Spilling the Tea on What Flower Farming is REALLY Like (+ My Top 5 Tips for New Flower Farmers)
What is flower farming REALLY like? Wondering if you should turn your passion for gardening into a profession? Here's the tea on what our first full-scale growing year looked like, and this tea is hot, mama! So hot, it may burn your aspirations to become a full-time grower (although probably not if you're truly obsessed with the world of growing).
I have a pattern of behaviour throughout my life that is fairly predictable: develop an area of interest, become very good at that thing, so good in fact that I turn my interest into a product/profession. I've parlayed my interests into money-making ventures pretty successfully over the years. I had a photography business and sold my work all over Canada and the United States. Same for a line of purses I created. I took my love of butter tarts and turned it into Canada's largest food-themed festival (Ontario's Best Butter Tart Festival in Midland, ON). I am good at taking ideas and turning them into things. Like, really BIG things.
Gardening and growing has always been a part of my life, but it wasn't until recent years that I began to dig deep into the subject. I had always been a lover of perennial gardening, but when I started to explore the world of annuals, I became hooked. I credit Floret Flower Farm for that obsession. Eventually, I applied for a scholarship to Floret's farming course and was accepted. I spent months studying the dense volume of course work, learning about plants, growing hacks, farm materials, do's and don'ts - the course is very comprehensive. And, concurrent to my studies I grew, trying to cultivate and nurture species of plants I'd never tried growing before. I test grew countless varieties of plants. I failed miserably at some and was successful at others. And, after all of my efforts I decided to take the big leap in 2022 and grow to sell.
I have to be honest here: I had pie-in-the-sky plans in 2022, with dreams of everything unfolding as I'd imagined it would, growing flowers in abundance, working gleefully outdoors without a care all season long, selling masses of blooms to a flower hungry crowd. Naive me had no idea what was really in store.
Above is yours truly during the thick of spring planting. Friends, I am not exaggerating when I say I pretty much looked this dishevelled all summer. This mirror selfie was taken after a session of direct sowing sunflowers in the rain.
Friends, if you're reading this, you probably are as flower obsessed as I am. And if you have aspirations to become a flower farmer, you may have visions of yourself in a sundress and floppy hat, leisurely picking flowers in the field and selling them while you chat and socialize with the community at your local farmers' market. I hate to take a giant eraser to your flower-growing fantasy, but friends, this is not it. Flower farming - farming of any kind - is HARD work. And it's hard in all kinds of ways too - mentally, emotionally and physically. Want to grow on a large scale from seed? Prepare to spend endless hours tending to and worrying over seedlings. Chances are, you'll kill a lot of seedlings - I sure have! Growing according to a schedule? Prepare to have some or maybe even all of your schedule thwarted by Mother Nature. Nature has not been informed of your plans and will routinely work against you.
Getting very real here: despite all of my enthusiasm, acquired knowledge and passion for flowers, I had more disappointments than I did successes in 2022. If there was a mistake to be made, I made it. Throw on a whole slew of other personal challenges during growing season - an illness followed by a surgery, a fall planting injury, moving from my former home of 17 years, moving in with my partner and suddenly becoming a parental figure to young children again - the stress was, well, let's just say a lot. Like, a LOT.
And yet, despite all of these challenges, here we are again, gearing up for the 2023 season. We'll be doing things somewhat differently at the farm this year, which hopefully will take some of the pressure off. More on that later; I'd like to share, if I may, the top 5 pieces of advice I have for anyone else who is thinking of embarking on this journey.
Tip #1: Improve Your Physical Condition
I am fortunate to be an able bodied, albeit somewhat ample-of-frame person. Last year, I had some pretty trying physical challenges that resulted in having a surgery mid-July - not an ideal time. This complicated farming greatly as there were a few weeks where I wasn't able to tend the fields as much as needed. Later in the season when we were putting about 1000 peony roots into the ground, I injured by lower back, and it still pains me to this day. If I could go back in time and give myself a piece of advice about farming, I'd say "Barb, get your butt into a gym and do strength and flexibility training." I believe that if I had done strength training, I could have avoided injury and wouldn't have pain today. I also think work would have gone a whole lot faster if I were in better condition to lug heavy buckets and equipment.
Tip #2: K.I.S.S.
If you don't know what K.I.S.S. means, let me enlighten you: Keep It Simple, Stupid. In my first real grow-for-sales year, I had stars in my eyes and tried to grow alllll the things. At first it was fun, starting seedlings, dreaming of a field of diverse flowers. However, that dream quickly turned into a nightmare when I realized that getting thousands of plant babies in the ground and caring for them became an overwhelming chore. You'd be far better off to grow just a few species of plants and grow them well than grow a bit of everything. Also, you're much better off to grow fewer plants altogether, but in better conditions, than grow lots and have it all become unwieldly to manage. The hard part about this realization is that I knew this piece of advice from my studies with Floret, but blatantly disregraded it because I had stars (flowers?) in my eyes. 2022 was a reality check for me. If you grow more than you can handle, you will be sorely disappointed.
Tip #3: You are farming, not gardening. You should know this, and those helping you should know it too
If you're early on in your growing journey, you might try and enlist help from friends or family who also have an interest in growing. Prepare yourself and your helpers by making it very clear that you are farming, not gardening. Flower farming can be ruthless. Yes, you read that right. You're not planting to make property look attractive. If plants stop producing flowers, you rip them out and start anew. In farming, flowers are a commodity, not an work of art. Gardening is leisurely, go at your own pace; farming is hours and hours of gruelling work. If you or your helpers are not willing or able to put the hard work in to make your farm a success, it is better to stick to gardening and just enjoy yourself at a more relaxed pace.
Tip #4: Know Your Market
Before you grow a single stem for sale, have a good idea of who you're planning to sell to. Last year, we tried a few different selling streams, only to find ourselves completely overwhelmed. If you want to grow for farmers markets, do that. Want to grow for florists? Do that. Is it growing a subscription base that interests you? Do that. Just don't do all 3, because quite frankly all of these have very different requirements and will just have you working 3 times as hard. Stick to one, maybe two, selling streams and get really good at that before you expand.
Tip #5: Understand Your Space
This one was a real heartbreaker for us last year. In 2021, after much pondering, measuring, speculating and planning, we decided to plant a few hundred peonies in a part of the field at the back of the farm that had never been planted. Believe me when I tell you, I thought I was extremely clever, selecting a spot close to a water source, accessible by ATV and truck, full sun, tested the soil and it looked great...and then, catastrophy. Having just evaluated the space in summer months, I came to realize the following spring that the area we had planted our peonies became flooded, wiping out about a 3rd of our stock and ruining our plans for growing annuals. We had to pivot at the last minute, moving our growing space to a less ideal spot in the field. The remainder of our summer was spent trying to solve water access problems and keeping the encroaching weeds at bay. The experience was emotionally, physically and financially painful. So, potential grower, be mindful of the area you select to grow and what it is like during all seasons, not just summer. You will save yourself a lot of heartache if you do.
I guess I've always been a later bloomer who learns lessons the hard way, and last year was no exception. This year, the growing plan is a lot simpler and hopefully more manageable. We are better equipped and understand our growing area much better than last year. And, we're simplifying our sales streams too. With this hard-won wisdom and hopefully a reprieve from Mother Nature, this year should be easier - we hope!
Until next time,
Despite my griping above, we really did produce some gorgeous flowers in 2022. It wasn't all a bust. Hopefully in 2023, we won't have to work quite as hard to produce beautiful flowers like these!