How to Start a Flower Farm - All From Seed
Did you know that almost all the flower varieties that flower farmers grow are grown from seed? I’d estimate it’s around 95% to be honest, both perennial and annual. In fact, aside from dahlias, peonies and a couple other random varieties, the majority of flowers are grown from seeds every single year.
Starting plants from seed is the only way to get the quantity and scale needed for flower farming. If you’re looking to plant hundreds or thousands of plants - especially annuals that need to be grown every year - then starting from seed is the only feasible way to do it.
From a little paper packet come rows and rows of flowers which go on and fill armloads and buckets of beautiful blooms that go on into bouquets, centerpieces and all sorts of arrangements all season long, filling the homes and providing beauty for the events of our customers and clients.
It’s quite amazing to think that an entire garden can seemingly fit in the palm of your hand - but that’s the power of seeds.
Planning Your Flower Farm
Flower farms are supported by a variety of flowers, but usually there are a few species that most flower farmers rely on.
For example in the summer we rely heavily on zinnias, so they are an integral part of our planning for seed purchases and starting. We estimate how many plants of each that we would approximately need for summer production - 100 Queen Red Limes, 100 Queen Lime with Blush, 1000 Oklahoma Salmon for example - and order appropriately.
The most important flower seeds to order are your workhorses, so it’s a good idea to invest in them to make sure that you have more than enough. Sunflowers, zinnias, lisianthus, bachelor buttons, poppies, basil, amaranthus, bupleurum - they might not be the most exciting, but it’s important to have a lot of them so you’re able to make an arrangement at any point.
The flowers that are more of the pretty little details in arrangements - annual phlox, linaria, cosmos, mignonette, nicotianas - we tend to order less of, but have more variety. These help to keep more variety and diversity in our arrangements and designs throughout the season, and since you only need a stem or two of each variety when creating an arrangement, you don’t need a ton of plants to have enough.
It’s also important to replace biennials and perennials that are short lived. For instance, we need to replace our rudbeckias and echinaceas every couple o years because they tend to die out every couple of years after producing an abundance of great stems for us over several seasons. Biennials are more important to replenish - lunaria, foxgloves, verbascums are all useful materials to have and are important to replenish every year.
How to Calculate How Much Seed to Order
Although all estimates are just that - estimates - you can get an idea of how much seed to order by figuring out the dimensions of your rows and your planting density.
For example, if I’m planting zinnias at 6” intervals in a 4’ bed, I know that there will be 6 lines of drip irrigation in a bed at staggered intervals. With each row 50’ in length, that’s 100 plants per bed, for a total of 600 zinnias for a 50’ bed.
Accounting for the fact that I will have some duds of seeds, lose some to transplanting or that for one reason or another don’t make it, I’ll usually start 700-800 zinnias to ensure that I have enough and so I order accordingly. That’s why it’s best to really plan out your field before hand to figure out the plants that you will need for your operation.
And if you don’t use all of your seeds, you can save a lot of them for the next year (with the exception of a few seeds that go bad very quickly like sweet peas ).
When to Order Your Seeds?
Generally speaking, you should order your seeds when the previous season is over. There is always a need to order seed at all times during the growing season, but most tend to place their orders in the fall and winter - well before spring seed starting starts!
We generally do three large orders - one in the late summer/early fall (for fall planting), one in late winter (for early spring starting and summer blooms) and one in late spring/early summer (for the late summer and fall) to ensure that we have the seeds we need for each part of the season.
Late Summer / Early Fall Order - Hardy annuals like bachelor buttons, daucus as well as hardy perennials like rudbeckia, echinacea, salvia officinalis and achillea
Late Winter Order - More cold-hardy annuals like ammi, cerinthe, calendula and poppies as well as summer annuals like zinnias, cosmos, and marigolds
Late Spring / Early Summer Order - Any additional seeds needed such as amaranth, millet and more perennials for fall sowing that need a longer period to grow out.
If you’re not sure when to order your seeds, this handy seed starting cheat sheet will tell you what type of seed it is and instructions for growing it!
Where to Buy Your Seeds?
While you can buy your seeds anywhere - even at big box stores and garden centers - you’re going to find the most economical and best varieties of seeds for cut flowers are going to be from actual companies who specialize in cut flower seeds.
Here are a few of my favorite companies to order from:
Johnny’s Select Seeds - Great quality seed, employee owned, great customer service and excellent germination rates with a lot of varieties that can’t be found anywhere else. Specifically aimed for the flower farmer, their varieties perform well and one could order completely from Johnny’s and be set for flower farming!
Swallowtail Garden Seeds - A great source of seed for the more obscure items, Swallowtail has a good variety of flower seeds for cutting. Their sizes aren’t the largest - which is why I use them usually for the twiddly bits I can’t find anywhere else.
Geoseed - Our favorite seed source, they have gotten flooded with orders from flower farmers this past year - so make sure you get your order in early!
Outside Pride - A good source for decent quantities of seed. I’ve had mixed experiences as far as purchasing seed from them - some stuff germinated very well, while I’ve also had some packages of duds as well (although its hard to tell if it was bad seed or my own errors in seed starting to be honest). They’ve got a great grass selection too!
Harris Seeds - A good supplier of seeds with wholesale prices (as well as a supplier of liners and plugs) they have some varieties that I haven’t found elsewhere (like celosia mixes that are just absolutely fabulous)
Prairie Moon Nursery - Excellent source of seeds for seeds native to North America, with a lot of very interesting species that aren’t necessarily well-known to the cut flower industry but have lots of great potential use in the future. Excellent for purchasing high quality, high volume orders of seeds like goldenrod, echinacea and rudbeckia.
There’s more to come
In the future I’ll be writing a bit more about the way that we start seeds, how we grow them out and how we harden them off and plant them out. But this should give you a good start as to getting your seeds ready to start!
If you’re interested in learning more about growing cut flowers as a business - whether selling to florists or using in your own design work or even growing as a small scale operation, you should check out our eBook bundle. It contains seven books that are chock-full of information and tips on starting your own flower farm as a successful business venture, including how to avoid many of the mistakes that we’ve made over the years.