Most often, complaints I read from flower farmers focus on the agony of the wait and capital usurpation required for slow maturing perennials like Peonies or fall planted bulbs like Daffodils. They state a strong preference for annuals.
I am, as is often the case, the opposite of that norm: "I have to carefully tend this bare patch of dirt for three years before I harvest a single flower? Sign me up!" The longer the wait to maturity, the more interested and invested I am. Which is why I have never seeded annual flowers. (Eeeek! It's true, never.) However, for 2022 we are taking stock of what we have and what we need to be successful.
We are as constrained as any other new farm and the decision to put 3-5 acres of expensive roots into the ground at once will eat every ounce of capital we have and hang on to it for 3 years. It's an approach not feasible for many.
The USDA Farm Service Agency offers operating loans to cover costs for new farmers which are invaluable and the route we took (A helpful approach for many small farms starting out or expanding). Even so, sitting on a loan without a harvest is a scary struggle. Producing Daffodils and Tulips to help cover annual operating costs was a given since I've had success with them, but we need to do more in 2022. Which leads me back to annuals (which I know nothing about.)
Pictured below are Dianthus Chabaud La France seeds, one of the first annual flowers we will try to produce commercially. Starting annuals with as little capital as possible means using the ambient heat in our house, a small high tunnel, and extra field space. Our downstairs and garage are rapidly filling up with seedlings.
The benefit of going in big with our peony farm is that it leaves me with time and land, if short on capital. Time I can fill with learning about annuals and the best markets for them. There are many to choose from and my familiarity was non-existent, so the easiest decision for me was what NOT to plant.
Sunflowers, a much-lauded and valuable annual crop that has easily-accessed markets, will never be grown at our farm. Our child has a sunflower allergy and we know that specific allergy is increasing in the population and extremely difficult to mitigate. You won't see them in our fields, store, or site. While it's a rare allergy, it's also one that lacks legislative controls and spaces free of protein-filled dust. By not growing it, people like our kiddo can walk up and smell the amazing spicy Stock and Snaps, or visit the farm to pick flowers and see our post-harvest facility without concern of cross contamination or a reaction to dust residue. Have a bridal party with a severe allergy? We've got flowers for you.
Dahlias, a perennial that is often grown or sold as an annual or lifted and stored during winter, is another one Vashon Peony Co. won't have available. Dahlias are a fantastic crop that the PNW does spectacularly well and should be a no-brainer, but I'm not passionate enough about them. I am passionate about the farms on Vashon that do an incredible job growing them. Handpicked Homestead creates artful bouquets from their gorgeous Dahlia rows. You can purchase their flowers at a couple Vashon Island Farm Stands or follow their Instagram for photos of their beautiful farm. (I can't wait to hopefully snag a few tubers for my garden when they sell locally this summer.)
Which annuals to grow actually turned out to be a quick decision. I focused on: A) Ones which went with peonies in timing and could be sold as mixed bouquets to grocers or florists to meet market demand; and B) Peony-esque flowers because that's what I love. (In order to pour obsessively over blogs and books on each tiny seed cultivar, I need to be really wowed by the future potential of the plant. Especially since they will be occupying all the space my vegetable starts normally would!)
Stock is the annual I was most excited to try. After just 3 days, the first succession germinated, forcing me to reckon with the heartache that is trying to select for doubles. I'll spend the next months staring at seedlings, begging them not to damp off.
Poppies will take up significant space and time as we sear ends to prolong the short-lived cut flowers, but I can't imagine doing annuals without them. We have Icelandic, Shirley, and Breadseed varieties, most will be for special events or poppy pod decorations. I cannot wait to see rows and rows of bright crepe and peony-esque blooms covered in delighted bees and butterflies this spring.
Dianthus is a must here too if we are doing annuals. Not just to meet demand, but because I love Dianthus Green Trick. I am still chasing my favorite flowers from our wedding and this tops the list with its memorable texture. I have struggled for years and finally found just a few beleaguered plugs available from overseas last year. This year we will have more Green Trick plugs (can't be grown from seed), but still very few plants and not enough to sell until next year. However, we will have other Sweet Williams and three varieties of Chabaud Carnations available.
The remaining seeds I am planting this year are mostly to see what does and doesn't do well under my care, what I enjoy, and what flowers florists and others are looking for. These include: Ranunculus, Lisianthus, Snapdragons, Sweet Peas, Zinnia, Gomphrena, Bupleurium, Eryngium, Nigella, Orlaya, and Baby's Breath. Whether they will return to our offerings in subsequent years is not certain.
Happy planting and please share your January seed starting efforts and tips below! Here are some of the seed sources I used this year if you are looking for your own annuals: