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  • Running a Successful U-Pick Flower Farm

    December 27, 2023 18 min read 0 Comments

    Flower farm with rows of dahlias in foreground with other types of flowers visible behind. House and umbrellas visible in background.

    What You Need to know about Running a U-Pick Flower Farm

    Whether you call it U-Cut, U-Pick or Pick Your Own Flower Farm, running this style of flower farm is significantly different from other styles of growing. The differences run the range of farming tasks from scheduling your propagation to succession planting to putting the farm to bed in the fall. Because your income will be largely dependent on how many days you have flowers ready to pick, the more season extension strategies you can put in place the better.

    We had the opportunity to sit down with Stephanie Chow of Poppies and Petals Farm, a cut your own flower farm in Santa Rosa, CA. Her U-Pick flower farm is absolutely beautiful. She offered us a chance to see what running a farm designed from the soil up to have customers on site looks like. The joys of being a part of special moments as well as the trials and tribulations of being a new farmer. 

    We learned so much from talking with Stephanie that we have created this primer on what you can expect when starting or adding a u-pick flower farm. We have included a more in depth Q&A interview with her towards the end of this article. 

    Designing a U-Cut flower farm 

    One of the things that struck me most about Poppies and Petals was how clearly different the design of the flower farm is. Unlike a production farm where the space between rows can be as small as 18 inches to maximize growing, the rows here are widely spaced. I wondered why they left so much growing space unused. 

    “I have noticed that you have quite a bit more space between your flower rows than most farms do.”

    Yes, we can actually drive our cars down the rows. They are at least 10 feet and in some cases 15 feet between plants. I started during Covid and I wanted for people who are picking to have privacy and to have their own space. Not be inundated with people when they are enjoying, maybe a private conversation with who they are with or having a moment to themselves in the garden. That was very important to me.  

    I have 24 rows that are 200 feet long and they are 36 or 48 inches wide. So the space is almost three acres but actually cultivated flowers are only around a half acre.” 

    Wider paths between rows make for happy visitors

    After returning to the farm while it was open for customers I was able to see why this one structural difference is so important. While it may seem counterintuitive to leave so much space unplanted when trying to grow a large number of flowers, watching that space in action makes perfect sense. 

    The 10 foot wide rows make it easy for groups of people to be picking from the same row without crowding each other. Stephanie also told me that for elderly people or those with disabilities, being able to drive on the rows allows for access to picking for those who cannot navigate the uneven ground. 

    The three to four foot wide flower beds also ensure that customers can pick the same types of flowers from opposite sides of the rows. This is particularly noticeable in the popular dahlia beds where people frequently want to pick the same colors at the same time. 

    The wide paths on the farm are also used for events. One of the paths has a beautiful pergola where people can have picnics and farm-to-table dinners. This pergola and another structure near the sink offer oases of shade in the otherwise very sunny property.  

    Accessibility is key

    If you don't have room for extra wide paths, make them at least 4-5 feet wide in your plan. Keeping in mind that the flowers will fill in some of the path space at the height of their growth. ADA requires public spaces to have 3-foot-wide paths for wheelchair access. Going a bit bigger than this will allow for people to comfortably pass each other as they pick. 

    Housekeeping on the farm

    Offering a sink or cooler with potable water is a good idea. You will need to provide restroom access to your guests as well as hand washing facilities. You can either build or rent facilities from a company that will service them for you during the season. 

    Cover your assets

    Anytime you will have people on your farm it is absolutely necessary to have proper insurance coverage. Always consult a professional on what types of coverage you need to carry. In addition to this insurance you should also consider having your guests/customers sign a waiver.

    When I asked Stephanie about this she let me know they have a few other safety precautions as well. “We do ask people to sign off on a waiver. We usually say it is because you are handling a sharp object and the ground is uneven so if you stab each other it is not our fault. That is also why we don’t allow kids under 10. Because the flowers look so colorful who wouldn’t want to maybe eat it.” 

    Multiple rows of flowers growing in a field with wide pathways. A wine barrel table with red umbrella is in the foreground.

    How is a U-Pick flower farm different from a cut flower farm?

    Design of the hardscape areas is the first main difference in u-pick vs. production flower farming. Once you have taken the above considerations under advisement you can move on to the super fun part; choosing your seeds and bulbs, the outline of all your planting plans. True flower farming starts in the late summer with your seed selections for fall planting. 

    From the first planting to the final cut flower

    Preparing beds is the first step if you do not already have them ready to go. For bed prep in new spaces silage tarps are an excellent first step. For more on Using Silage Tarp for Bed Prepping check out this guide. 

    Succession planting for freshly cut flowers

    It is important to consider the availability of focal flowers through the seasons in addition to your fillers and foliage. It is beneficial to plant for a range of maturity dates. Plant varieties that bloom early as well as late blooming ones to extend your sales season. When planning for availability at a farm that is open to the public, more is always better. People who are engaging in agro tourism want abundance and variety. 

    In many growing zones this means that you will be doing a lot of seed starting in the late summer and planting in the late fall. Bulbs like tulips and daffodils as well as cool season hardy annuals should be planted 6-8 weeks before your first expected frost. 

    Using cool season annuals for earlier blooms

    In zones 7 and up, fall planted cool season annuals can provide cut flowers that are ready to pick months before warm weather crops have begun to bud. Snapdragons, stock, dianthus, bachelor buttons, calendula and rudbeckia can all be planted out in the late fall to overwinter in the garden.

    This extra time for root growth means strong stems and big flower growth comes on as soon as spring temperatures warm. There are a few varieties that will be winter hardy even down to zone 5. Just check the expected hardiness range when purchasing your seeds. 

    Mixed with filler flowers like feverfew and daucus (queen anne’s lace) and perennial foliage, cool season flowers can make beautiful bouquets. They can also be used to accompany spring bulbs like tulips and daffodils depending on your growing zone. 

    Working with the features of your land

    Knowing the lay of your land will help you to head off potential challenges. Poppies and Petals has flooding issues. This has informed their planting decisions for the coming season.

    Cool season hardy annuals will be planted in the higher areas of the farm along with the perennials and foliage. The lower areas that flood each winter are reserved for warm season annuals. Cut flowers that can wait to go in the ground once the waters have receded. This seasonal flooding is also the reason that their bulbs and tubers are planted in raised beds to prevent rotting. They have also added a large hoop house to ensure early blooming bulbs even in unseasonably cold spring temperatures. 

    Taking into account the permanent features of your land will allow you to use microclimates and permaculture principles in your farm design. To learn more about How to Create and Work With Microclimates in the Garden review the principles here. 


    Q&A with a Pick Your Own Flower Farmer

    As we wandered around the flower fields after our interview Stephanie introduced me to some of her favorite flowers. We also had the opportunity to talk more about how the slope and directionality of light on the farm has helped to influence her planting decisions. The pictures we’ve included here show some of her favorite new varieties and wonderful volunteers.

    Getting to know a flower farmer

    How long have you been farming here? 

    “This is year three.”

    So the first year was when you made all your mistakes? 

    “Oh right! As we expand there are always more mistakes. We went from 9 rows to now we have 24.” 

    So let's start with what made you want to start a farm? 

    “We've always been looking to do something to utilize the property. David (my husband) had a traumatic brain injury in 2011. It was something where if I was closer it would be better. So I thought growing annuals here would allow me to also stay close by on the farm in case I needed to run back to the house.” 

    What were you doing before you started flower farming?

    “Corporate job, I was the marketing communications VP for large tech and global banks. So I was working overseas a lot.”

    So a lot of traveling, not a lot of nature?

    “Correct! And always in cities that didn’t have a lot of nature available. Cities like Paris and Taipei and Hong Kong.”

    I imagine that this transition changed a lot about the pace of your life.

    “Yes it did. Lots of getting used to bugs, and tree frogs. Who knew of such a thing, that there are frogs that live in trees and they will fall on your head!” (Here in Northern California we call them tree frogs but they are really toads.)

    Did you start this farm all at once or were you still working an off farm job?

    “Well I had not been working for a few years and I tried different things. I tried making hard apple cider. I thought maybe I would make cheese. But I went full on into this. Once I had the idea and figured out how I wanted to make the rows I went all in.”

    Is flower farming like a retirement job for you?

    “No, I really need to prove myself and make a living at this. It is challenging because I am not the world’s most patient person and it is hard. When I hear what other flower farmers are making that is challenging, especially being in California.

    I was just talking to my mentor in Michigan and she pays $30 for a hog panel that is around 16’ by 5’ and I’m like, “Nope that is $90 here.” She uses them for trellising her dahlias and chrysanthemums and flowers that are stronger than the plastic trellis netting can hold up.” 

    What advice would you give to someone who wants to add a U-Pick component to their farm?

    “From speaking to other flower farmers, I think a lot of people are afraid of letting others pick their flowers because they are worried they will do it wrong. But from my experience customers are even more careful than I would be. If a dahlia has three flowers, the main stem and two side shoots, people will only pick the main one even if it is only five inches long. So I would say if farmers are afraid of that don’t let it deter you. Because more often than not people will not cut and damage your flower bushes ever. 

    I think doing the U-Pick is much more labor intensive just because it is agro tourism. You have to always be conscious of how pretty your rows are and be constantly weeding or have another method of weed containment.” 

    What made you want to start a flower farm and not grow vegetables?

    “There are a lot of vegetable growers and there are definitely more flower growers now too but it didn’t make me excited for the coming season. No matter how tired and bone tired I was, I was so looking forward to how I could improve things next season. And that was only happening with flowers and not with vegetables.

    The challenges as well (made me want to have a flower farm). I guess I must like challenges because growing flowers is so much more difficult than growing vegetables. The requirements, not to mention the sizes of seeds, whether they like light or dark, do they need to be covered or not covered. It is so many elements. (For example) Bells of Ireland is really the biggest one I’ve had. Not just myself, we have a propagation manager now and she also has trouble with Bells of Ireland and Aster. She has tried bleaching them and scratching them on sandpaper. We have tried different methods and the best way still is just if they are volunteers.” 

    Choosing a business model for your flower farm. 

    How did you settle on doing U-Pick as a business model for your flowers, and is that the only sales outlet you have?

    “(U-cut flowers) were for the first two years and we also had workshops. Not a lot, maybe two a year. So this year we really pivoted and it was throwing a lot of balls in the air with as many revenue streams as possible. So we added the Tuesday night Healdsburg Farmers Market. We are doing an East Bay Summer CSA. 

    We are doing more events here. Everything from bridal showers, baby showers, private picnics, team building events. Since we are only open mornings from 9-12 people can rent the entire flower farm in the afternoon for their own purpose. 

    We also have a mini nursery. We are selling all of the plants that we propagate and grow ourselves. I have learned that people are either cut flower people or plant growing people. It has really diversified our offerings. Even at the farmers market people definitely are almost 60:40. Having the flowers in a bouquet for them to see mature to see how they look in a bouquet really helps to sell the little plant starts.”

    So the person can actually see what they are going to get in two to three months? I imagine it is difficult when people only see the tag and they have never actually seen the flower.

    “Exactly, pictures really sell the plant but having an actual physical example that people can touch is totally awesome.” 

    Of your flower sales venues, which is the most profitable?

    “Still the U-Cut. Also it is really the human element of being able to interact with someone and providing a place of happiness and joy is really the ultimate gratification. That no amount of salary or money can pay for. There are so many heartwarming stories that just keep me going.”


    What are some of the challenges with the U-Pick model? Either those that you were expecting or something you completely were not expecting?

    “Our first year we were written up in an article in the Press Democrat. We had an influx of people and we weren’t watching the parking area and someone literally just took her own snips and picked every single dahlia that we had that was ready to be picked. And then came up to the counter and said, “I was told I could pick whatever I wanted for $35.” (The model for this farm is that customers are given snips and a pitcher when they check in and can fill that pitcher for the $35 fee.) And it was way more than what would have fit into the pitchers that we provide to people. 

    Everyone, including us, was shocked because we really didn’t know how to deal with her because we want to have good customer service. Not only did she not check in or follow the rules but she just cut all the dahlias that everyone else might have liked to have one or two of so it was kind of crushing. Thankfully that hasn’t happened since.

    Wood and metal shade structure with an orange sign that reads "Flower Bar Check-in."

    Another challenge, of course, is critters. We had problems with earwigs eating all of our plants and flowers. The cucumber beetles continue to be a nuisance. We now put out sacrificial sunflowers because they love the sunflowers. We also use beneficial nematodes once a month.

    We put sunflowers in between the dahlias because the cucumber beetles love the dahlia petals.” 

    What do you think is the best part of having a U-Pick farm?

    “I think, besides the human element, is discovering new flowers and new varieties of foliage. Even now as we are going into year three we are discovering volunteers and that they have hybridized and changed. These are flowers we could not buy seeds for if we wanted to and here we have created a brand new flower. So that is just, always so exciting. New colors, new shapes, in fact I have a Zinnia I will show you later that is (6” across). It is bigger than a Benary’s Giant. So I have already put a mesh bag over it.”

    The challenges of running a flower farm.

    What was your biggest setback since you started the flower farm? 

    “Gophers have been a big setback. We have been mitigating the gopher issues since I discovered critter fencing which is a hardware cloth coated with black PVC and rated for 30 years. It is better versus hardware cloth which only lasts 4-5 years because it rusts.

    We dug a trench four plus feet deep and then lined it with the critter fencing. SO we have created a perimeter around the whole new section. Hopefully this will work. The only concern is that we couldn’t leave a few inches above the ground because of people tripping. Ultimately I don’t know how efficacious it will be. 

    Thankfully one of the challenges in the last two years has been the flooding. That is just mother nature but it has killed gophers every year because they drown. It also means that anything that I planted that was a hardy annual cool flower didn’t make it because it just was too wet and the roots couldn’t take it.”

    Do you have a plan for this year to abate the problems with flooding in the flower fields? Are you planning to keep them in pots?

    “So now seeing where the water tends to stay longer we’ve created a vast French drainage system too and we pump water out.

    This lower front half (of the beds) is lower than the back half so if I want things to have a better chance I will plant in the rear half. So now all perennials are going in the back half.”

    So your southernmost fence line is where you have the highest ground? So you will be putting your cool season annuals in the south half of the beds and the warm season annuals in the north half?

    “Yup, just because of the water. You can see that there is a little hill that goes up towards the oak trees. The laguna is right across from the fence so we monitor it daily from up there but even when it does flood it abates in about 24-48 hours. So the flowers are so resilient that they still did ok, even the daffodils. 

    Oh I have another challenge. So this year I trialed tulips, specialty tulips, doubles, peonies, and parrots. I ordered 6,000 and I put 5,000 outside and I put 1,000 inside the hoop house. The flood really did a number but even more so the rain. It rained into the tulip cup and rotted it from the inside. If they were closed then they were fine but if they were starting to open all the rain was getting stuck inside the tulip like a cup. Also did not know about fire blight so I had planned on using the same row for the tulips but you can’t. Once you plant the tulips in the ground you have to wait between 3 and 7 years before you can plant them there again. I am not sure how anyone grows tulips. I guess you need to have so much land that you can move them around or use crates.

    I am still going to grow tulips but part of the challenge of growing specialty tulips is that people aren’t aware of them. So they do not want to spend more on them than they do at the (grocery store) and there you can get two dozen tulips for $6-$9 depending on the time of season. But you can’t compete with that so it is a tough sell to try and grow the specialty tulips. That is the variety I just love though. I have completely fallen in love with them. 

    Have you heard of Belicia Tulips? It is a tulip that has three or four tulip blooms on one tulip stem. It is the most beautiful tulip stem I have ever seen and it is white with pink edging. It is like no other flower, not to mention the peonies and the doubles. I am going to order 500 of those belicias just to enjoy them for myself.”

    If you could go back and tell your first year farming self any three things what would you tell yourself?

    “One would be, don’t rototill. Do it once if you have to because the ground is so hard from being fallow for years. But don’t do it again because it exponentially increased the amount of bindweed that we are now battling. Not to mention the beneficial insects and everything else it disrupts. The bindweed nightmare is horrendous.”

    Gosh there are so many things.

    Foliage, the importance of foliage can not be underestimated. We grow about as much foliage now as we do cut flowers now and we use it all. People like interesting and unique foliage just as much as interesting and unique flowers. 

    One more thing, I wish I knew that I didn’t need to put gopher wire under my peonies. They won’t eat the bulbs.” 

    white and green euphorbia foliage growing in a row with wooden sign identifying plant

    What are your favorite types of foliage?

    “Euphorbia mountain snow the white topped one out in the field. I hesitated to put it out there because when you cut it there is a lot of milky white sap that can burn. Since we are a pick your own flower farm I was afraid of something happening. 

    The other one we just put in this year is plectranthus called silver shield. It is a beautiful silver branch that looks a lot like dusty miller.

    That whole section over there is eucalyptus parvifolia and we just put in the baby blue. They are perennial here in California so we can just keep them tidy from year to year.” 

    Eucalyptus foliage growing in a row with wooden sign. Rows of foliage and flowers visible in the background. 

    Is there anything you are doing on the farm now that surprised you?

    “The amount of weeding! Personally I never thought I could do so much outdoor gardening. This year though we put in over 2,000 dahlias and that almost broke my back. I never would have thought that I would ever get to that level. It has given me so much appreciation for where our food and our flowers come from. It takes a village to be able to grow and harvest and sell something that it is so easy to take for granted at the grocery store.” 

    The importance of small scale local flowers

    Do you think that people do not realize where those grocery store flowers come from and as such don’t recognize the value of locally grown?

    “I think unfortunately it is considered a luxury item because it (cut flowers) only lasts two or three days in a vase if you buy flowers from a grocery store. I compared my tulips with grocery store tulips from Whole Foods and mine stayed upright for two weeks. In comparison the ones from the store start bending and bowing down then back up. I thought all tulips did that and why would you buy tulips if they all start looking so weird. But that only happens with imported tulips because they are already a week or two old when you get them from the store. 

    There are a small number of florists who now understand and appreciate that so they will buy local.

    Now at the Farmers market we have people who will come to us two weeks later and say I just threw away your flowers so the bouquet is lasting 14 days.” 

    How is a U-Pick flower farm different from a cut flower farm?

    What advice would you give to someone who wants to add a U-Pick component to their farm?

    “From speaking to other flower farmers, I think a lot of people are afraid of letting others pick their flowers because they are worried they will do it wrong. But from my experience customers are even more careful than I would be. If a dahlia has three flowers, the main stem and two side shoots, people will only pick the main one even if it is only five inches long. So I would say if farmers are afraid of that don’t let it deter you. Because more often than not people will not cut and damage your flower bushes ever. 

    I think doing the U-Pick is much more labor intensive just because it is agro tourism. You have to always be conscious of how pretty your rows are and be constantly weeding or have another method of weed containment.” 

    I feel society is definitely starting to realize more that there is a really deep value in having flowers in the home. A value that maybe those of us who didn't grow up having them in the home didn't really realize. 

    “Yeah I always thought of flowers as a waste of money. My mom would always say, 'Don’t buy me cut flowers because they are just going to die. Buy me plants instead.' So I grew up with that mentality and always preferred plants over flowers because they would last. But now that I am growing flowers I feel different. Maybe it is the power of walking amongst how different and unique each flower is. How healing it can be. Everything put together.

    Last week we had a woman who enjoyed herself so much last year that she asked for a picnic here for Mother’s Day. I explained to her husband, who was trying to surprise her, that we didn't have a lot of flowers on Mother's Day and that perhaps it might be better to wait until July. So they waited until July and she came last week with her two daughters. They just had a picnic by themselves and they picked a bouquet each. She came and thanked me afterwards and said that it was the best Mother's Day present ever because her daughter actually shared with her that she was pregnant. So it was something that they would remember for the rest of their lives. It is a memory creating process that people will think fondly of. It is more about creating memories and the flowers are facilitating that. Because I don’t think you can do the same with fruit. I have not heard these amazing inspirational stories from people who go pick cherries.” 

    Written by:  Emily Gaines, Little Rainbow Farm

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