper and way easier to plant out afterward. And that is my favorite reason for having this fancy little system.
Last week was a busy one for around here. The weather finally seems to be less of an issue so I started planting in the hoop house. Anemones, ranunculus, with sweet peas down the middle of the bed. Snaps, stock, and godetia in another bed. And those are buckets of snow melting so that I can water everything since the water source is located 300 feet away over at the house and there are still crazy snow drifts between here and there.
I picked up some willow cuttings and they look great. I am super excited about these guys. When I got home there was a box of lisianthus plugs and a box of dahlia tubers waiting for me. More exciting stuff! The willows I stuck in a bucket of water for now and the lissies I set aside to deal with later. The dahlias I had order because I lost all of mine from last year. I tried that plastic wrap method and it did not work for me. I had a moldy box of plastic and grossness. I tossed the whole thing and ordered new stuff.
The dahlias I potted up into some cow pots and I will take cuttings after they sprout. Since I had to start over with the dahlias I decided that it would be cost effective to propagate through cuttings this year. Of course I have never this before but I am really banking on it working since I only order about 40 dahlia tubers.
On my list for the rest of this week is more planting out into the hoop and starting lots more seeds. I am about three weeks behind. Some stuff I am just going to skip but I will try to catch up as much as possible. I should be mostly caught up by the end of next week. Then I can move on to the perennials and prairie seeds that I am going to start.
2013, year six, was last year. I have said a lot about last year already but there are a few things that I have not said.
Last year I decided that it would be a minimum of three years (probably more like 5-7) before we can afford a farm. That is still the end goal in all of this. We had started the farm search with some limiting criteria: size, price, proximity to Milwaukee, condition of house and buildings. The criteria got looser and looser until we were looking at farms an hour away that would need 50k of work just to make them livable. I do have some long term plans sort of sketched out in my head. But for now I am committed to 3-7 years in my current situation, which has relieved a lot of stress and allowed me to move forward instead of constantly waiting.
I did get an FSA micro loan to help out with some infrastructure last fall. Let me correct that statement. I applied for the loan last fall and then with the government shut down things moved very slowly. It was supposed to be an easier process than the full on FSA loan but I found it to be tedious and redundant. I did get my money in December, $10 000. I had already purchased all of the stuff I needed with my credit card as winter was on it’s way and it’s hard to dig holes and stretch plastic in the snow.
I do not feel like it is a sustainable business model for a person to grow all of their own flowers and do wedding work. It is like having two full time jobs but this is what I need to do now to make things better for the future. I like wedding work but that is not why I started this business, there will come a day when I have to decide between being a floral designer and a flower grower. I hope that I have a few years because I am not ready to make that decision yet.
I think I made some really good decisions last year about how best to move forward in future years. I had previously been all about the year I was in. I started thinking more long term which made it a really hectic year. I wanted to get stuff in place, I was tired of waiting, I was tired of not making money. I have some more work do but I am finally starting to feel comfortable with my business. I know what my limitations are and I have learned to work with them. It has been a long and difficult journey at times but I really feel like it is going to start getting easier.
2012 was my fifth year as a flower grower. There was a lot riding on this year. I had to make a profit or I was going to quit. I intended to throw everything I had at it this year. I was very cautious about my purchases, partly because I wanted to make a profit, partly because they might be rendered useless and a waste of money if I did decide to quit.
There is this sort of loose flower farming model that says for every acre that you grow you can profit $10-20 000 per year. You will also need about one worker (including yourself) per acre. From all of the people who I have heard this from, their main sales outlets are florists and farmer’s markets. Well I decided that with a half an acre and no employees the best I could do with this model was $10 000 per year. Not even close to enough so I decided to really pursue the retail end as much as possible. I really marketed the weddings and I started a bouquet CSA. I also intended to sell to a few florists with whom I had developed good relationships and I was going to sell those grocery store bouquets again. My thought was plant whatever I want for the weddings in large numbers and what I could not use from week to week would go to one of these other outlets.
Spring came very early that year and I had tulip bunches and lilacs in April, just in time for the the last two weeks of the winter farmer’s market. It was a good thing to get an early jump on sales. I had booked a good number of weddings and they kept coming in. I had a good handful of people buy the CSA, all farmer’s market pick-ups that year to make it easy on me. And one big decision that I made was to sell as many flowers as I possibly could even if I had to buy them from other growers. I really needed to see the sales potential before I could justify ramping up. I wound up buying flowers almost every week for weddings and to fill out my grocery store bouquets. It made the profits very low on those grocery store orders but I really wanted to see how much they could sell. It turns out quite a bit, now if I only had more room to grow….
I decided to squeeze those beds as close together as possible. I went from about 35 total beds to 42. Some already had perennials in them but seven more beds was a lot for me. The only problem was that we couldn’t get a push mower down them to mow so we had to string trim which made a mess on the flowers. But I had lots of room to plant. And plant I did.
In that year it basically stopped raining around mid May and really did not start again until October. Gramps said it was the worst drought he could remember since the dust bowl. I had his well running day and night to keep stuff alive. It was not going to thrive but it was going to live. Some stuff didn’t, some stuff never got planted because the ground was too hard and dry. There were days I had to choose between watering plants and watering bare ground just so that I could till it and plant. I became acutely aware of how fragile life can be when you are relying on the weather. If I was going to buy a farm I absolutely was going to need an agricultural well. The cost of this alleged farm was really starting to become unforgiving.
Despite the relentless drought and the fact that I had to buy flowers on a weekly basis, I was able to make a modest profit that year. I had decided that with such a small amount of land I really had to focus on weddings as much as possible. I was cautiously optimistic that this would work. I went back to revisit my business plan and decided that it was now or never, time to buy a farm and expand. I revised my business plan and filled out most of that ridiculous FSA loan paperwork. And I was looking at farms, lots of them.