As a former data analyst, I'm constantly trying to observe our plants and flowers, collect data and use it to grow better flowers every year.
I set up a new spreadsheet last winter to track my seed and transplant dates. We had a hard freeze the third week of October 2019 and I kept that in mind as I started seeds this August. But as usual, Texas is a weather wild child and as Thanksgiving approaches, we still haven't had a freeze. Flexibility is key and sometimes we simply have to do things vastly different than we did last year. Still, we can take the lessons learned and apply them to our ever changing growing situation.
Early in our farm's life, I decided to take Tulips off the grow-list. Even after purchasing pre-chilled bulbs, the Tulips didn't experience enough cold to bloom adequately. We also heat up very quickly in the Spring and the result was very short tulips stems. Since tulips bulbs are expensive, it was a financial loss for us to grow them in 2019, so this Spring we gave the space to other flowers.
Having much better luck with Daffodils, last year we planted a nice patch under an obliging tree. Blooming nice and tall, they were used brilliantly by Shane Connolly in his presentation for the Dallas Museum of Art's Art in Bloom event. Inspired by his ability to create gorgeous displays with the humble Daffodil, and by their carefree easy growing ability, I planted twice as many Daffodils this month, branching out into fluffier varieties that I can't wait to share with you!! If you're a home gardener in Texas, Daffodils are an excellent choice for your flower garden or landscape.
My friend's at Mars Hill Farm shared their beautiful Alliums with me this past spring, a perennial bulb that is a wonderful dried flower as well. Though I contemplated adding Alliums and Hycaniths to the fields, our small farm simply didn't provide enough room. So they're off the grow list this year and instead we'll be using the space for some new-to-us varieties like Godetia. If these new flowers bomb for us, we may be adding Alliums to our planting plan for Autumn 2021.
So many hardy annuals are seeded in the Autumn and I'm a fan of being transparent about mistakes and failures (so we can all learn!). For the first time ever, my Larkspur failed to germinate. It was an extremely dry Autumn last year and the seeds simply weren't kept moist enough. I managed to do several direct seedings and a batch in January finally took, but Larkspur needs vernalization (cold) and there wasn't enough time remaining in the winter to get good stem length and high quality flowers. I learned my lesson and this year, I direct seeded before a tropical storm dumped rain for 3 days. Two weeks later, my Larkspur (and Nigella) popped up and are growing wonderfully. Hooray!
Lured by gorgeous pictures of annual phlox and those cute yellow billy-balls (Craspedia), I allocated a small section of the high tunnel to trial these two plants. Both of them aren't hardy enough to survive deep freezes so field growing was not considered. The phlox was direct seeded in December and the Craspedia was seeded in seed trays & transplanted in January. Both plants grew steadily but slowly all winter. In mid-March, the phlox was blooming on pretty short 10 inch stems. The Craspedia bloomed nice and tall around mid-April but each plant only gave me one small ball and then the heat made them sad. Our unfortunate conclusion is that neither plant are suited to our climate or worth the space and effort for full production. The phlox is still beautiful and if you're a home gardener, it would be a fun choice for growing!
We had read lots of good things about mushroom compost for veggies, so last year we trucked in a huge load and spread it on roughly 50% of the fields, including several rows in the high tunnel. Unfortunately, mushroom compost retains moisture and in a wet winter-situation with heavy clay soil this was the perfect ingredient for rot. We lost many of our Ranunculus to rot and had a significantly decreased harvest. This would've been a huge blow if not for some awesome successes we had too. The Ranunculus weren't the only casualty of this choice. Our poppy harvest was significantly decreased in quality and quantity. Our Spring heated up rather quickly and the wet-warm soil rotted many Poppy plants; they held out until Mother's Day then threw in the towel. We had planted Bupleurum in landscape fabric and the hot, wet environment basically cooked their roots. We tore off the landscape fabric just in time to save about half the crop. Our Lisianthus was attacked by Fusarian wilt. We nursed it through several harvests before it succumbed late July but our yield was significantly decreased. Our Strawflower gave us a nice first harvest but got diseased and we had to pull it out. Usually it gives us a nice second harvest at the end of summer but it never made it. Even in the record wet spring of 2018, we did not experience these issues. All of our plants in mushroom compost struggled. Lessons in farming are often learned the hard way and this was no exception. Moving forward: no more mushroom compost!
In a wonderful stroke of luck, we didn't have enough mushroom compost to spread on the whole field so several rows were given traditional compost and those flowers thrived.
Last Autumn, I added four new varieties to our growing plan. I usually try to limit new varieties to two, since I don't want to risk production too much. But that flower-loving side got the best of me. ha! :) Thankfully, extensive research and huge help from the Association of Cut Flower Growers (and indispensable organization!) set me up for success. I planted the perennial white Fama Scabiosa. After overwintering in the field without any cover, it gave me beautiful HUGE flowers that blew me away. Many of the plants survived our hot Texas summer and I can't wait to see what they produce in 2021.
This past Spring was also my first year growing Amazon Dianthus. I tucked it into some spare space in the high tunnel at a 9 inch spacing and pinched it early for good lateral branching. It bloomed a little later than I expected and while it was hard to wait, in the end, it bloomed just in time for Mother's Day and that was pretty awesome. Lots of tall stems with beautiful color and a super long vase life means it wins in every way. We've planted it again this year and if it does just as well, it will become a staple crop for us.
I also dialed in our Snapdragon plantings, making use of my new planting spreadsheet, I planted thousands more Snapdragons that I ever had before. A tight planting space of 3 inches and no pinching meant that I could cram them all in the high tunnel and they loved it! I grew the new Costa variety which is a traditional snapdragon shape but bigger and fluffier. I loved it and so did my customers.
Lastly, I determined to crack the code on Stock, a finicky plant that likes it somewhat cold but not too cold. Given our wild swinging temperatures in the winter, it's often hard to keep them happy. If you plant them too early they can bloom on short stems around Christmas, so we started them in seed trays and kept them slow growing in our cooler room under low temperatures and grow lights. After transplanting them into the high tunnel in January, we watched them thrive, giving us lovely blooms mid-March all the way into April. We discovered which varieties do well in the heat (Katz was the winner!) and are planning to try out several new Stock varieties for 2021.
Once again we had great success with our Statice and annual Scabiosa. Both are cool-loving flowers that we start from seed in December, transplant in the fields mid-January, and cover with Agribon for the remainder of the winter. They start blooming in late April once we reach around 14 hours of day-length and crank out beautiful flowers for months until late July when the summer finally gets to them (let's be honest, July gets to ALL of us! :)
Both plants give us multiple blooms per plant per week and as soon as they're cut, they throw up more flowers. Both come in a wonderful array of colors and Apricot was definitely our most-used color this past Spring. Both are versatile in arrangements and both were healthy without pests or disease. Once again we're planning and planting these workhorses for 2021.
Our last cool-flower successes were Yarrow and semi-successful Rudbeckia. For Yarrow, I grew the Colorado Summer Berries mix from seed and love the array of colors it produced! Because yarrow is very easy to propagate and a perennial, this Autumn, I picked three of my favorite colors, divided the mother plant and planted the new baby plants for next Spring bloom. Because of our small growing space, it's better for bouquet-making to narrow down a few colors and grow those in higher quantities than to have a smattering of two or three plants in every color. I started the seed in February and transplanted the seedlings right after the last frost in March. We had lovely blooms from late April through June. As with so many plants, the July-August heat made the plants stress a little and stop producing flowers. Once September hit, they started throwing up their blooms, just in time to cut and dry for Autumn wreaths. Because they're perennial, winter prep is easy: a quick tidy up, mulch and they're good to go!
The Rudbeckia was seeded and planted on a similar time as the Yarrow. I went pretty crazy with many different varieties. However, the Rudbeckia wasn't as happy with us as the Yarrow was. Beautiful colored Cherokee Sunset, Cherry Brandy, and Sahara were somewhat short-stemmed and bug ridden. The yellow Prairie Sun was happiest of all. Rudbeckia bloom mid-summer and started suffering in the heat of July. I nursed some plants through to Autumn hoping for a second flush but it never materialized. While a mass of Rudbeckia is undeniably beautiful, I'm not yet sold on it for serious production. We'll see how much space we have for it and perhaps give it a small second try before making the final decision.
If you're interested in a quick summary of when we plant and what we direct sow versus seed, check out this useful handout I created from our planting Spreadsheet. This works best in our Zone 8b growing climate but you easily translate it to your own growing zone by moving the dates forward or backward by several months depending on your average first frost date.
Stay tuned: I'll be writing a 2020 Summer growing summary about new varieties and old stand-by's such as Zinnias, Gomphrena, Celosia, Basil, Dalhia's, Cosmos, Sunflowers, Lillies, Eucalyptus, and everything else we grew and attempted to grow! :) Stay tuned for the all farm-growing goodies. :) Happy Thanksgiving!