We plant our bulbs in one of two ways: in the ground or in bulb crates. Sounds simple, but figuring out the right equipment to use and density to plant took some trial and error. Planting bulbs in crates in a covered structure, whether heated or not, allows for season extension without taking up valuable bed space in the greenhouse. Also, throughout the season it allows for more closely monitored growing conditions than planting them outdoors, producing higher-quality blooms. However, planting bulbs in the ground is a lot cheaper than planting them in crates when you consider the cost of soil, the extra labor, and the overhead costs associated with using covered space.
All of our lilies are treated as annuals, and come to us prechilled so we can have them blooming throughout the season. We used to leave them in the ground to perennialize, but they would all bloom at once the second year. We found ourselves buried in lilies one week, with none to sell the next. In a perennial bed, they were also a prime host for bindweed and thistle coming up through the mulch we put down, especially in the early years of us breaking the ground and prepping the soil. We decided we wanted a lily in every wholesale and market bouquet, and as the bouquet business grew, we knew scheduling prechilled bulbs was the way to go. We have found we like the LA (Longiflorum-Asiatic) lilies more than the Asiatic as the buds are larger and more succulent. Some of them even have a slight scent. Trebbiano, shown at left, is our favorite variety.
As our production of bulbs expanded, we knew there had to be an efficient method of planting them in the field. We decided to make a furrower using the toolbar of what used to be a pull-behind cultivator (we also use this for cultivating the tire tracks - see my article in January 2014 issue of Growing for Market). With wider sweeps and by dropping the bar deeper into the soil, we could furrow multiple rows at a time. Since almost everything else on the farm was being planted 4 rows per bed, we first tried 4 rows of lilies. The two middle rows ended up being difficult to keep separate because the furrowed moved so much soil. We also put two rows of bulbs in each furrow to try to increase density, but we found that the planting was too dense, resulting in bud abortion. Instead, we now plant 3 rows per bed, with a single row of lilies per furrow.
We plant LA lilies outside from week 17-27. One person unpacks the lilies and drops them into the three rows evenly, creating a block of each variety. Two people follow behind planting. The outside rows are planted first so that you can cover them before planting the middle row. We use our forearms to move the soil around as we go down the row. Every other week we get a shipment of LA lilies in and we can fly through planting with this method. Since lilies root from the new stem at the top of the bulb, you just have to make sure they are deep enough. Lilies in the field don’t get netted and we don’t seem to have issues with them falling over. We do put up an electric fence around them to protectfrom being deer candy.
Top, Steve Adams makes furrows with a farm-built tool. Above, crates of bulbs are moved down the row with the front-end loader as workers drop them into the furrows.
When the LA lilies can’t be grown outside, we plant in crates. We plant 25 per crate, which is more than what the bulb guys recommend, but we’ve found that density does not seem to affect quality. They need to be as deep as possible in the crates, so require the deeper crates. We put just a couple inches of soil on the bottom, lay out the bulbs, and then fill the crates with soil all the way to the handles. We also grow Oriental lilies and OTs (Oriental-Trumpet hybrid), which are the big fragrant types like CrystalBlanca or Shocking. We were having problems with quality outdoors, so we decided to always plant Orientals in crates in covered space. This allows for better moisture control because they can get water only when they need it, decreasing the chances of botrytis. The crates are set up on drip irrigation, so the leaves aren’t getting wet to harbor disease either. We choose to use the 16/18 bulbs because anything larger gives us lilies that are too big for our florists’ daily use.
Our Oriental lilies are sold to florists and are bunched for grocery stores, with a couple buckets a week used for the farmers market in our deluxe bouquets or sold as bunches. Our LA lilies are mainly used in bouquets for grocery stores and farmers market, with any overflow being sold to florists. Having a lily in each bouquet means there is something that is going to last through the week even after flowers with a shorter vase life, like zinnias, have faded. We harvest our lilies tight, just as the first bud is about to crack, which means the bouquet also changes through the week as the buds continue to open. Lilies are a high-dollar input crop, but they are definitely profitable and worth the money, especially if you are producing nice blooms efficiently.
All of our dahlias are planted in the field, and after planting 2,000 tubers with a posthole digger in 2013, we knew we needed to mechanize. We use the furrower described above, taking off the middle sweep to make only two furrows per bed. This year we plan to improve that so the rows are set to the spacing of our cultivating tractor to decrease hand weeding. After the furrows are dug, we lay out a long measuring tape so we can see every 18” in row. All of our dahlias are divided in the fall so we can sell tubers throughout the winter, but also so they are ready for planting as soon as the soil is ready. We don’t have time to divide in the spring when it’s planting season.
Moving crates of dahlia tubers up and down the rows was another task that was back-breaking, so we decided to get some double tractor action going and use the front end loader to carry the crates down the rows. One person drives the tractor while two people place the tubers in the furrows. Someone else follows behind with a rake and moves the soil to cover the tubers. By the end, Steve and I were riding in the bucket to place the tubers in the furrows and just having the driver go as slow as possible for proper placement. It was so much faster than digging all those holes and lugging all those crates around!
A new planting of dahlias in early summer, above, and in full bloom, below.
We harvest our dahlias pretty hard, with long stems, so the plants don’t grow to be as bushy. For that reason, this year we are going to try planting them every 12” in row. In a 150’ bed, that means we can fit 300 dahlias per row. We also plan to use a chain harrow for covering the tubers rather than the rake, so hopefully that will also increase planting speed.
Gretel and Steve Adams own Sunny Meadows Flower Farm in Columbus, Ohio.