By Erin Benzakein
For me, fall is always one of the hardest seasons, both physically and emotionally. By midsummer I begin to long for cool, short days and the closing of another flower year. But while I am tempted to slip into resignation and quit planting when the sight of seedlings makes me want to cry, I’ve learned that pushing through the burnout will bring the season to a strong finish.
By stocking the garden and hoophouse with plenty of fall-timed material, taking time to dry and store ingredients for wreaths and Thanksgiving centerpieces, and tucking a plot of winter squash somewhere on the property, I have been able to extend our sales window significantly and stick a little more cash in the bank before winter sets in.
Last year, after struggling again to fill all of our fall bouquet orders, I planted another big batch of perennials and shrubs to fill the gap. Mid September through the first frost we should be cutting:
Rosehips (all 5 Fruitilia varieties from Kordes)
Hydrangeas, Crabapples, and Birch catkins
Miscanthus and Northern Sea Oats
Sedums (Autumn Fire, Autumn Joy, Postman’s Pride, Neon and Matrona)
Heptacodium, Ninebark (Coppertina, Summer Wine and Diablo), Viburnum Blue Muffin foliage, Snowberries, Caryopteris;
Fall Asters (my favorites are Lady in Black and Snowbank)
Dusty Miller, Chinese Lanterns, Sweet Annie, Rudbeckia (Chim Chiminee, Indian Summer, Denver Daisy and Cherokee Sunset), Fennel and Monkshood.
As the days shorten and get colder, we go from cutting most annuals every other day to just once a week. I remind myself of this and try to plant huge rows midsummer to make up for the slowed blooming of fall. Millets, Amaranth, Rudbeckia, Grasses, Broom Corn, Strawflowers, Basil, Statice, Scented Geraniums, Marigolds, Zinnias, Sweet Annie, Sunflowers, Cabbages, and Dahlias all ensure we have plenty of bulk to fill our orders.
This year the hoophouse is also full of wonderful treats timed to peak late September on through October. I planted about 1,600 lilies in crates (Shocking, Brunello, Menorca, Pisa and Wizard); Celosia,; Ornamental Peppers (On-Top orange and red); and Mums (a great mix of ‘Pennine’ spray chrysanthemums from King’s Mums). During summer, if I can find the time, I also dry a few elements which we’ll pull out later and use in holiday centerpieces.
Having a nice stock of material reduces the amount I have to buy from the wholesaler and helps tie the garden back into our bouquets even when the field is bare. My favorite plants for drying are: Wheat, Poppy pods, Nigella pods, Gomphrena (orange and strawberry), Strawflowers, Statice (Sunset mix), Chiles, Sunflowers, Atriplex, Broomcorn, and Cardoons.
For the past few years I’ve also grown heirloom winter squash and gourds to round out our fall offerings. These amazing little creatures can become VERY addicting. After poring over Amy Goldman’s book The Compleat Squash that first winter, I accumulated a wish list of over 45 varieties! I am a sucker for “trials” and put in a huge test plot, nearly all of which turned out to be great.
My top favorites are: Triamble, Chirimen, Futsu, Marina di Chioggia, Jaune Gros de Paris, Jarrahdale, and Winter Luxury Pie Pumpkin. Winter squash need to be cured properly by washing gently with a 10% bleach solution and left to rest for two to three weeks in a warm, well ventilated area. Then they can be stored and sold from early October through Thanksgiving. This bit of added cash flow is wonderful when there is little in the field. Many of my customers buy them purely for decoration.
With a well-stocked garden I am able to steadily deliver bouquets and bunches right up to the first hard frost (mid October here in western Washington). After the fields have been wiped out, we regroup, sell off the last of the hoophouse crops and move into wreath and squash sales until Halloween.
Fall harvest wreaths
Back in 2007 I wrote about the unexpected success my friend Nina had using the leftover scraps from her garden to create rustic fall wreaths. She has continued this tradition and now has a very loyal following of customers. I have dabbled a little in fall wreaths but each season end up selling most of my ingredients (broom corn, millet, hydrangeas, sweet annie, sunflowers etc.) in bouquets and never have enough surplus to actually go whole hog with the venture.
I can already see that most of this year’s wreath crop will probably have to go into bouquets again since we have so many new customers and I predictably didn’t plant enough. Next season I plan to devote a huge section of our field solely to wreath material and then plant extra to ensure I don’t dip into the supply. I hope then I’ll have enough for both! Prices for wreaths range from $30 to $65 at the farmers market and $45 to $75 to retail city clients, depending on size.
Keep it going all fall
Thanksgiving is another wonderful opportunity to bring in a nice chunk of fall cash. For us, orders usually don’t start rolling in until mid November. Most customers are so distracted by planning, drama and out-of-town guests that they completely forget about flowers until just days before.
After a few years of having to scrape to fill all of the last-minute requests, I now order plenty of backup flowers from my wholesaler. Between what I dried during the summer, rosehips, twigs, greens and branches from the hedgerow and a few days spent foraging in nearby ditches and forests, I am usually able to supply about 70% of the material for our table centerpieces.
I do routinely purchase focal flowers for these arrangements since I never have enough high-quality blooms left in the hoophouse. Spray Roses, Garden Roses and Mums all look great mixed with elements from the garden. On average, our customers spend around $65 on a centerpiece.
After a long season it’s so easy to want to throw in the towel as frost nears. But with some extra planting a little foraging and a healthy dose of perseverance, there are opportunities to finish the season out strong and with extra money in the bank.
Erin Benzakein runs Floret, a small organic flower farm in Washington state; www.floretflowers.com