Howdy! My name is Ashley Vail, owner and operator of Vail Family Farm, a 5-acre specialty cut flower farm in the heart of the Midwest. Bennington, Kansas, is the place we call home and it’s where we grow a variety of annual and perennial cut flowers from April to October each year. We offer our flowers directly to retail consumers in several ways, including CSA (community-supported agriculture) shares or subscriptions and partnering with local retail businesses. We also attend farmers' markets and offer growers' choice buckets of flowers for weddings and events.
Growing thousands of flowers requires an immense amount of careful planning, and the decision-making process with so many flower choices can lead to an extreme case of analysis paralysis. This disorder affects business owners everywhere. To decrease the amount of time-sensitive decisions and increase efficiency, I standardize all parts of my farm. From bed size to seed starting equipment to how we wrap the flowers, each part of the process is simplified and standardized. I like to start my process by working backward. I see how this might seem counterintuitive, but hang with me!
The priority is figuring out how many bouquets I would like to sell each week to any given group of customers. We will use tulips as an example. Tulips are a large part of our spring flower CSAs, and their math is easy to calculate because tulips will provide one flower. Let’s say that I have 40 spring flower shares or subscriptions that must be fulfilled weekly for three weeks. My first step is determining how many tulips will go into one bouquet. For this example, I will use eight individual stems. I’ve never been great at math, but if I can do it, you can too! The formula, for example, looks like this:
(Number of stems) x (Number of weekly bouquets) = Stem count for one week
8 x 40 = 320
For our hypothetical tulip example, I would need 320 stems per week.
If I want the total of flowers for the entirety of the flower subscription, the formula looks like this:
(Weekly stem count) x (Number of subscription weeks) = Stem count for length of subscription
320 x 3 = 960
If I use this formula for our hypothetical example, I would need 960 tulip stems total for the length of our subscription.
The same formula is applied to cut and come again flowers. I use the same formula, knowing that I will likely harvest more than one flower for cut and come and again flowers like zinnias, cosmos, and branching flowers like celosia and statice. At a minimum, I know planting at least one flower for each stem I need to account for will almost guarantee that I will meet my weekly stem count. I have to remember that there will be some loss. Loss can happen early in the seed starting process, the transplanting process, the wild weather we receive in our state, or insert any other kind of catastrophe here!
SEED STARTING MATH
Standardization doesn’t stop at flower math. I have standardized the rows in the ground and the raised beds I use for growing dahlias. The majority of the flower rows we grow at Vail Family Farm are 4 feet wide by 80 feet long. The annual flowers we grow are all placed 9 inches apart from the center of each hole. When I say all, I really mean ALL, with the exception of sunflowers, which are planted 4-6 inches apart. Sunflowers are a bit different, so we have this article on How to Grow Sunflowers to explain in depth.
Knowing our row size with 9-inch spacing makes it easy to figure out how many seedlings I can fit in each space. These standardized rows will hold 530 seedlings with 9-inch spacing. Keep in mind that we are going to edge within the landscape fabric. Figuring out this information tells me exactly how many seeds of each flower I need to start. Sidenote: I always account for a 10-20% loss from seed to bloom, and I consider this when ordering seeds and seed starting supplies.
This math is a bit more complicated since we need to convert from feet to inches to get the proper spacing.
(Row width in feet) x (12 inches) / 9 inch spacing = number of plants across each row
4 x 12 / 9 = 5.3. We round down to 5 here.
Then we do the same with the length of the bed. My beds are 80 feet but you can adjust depending on your space.
(Row length in feet) x (12 inches) / 9 inch spacing = number of plants down length of each row.
80 x 12 / 9 = 106.667. Rounded down to 106 for ease.
Now, you just need to multiply the number of plants across each row by the number of plants down the row.
5 x 106 = 530 total plants per row
SEED STARTING SUPPLIES FOR FLOWERS
I sound like a broken record here, but I also, you guessed it, standardized my seed starting. Every annual flower we grow is started in a Bootstrap Farmer 72-cell tray. Sure, I could start more seeds like snapdragons (an absolute speck of a seed!) in a 128-cell tray, but my goal is to keep my processes as simple as possible.
Let’s try another example of flower math in reference to seed starting. I will use zinnias this time, a flower that makes up ⅓ of our annual cut flower production. We start 100 percent of our zinnia seeds indoors to get a head start and beat other growers to market. We plant several successions, or multiple plantings, of our annual flowers, especially zinnias! We’ll use 1060 seeds as the first part of our example. Remember that we need to account for around a 20 percent loss. If I need to fill two rows with 1,060 seedlings (which I know have space for because my rows will fit 530 plants per row), I would start with 1260 zinnia seedlings. The 200 extra accounts for a 20 percent loss. To know how many seedling trays I will need, I will use this formula:
(Number of seedlings) divided by (72 or # of cells in a tray)
1260 / 72 = 17.5
The answer to this formula is 17.5 so we’ll round up for ease, and that leaves me to start 18 of my 72 cell air prune trays, which accounts for loss, and at minimum, I will have 1000 plants in the ground for my first succession of planting.
OTHER SUPPLIES FOR SEED STARTING SUCCESS
In addition to my 72-cell trays, I also use Bootstrap Farmer 1020 Extra Strength trays. The cell trays are placed within the 1020 tray, allowing us to bottom water our baby seedlings. When you’re starting tiny seeds like lisianthus or snapdragons, the seeds can easily become displaced when watering from above or from the top.
Bottom watering soaks the soil in the cells from the bottom up, and the new roots soak up all the moisture they need. After filling the 1020 tray about halfway full with water, I let it soak and come back in 30 minutes to empty any remaining water.
As your seeds are germinating, or the flower is popping out of the seed casing, you will also need to maintain a higher humidity level. Some of those seeds can be tough to pop! Higher humidity using a 1020 extra strength humidity dome helps the seeds grow, rather than being left uncovered.
Humidity domes are crucial for the first week, and this really can’t be understated. Many a flower grower have reached out to me wondering why their seeds haven’t germinated, and most of the time, they weren’t using humidity domes. After 70% of the seeds have germinated, I remove the domes and set them aside for our successive plantings. Humidity domes, instead of than plastic wrap, make the process simple and efficient.
Good Planning and Great Supplies Will Save You Money on Your Flower Farm
Doing your flower math and gathering your supplies before you need them is such an important part of having the blooms you want when you want them. This is the tedious, not so glamorous, but necessary work that will save you time and money at the end of the day. Speaking of money-saving, you should note that I’ve tried several brands of seed starting supplies, and I always come back to Bootstrap Farmer for my seed starting trays because they stand the test of time.
We are headed into our fourth season of flower farming and trays from our first season are the trays that will usher in next year’s blooms. I love knowing that I don’t have to invest in new trays every year (unless we’re growing more flowers) because each of my Bootstrap Farmer supplies from cell trays, to 1020 trays, to humidity domes have held up to the harsh weather and daily use at our flower farm.
I hope this article has helped you to take charge of your flower growing plans and inspired you to think about standardizing some of your processes and equipment. Take the guesswork out of your seed starting, crunch a few numbers, and you’re well on your way.