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Subarctic flower farming at Boreal Blooms

publication date: Jan 1, 2020

By Jane Tanner

Farming in any location is challenging. Imagine the challenge of growing crops at latitude 54.5° where winter temperatures hit minus 40° Celsius (minus 40° Fahrenheit) and a mere 100-day growing season can be abbreviated with a large dump of snow at the beginning of September. Meanwhile during the spring, Chinook winds blow and the high latitude’s strong sun alters flowers’ growing cycles.

Undaunted, Heather Henson is a specialty cut flower grower in Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada. Her farm, Boreal Blooms, is in Canadian hardiness zone 3A, equivalent to USDA zone 2A. She starts seeds as early as Christmas to take advantage of the short season and makes use of layers of frost cloths and hoop houses to keep sub-freezing temps away from the plants. Henson embraces dried flowers to have local flowers into December, growing 60 types flowers for drying. She promotes them heavily, including dried flower bride’s bouquets.

Dedicated to sustainable practices, she only provides flowers grown locally. A weaker supply chain in Canada makes it difficult to completely source seeds, plugs, bulbs and corms in-country. Canada and the United States create hardiness maps using different criteria. Generally, Canadians add one zone to the USDA zones listed on seed packs or plug descriptions.

If all these difficulties weren’t enough, Henson also is converting a heavily tilled area into no-till, dealing with hardpan from topsoil erosion and mustard and oat seeds blowing in from abutting plots. She is demonstrating what can and cannot be done to current and would-be flower farmers facing similar conditions.

Heather Henson working at Boreal Blooms with her daughters. Photo by Kahla Kristen Photography.

 

The local flower farm movement is young in her region, but growing. She helped create a Canadian Prairie Flowers group on Facebook for farmers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. “We have more in common with people in Montana than in Ontario,” she said.

When Erin Benzakein at Floret started online flower farming courses a few years ago, making it possible for growers to participate from afar, Henson started fielding more questions and requests to visit Boreal Blooms from people in her region. Henson and Clara Qualizza of Meadow & Thicket Farm Flowers in Wildwood, Alberta, launched The Sustainable Flowers podcast in February to share their experiences along with knowledge from guest experts. “It’s a way to reach new growers and shepherd them toward sustainable solutions,” Henson said.

Henson, a doula who cut back on births as flowers took over her life, is in her sixth season on a leased half-acre. In addition to annuals and perennials on the leased farm, she grows peonies, Martagon lilies and other flowers in her home garden and plans to create a separate dedicated area for woodies and perennials such as lilacs, ninebark, and hydrangea paniculata (which does well in Alberta while many other hydrangeas do not). Her two teenage daughters farm with her while her husband and 20-year-old son pitch in with infrastructure and heavy lifting. Her 9-year-old son waters indoor plants.

In the subarctic, Boreal forested eastern edge of Alberta where Henson farms, winters hit minus 40˚ C (minus 40˚ F) for a week or two in January and February. During the same months there may be five straight weeks where daytime highs don’t crest minus 30° C (minus 22° F).

This wreath and the bouquet (next photo) are examples of Henson’s extensive use of dried flowers. Both photos courtesy of Heather Henson.

 

Within the 100-day fresh flower season, summers are cool and frosts are early. So, she starts seeding — some 160 cultivars and varieties — in January or earlier. Lisianthus, for instance, are frost hardy, but slow down when weather turns cold. Among that and other flowers she seeds early is stock, snapdragons, poppies and short-lived perennials that take a long time to bloom, such as tweedia (Oxypetalum caeruleum) and eucalyptus.

For seeding, her basement is set up with 21 shelves and grow lights on two ballasts. Each shelf can hold 16 10x20 trays, but mostly she uses 300- or 288-plant mini soil blocks to save soil and space and bumps them up to 1.5 inch blocks as the season gets closer. A small greenhouse serves as an intermediary space before plants go in the ground.

A 12x20-square-foot shed in her backyard serves as half design studio and half CoolBot cooler, where in the winter she sprouts ranunculus and anemones at 10°C (50°F) for about two weeks. The corms start in her garage which for a period maintains about 10°C.

Sourcing seeds, plugs, bulbs and corms is harder in Canada with fewer suppliers spread out around the country. Lovely palates of colors and prized cultivars may only be available through international shipping. With only a few lisianthus plug colors available, Henson instead starts them from seed to minimize the environmental footprint and maximize her choices.

For ranunculus, only an “ugly mixed bag” is available at Henson’s local hardware store. While giant greenhouse growers could import thousands and thousands of sought-after cultivars of ranunculus and anemones, smaller farms were left out.

That is, until two years ago when Louise Warner stepped in and started Unicorn Blooms in Ontario. Warner handles the importation hassles and brings in Italian ranunculus and Mistral anemone corms, Colibri Icelandic Poppy and specialty Sweet Pea seeds and Dahlia tubers among others. Unicorn Blooms then distributes to small flower farms across Canada. In another example of an improving supply chain, previously Henson couldn’t find soil block makers in Canada, but now has a source in British Columbia.

In April, plants such as eucalyptus, lisianthus, ranunculus, anemones, poppies, snapdragons and stock are moved into one of her two unheated 12x80 hoophouses where they’ll wait until early May to go into the field. The other hoophouse is filled with dahlias that thrive during the cool nights. “My customers love the dahlias,” she said.

Spring weather is challenging. “There are weird Chinook winds and warm days take away the snow cover and then you get hit with minus 10° C (14˚ F) again and everything dies,” she said. May cold temperatures may have her running heaters all day in the greenhouse and the cold and wind make it uncomfortable to work outside.

One day in May when a forecast called for minus 6˚ C (21.2˚ F) with the windchill, she covered the cold hardy perennials in her house garden with a frost cloth and put two layers of frost cloth on the flowers in the hoop house, adding straw around the perimeter to cover gaps where freezing air could enter.

The strong spring sun at latitude 54.5° North forces her to make adaptions. “The intense sun stunts flowers like tulips, daffodils, ranunculus and anemones that prefer shorter days,” she said.

Ranunculus, for example, thrive best on nine hours of daylight while her area gets 17 hours in the spring. Henson successfully uses shade cloth to blunt the sun’s effects and lengthen the stems. The longer day length reduces the bloom periods of each spring succession to two to three weeks as opposed to six-week bloom periods in other zones.

Rejecting imported flowers, Boreal Blooms can’t count on the financial boosts from big flower holidays in the first part of the year. “I never had enough flowers for a bouquet on Mother’s Day, that’s how we roll in Alberta,” Henson said in her podcast. She must get tulip bulbs (about 2000 in a hoophouse) in the ground by Halloween because there would be problems if the ground freezes. She hopes to have them for Mother’s Day but it doesn’t always work out.  

At the northern latitude, flowers don’t grow as tall. Rather than four-to-five feet tall zinnias, for instance, at Cold Lake, they’re 18 inches to two feet. If dahlias grow to four feet it is a tall dahlia. “We don’t have to stake them so much,” Henson said. “Everything is Alberta sized, but it only has to grow big enough for bouquets.”

At the end of April, Henson plants a succession of lilies and will transplant an early succession of sunflowers on May 1, but generally she waits until June 1 to put the other flowers in the ground. July 1 is the cut off for putting anything in the ground even though there still could be warm sunny days in September. “The power of sun and length of sun, slows things down to a crawl,” Henson says. “I had to learn to adapt all seed package recommendations to my specific area.”

Her four-week Spring CSA bouquet subscription includes spring bulb flowers such as tulips and narcissus and flowering branches such as aquilegia and alchemilla. The six weeks of prime season peaks in August when everything blooms in an onslaught. Her summer CSA bouquet subscription starts in mid-July and ends Labor Day weekend.

One option is a sunflower-based bouquet mixed with other flowers including delphinium spikes, caster bean foliage, millet, amaranth, atriplex, zinnia, rudbeckia and perennials such as Baptisia, Thalictrum, Filipendula vulgaris Plena, Astrantia major and Helenium puberulum. A higher-end bouquet in a Mason jar may include lilies, dahlias, ranunculus and other popular flowers.

Among her favorite dahlia cultivars are Linda’s Baby, Preference, Islander, Terracotta, Breakout. Favorite ranunculus include Italian Ranunculus Cloni Success Fragolino and Elegance Salmon and she loves the Pastel Mix Galilee Anemones from Yodfat.

July into August was unusually wet, which meant less sun and cooler temperatures and that delayed some of the blooms. While the ground outside was saturated, plants in the hoop houses needed water. Rainfall is directed from gutters along one of the hoop houses into rain barrels and a small battery pump moves the water through hoses into the hoop house.

A more erratic climate, which this summer brought cooler temperatures early, has Henson making adaptations. She decided to invest $1,500 in another 80-foot Farmers Friend caterpillar tunnel with a substantial 11m polythene cover. “I need more shelters,” she said. The new tunnel will allow her to predictably grow more temperature-tender flowers like marigolds and zinnias and give her fresh flowers into September, extending her bouquet CSA.

One of Henson’s daughters working on Boreal Blooms. Photo by Kahla Kristen Photography.

 

The typical cascade of August flowers aren’t all absorbed by her floral CSA, weekly markets, florist clients and weddings, so, Henson sends out social media blasts and sets up pop-up shops in at a local cafe and health food store to sell flowers every day of the week in August. This year was very unusual; the first hard frost didn’t come until October 9, instead of early in September, so, the bouquet CSA was extended and they were able to harvest more flowers.

August and September are popular for weddings in Alberta. “I don’t take weddings after mid-September because I probably won’t have flowers,” Henson said. “I would totally take a bride if she wanted an all dried flower wedding.”

Henson is doing her part to fuel a dried flower resurgence. “As I started to farm, I realized I had zero product for eight months of the year and I couldn’t make a business of this,” she said. So, initially she grew a lot of larkspur which loves the cold and was part of the dried flower craze of the 80s.

She posted dried larkspur bouquets on social media and got lots of positive feedback. She found an extensive list of flowers that dry well. “Things that blew my mind such as peonies and sunflowers which turned out so beautiful,” Henson said. Among the other 60 flowers and plants she grows for drying are gomphrena, strawflower, wheat, amaranthus, atriplex and lisianthus.

Her confidence in dried flowers grew when in fall 2018 she held a dried flowers-only farmers market and sold out of bouquets and wreaths. Last year, Boreal Blooms revved up the dried flower side of things, dedicating one quarter of the crops to flowers to dry. A wood burning stove in the basement warms it up and keeps out humidity for drying.

She hosts workshops on making dried flower wreaths and creates Christmas ornaments in glass balls, putting in what would otherwise be tossed, such as flower heads when stems break, petals and nigella seed pods. She finishes off the ornaments with a hanger made of dyed silk ribbon from Ninebark Farm in Vancouver, the same ribbon used in the wreaths.

She directs customers to compost the dried arrangements and wreaths, including the willow base. The flowers are tied on with hemp string and no glue. Ideally, she doesn’t want to use any wire, but if some is used for final elements, she asks people to recycle the wire. Boreal Blooms also creates and sells hand salves made from beeswax from a friend’s hives and oils steeped in the calendula, lavender and white sage she grows.

Talking with Henson and listening to the podcast, it’s clear that the additional hurdles of growing in her climate and conditions can wear on her. Yet clearly, she’s smart, hardworking and determined and is bringing lovely local flowers to her community and teaching other flower farmers along the way.

For more on dried flowers, see the cover story in the October 2019 GFM- “Dried flowers are back.”

Jane Tanner grew cut flowers and specialty crops at Windcrest Farm and Commonwealth Farms in North Carolina, and helped manage the biodynamic gardens at Spikenard Farm in Virginia.



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