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Flower Business 101: Effective Crop Planning

The beauty of a home garden for leisure is that you can grow whatever you love with no regard to things like revenue potential or what other people think about it. It's all about your personal preference and taste, and I do think it's worth keeping a hobby garden for that joy factor alone. But the truth is that what we do to grow just for fun and create arrangements for our own homes doesn't always translate to growing for income due to factors such as quality control, best harvest practices, proper postharvest care, vase life, and market needs. The difference between a business and a hobby is the scrutiny you need to apply to what you grow and how much of it you grow. Picking what to grow in your parcel is not as simple as looking at the days to maturity, searching for the stems per plant online, or picking the prettiest blooms in the seed catalogue. Below I will provide a quick overview of how I approach this on our farm.

Crop Selection

Harvest Period

For field growing on our farm, I sort flowers into six main harvest windows:

  • late March through late April

  • late April through late May

  • late May through late June

  • late June through late July

  • late July through early September

  • late August through frost (ranges from late Sept to mid Oct)

If you extend your season through unheated and heated greenhouses, hydroponic trays for forced bulbs, forced flowering branches, or holiday evergreens, you will need to add those to the list however it lines up on your farm.

Harvest Duration

Approximate duration of the harvest window will vary from crop to crop, but in general, annuals are either cut-and-come-again or one-and-done. Where I'm located, I can generally assume that cut-and-come-again hardy annuals will provide four weeks of cuts whereas many main season annuals will provide six weeks of cuts. One-and-dones will produce one usable stem per plant within a one-to-two week window (or even less time if it's very warm outside). There are always surprises when it comes to relying on Mother Nature's weather and critters, so it's always possible that you will get a little bit more, a little bit less, or even none at all.

Most of what I grow on my farm is an herbaceous perennial or a woody, both of which we approach differently. Many perennials provide blooms all at once over two or so weeks, others will give a second smaller flush later in the season, and some will provide continuous blooms for most of the season. You will need to research this individually for each crop. Woodies are variable as well. Some flowering branches have a micro-window where every bloom is ready at exactly the same time (lilac during a May heatwave comes to mind!). Others, like ninebark, grow lovely flowers and fruit/seedpods on old wood seasonally but also produce abundant foliage on new wood that can be cut as needed for most of the season. We harvest perennials and woodies only to order. And for woodies, we never remove more than 1/3 of the plant over the course of the season.

Color Palette

I find color to be the factor I use most to restrain myself from growing every single gorgeous thing in the catalogue. Market needs during that time of year, including popular flower holidays and where/to whom you are selling will determine what you might need. For example, in March and April, Easter being a major flower holiday, I try to have mixed pastels available. For the rest of the year, most of my sales are marketed towards wedding florists so I aim to have a variety of pure whites and neutral pastels as often as possible all season, plus juicy peach and raspberry in midsummer and moody jewel tones in autumn. Those growing for markets will get to explore bolder, more saturated color palettes.

My visual and performing arts education training makes me a lover of the fundamentals, and as such, I highly recommend brushing up on color theory. Sessions College provides a solid overview and a free calculator tool on their website, or you can order a color wheel online.

Ingredient Function

A common novice challenge, one I experienced myself in the early years, was understanding what goes into making a balanced arrangement. Besides color, the other important fundamentals of floral design include texture (actual and perceived sensorial experience of the ingredients), line (1D, the defining path(s) our eyes follow), shape (2D, defined by lines that create height and width) and form (3D, defined by height, width, and depth in real space). These elements apply both to the arrangement as a whole and to the individual blooms.

As growers, our understanding of the fundamentals applies to the crops we cultivate in the field. It's important to remember that florists are design experts but not necessarily local flower experts, meaning that you have to play the role of educator and show them how to use these ingredients successfully. Classically trained florists often use defining language like line, mass, form, or filler to categorize blooms. I often see farmer-florists using words like spike/disc/air, and less often thriller/filler/spiller. Below is my way of bridging the formal and informal categories in a way that makes sense to me so that I can both grow a range of ingredients that mix well together for my retail design work AND communicate functionality to my wedding florists.

  • Form focal: any large, unusually-shaped flower (bearded iris, calla lily)

  • Mass focal: any round-faced flower exceeding 3" in diameter (dahlia, peony, heirloom mums)

  • Mass filler: any round-faced flower ranging from about 1-2.5" in diameter (bachelor buttons, astrantia)

  • Transitional filler: any flower that grows in a spray or cluster with individual blooms about 0.5" or less in diameter (yarrow, joe-pye, bergenia)

  • Line: flowers that grow in a spike/spire shape (baptisia, delphinium, veronica)

  • Textural filler: any flowers, seedpods, ornamental grasses, and berries that add sparkle and visual interest (poppy pods, snowberry, northern sea oats, cilantro flowers/fresh coriander)

  • Foliage: leafy ingredients that provide height, width, depth, structure, and texture (ninebark, smokebush, viburnum dentatum); for structural purposes, can be divided further into tender-stemmed and stiff-stemmed

While advanced floral design takes a high level of education, training, and practice, we can still apply these fundamentals to even our simplest market bouquets to create a better end result. Unless you are growing for market or flowering event work with a goal of growing 100% of your ingredients on your farm, you don't necessarily need to put unnecessary pressure on yourself to grow multiple ingredients in every category during every harvest period. In fact, most of what I grow at this point in my career is filler and foliage. That being said, I like to at least be aware of what can be available locally so I can make thoughtful suggestions to my florist clients.

Special Consideration: Invasive Potential

Ecological sustainability is a large part of my farm's ethos, and while this is pretty mainstream in the produce world at this point, we need a bigger push in the floral community. There are many popular cut flowers that have invasive potential, including loosestrife, scotch broom, and euonymus. Before planting anything on your farm, I urge you to do a quick online search to see if it is reported as an invasive species. Sometimes we have established invasive species on our properties, so be sure to research how it spreads/propagates before utilizing it as a foraged crop. For example, dame's rocket spreads through self-seeding, so cutting the flowers is actually beneficial to prevent that from occurring, whereas autumn olive may root itself in the water and root itself if it is thrown in the compost heap.

Calculating Volume

So you've figured out your seasonal color palettes and a balanced list of crops based on function. How much do you need to grow of each crop, and how often to achieve a steady supply? Before doing anything else you must consider your maximum postharvest storage space. Let's say you have two acres of flowers in production but no floral cooler. What exactly are you going to do with all of those beautiful blooms during a 90 degree heatwave? I'm not saying you can't do it (maybe you're a pick-your-own farm), but you need to have a postharvest plan, and once that plan is in place, you can then determine the maximum bed space you can handle.

When you know the total square feet you'll have available during each of the harvest periods on your farm, you can divide that space between different crops based on your unique needs. I am a data-driven person, so formulas and spreadsheets make the most sense to me. For every annual crop I grow, I create a "yield workspace" so I can get a rough sense of the potential volume and revenue I may achieve per square foot. I also create a separate workspace per succession planting. Below is a sample yield workspace for Zinnia peruviana.

Only you can know what the correct number of plants per crop should be on your farm. Because my focus is on wholesale, my goal is more about volume than it is about diversity. If you are running a small subscription service, you might be able to grow a high amount of diversity and much less volume of individual ingredients.

Color/Function Mood Boards

Example 1: Complementary Color Harmony in May (Yellow + Purple)

Example 2: Monochromatic Color Harmony in June (Tone-on-Tone Pinks)

Example 3: Analogous Color Harmony in September (Red + Orange + Yellow-Orange)

Favorite Resources

Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers Books & Members-Only Resources

Floret Farm's A Year in Flowers

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