Well, fall has officially arrived. Pumpkin spice is everywhere, beanie hats fill the streets of Queen West, and gourds sit on porches where planters full of flowers sat not too long ago. Honestly, I welcome the change with open arms, a time to trade in the shorts and sundresses for my favourite jeans and that big wooly sweater. It’s the perfect time to light a candle, sit on my couch with a tea, (or glass of wine) and look back on the growing season. All season long we’ve taken notes in the midst of harvesting, fertilizing, weeding, watering, and running blooms to the shop! Now, as things slow down, I take time to reflect - the wins, the misses, and everything in between, so that next growing season we know what to change, and what to continue doing the same. Instead of keeping all this to myself, this year I want to share it with you in the hopes that you can learn from my experiences :)
First, let’s cover the areas we’d like to improve on and change for next year's farm.. I like to take a note from Bob Ross and explain these as “happy accidents”. So much of flower farming, I have come to learn, is trial and error. In order to evolve our methods as growers, we must learn from our mistakes, and apply these learnings to the next growing season so that each year is more successful than the last.
- Staking dahlias too late in the season. One bad storm and they were toppled! (Luckily only in one yard, my own, which I always deal with last). I know it’s a lot of work up front to stake or lay some grid netting, but soooo worth it.
- Isabellina Creamy Yellow zinnias were a hit with the Japanese beetles, and not in a good way. Apparently they have a refined palette and chose these zinnias as their favorite flower to feast on! I had never seen so many beetles on one variety of flower. They overpowered the patch and ended up attracting even more Japanese beetles to the garden, who ate these zinnias as their main course and for dessert, the many other flowers nearby. We weren't able to harvest them at all all season. Lesson learned: figure out which flowers the beetles love and avoid at all costs!
- We tried to grow too many varieties this year. We need to remember that we are small space growers, so less is more when it comes to the varieties we grow! We can’t grow everything, so we need to be selective in choosing high output plants with many blooms per season, as well as blooms with a lot of visual interest. We will only be growing a few zinnia varieties ( our breeding varieties, Oklahoma white, queen red lime and queen red blush only), a few phlox (getting rid of sugar stars and phlox of sheep) varieties and a few scabiosa colors (white and black knight only) now that we've designed with them all season. While I love starting new things and experimenting with new flowers every year, we end up wasting space with too much basil that goes to seed, short stems only usable for boutonnieres and colors no designers want to design with! Less options, but more of the good stuff ;)
- Not knowing when to admit defeat when it comes to self- diagnosing soil deficiencies. We spent an entire growing season adding amendments to the soil in one yard with no success. Not only did we waste time and money on trying to amend the soil, but we also lost revenue from blooms that we could have produced. Soil tests may seem pricey, but could end up saving you money in the long run. We soil tested last week and discovered the Lilac tree (which prefers not to be over fertilized) leeches all the nutrients we are adding to the soil nearby leaving all the other blooms struggling to survive. We will be trying a no till method adding in rotted wood to the yard and building raised beds to try and allocate the nutrients needed to the seedlings rather than the soil…fingers crossed it works better next year!
Now for the wins! As important as it is to learn from your mistakes, it’s just as important to celebrate the successes. This is what gets me excited and keeps me motivated for the next growing season!
Some heavy lifting at the beginning of the season prepping one of our sandiest, most desolate yards really paid off! We scattered worm castings and manure as we do in every yard but added in coconut coir to the soil this season to help it maintain a loamier quality and moisture retention. We then laid landscape cloth over the entire yard and hand cut holes where we were planting. We have no drip tape or irrigation so the cloth had to allow water through it but suppress the weeds. Labour intensive, but so worth it in the end. Our harvest was substantially better compared to the previous year (and no weeding!)
We grew Ranunculus!!! This was a scary (aka expensive) undertaking as these flowers are high maintenance and take a lot of work before they get outside but WOW was I thrilled we did it! Ranunculus grow in that funny pocket between spring and summer where all your spring bulbs are done, but your perennials and seedlings aren't ready yet. For years I just relied on columbine, peonies, lilacs and mock orange in late spring but we were busy harvesting ranunculus this year as well! What's great is that they bloom early enough that we can ‘flip’ the space to get a second crop. We planted in dahlias where the tulips were (we pull the bulbs and grow them as annuals) and we placed our dahlia seedlings where the ranunculus were. Finding plant varieties that grow quickly from dormancy (seed, bulb or corm) to maturity is key in small space growing so you can get double the crop in the same lot.
Our dahlia seedling experiment was a success! There are still dahlias blooming, so keep an eye out for our next newsletter for a full recap of the experiment. We learnt a ton to move forward next year with even more success.
The Zinnia breeding program had a better success rate than we’d anticipated! We separated the floret and petal seed of every seed head we saved and discovered the floret seeds yielding closer results to the parent plant we saved. We are saving hundreds of seed heads for next year to start isolating varieties more closely in hopes that we will have our own seed varieties to share with all of you one day!
We experimented a little bit with no- till methods this year and were happy with the initial results. No- till, if done correctly, means less watering and weeding, (which we are big fans of). But hey, if you’re one of those people that enjoy weeding, more power to you. We will be spending much of our winter researching more about the no-till method and learning about vermicomposting and huglekultur. Do I see worm farming in our future!?
Although I could go on and on about all the things we learned this season, I’ll leave it at that for now. I am a bit of a science nerd when it comes to the flower farming aspect of my job and will write more about some of these experiments in future blogs. For now, I hope that these tips, tricks and learnings help with your own garden success next year! Now back to digging dahlia tubers…