~ A 6th Generation Flower Farm ~

8664 360th Street – St. Joseph, MN

Podcast Episode 05

How to Decide What to Plant and Where – Part 1

Hello and welcome to the Sunny Mary Meadow Podcast/Blog. Once again, thanks for being here. This episode is going to be a fun one! We’re going to talk about what the heck did I do when I finally had to start planning my garden. It’s kind of actually where I’m at in the season right now. We’re recording this in early February, so everything is ordered. I know exactly what inventory I have because it’s either already arrived or will be coming soon. So, this is part one of how I decide what to plant where. This episode is actually going to be in two parts.

In this episode, we will talk about taking inventory – dividing it into categories of plugs, seeds to start in trays, and direct seeds. Also, making a list of everything I ordered and then coming up with a calendar of when I need to plant it. That’s the initial step to knowing which garden beds to have ready; therefore, we will discuss how I get into that. Then, later in this episode, I’m going to give you a little insight into what happened on my farm last year and why it was such a disaster when this huge storm came through and completely ruined all my plans. I’m hoping to reassure you that even though it was a disaster in every sense of the word, it still worked out fine.

That’s the other thing I want you to focus on – you can plan as much as you want, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way, and how to roll with the punches. This episode/post will start with dividing it into categories and then deciding when I plant what. And then, in the next episode, we will decide where. So, I will be talking about notes on each flower …

  • Is it cold hardy?
  • Does it need to be planted after the last frost?
  • What’s the spacing?
  • What’s the bloom time?
  • What’s the water requirements?
  • What are the light requirements?
  • What are the harvest requirements?
  • Whether it will be “you pick” or not, etc.

Once I have that information, I have three growing spaces here at the farm, and answering those questions is how I decide what to plant where.  So, getting into this episode/post, the first thing that I do is take an inventory of everything that I have. Essentially, I bought all of my seeds from two different spots/two different websites, and I already have all of the seeds. I bought plugs from Farmer Bailey’s, and I’m really excited about what that will mean for the farm.

I start by making a list of everything I have – the plugs are all in one list, and the seeds are in two lists. With the seeds, I decide what I need to start in seed trays and what I need to direct-seed.  Once I have that information, I can get it in order – starting with the plugs, and I have three different ship dates. I ordered a bunch of Delphiniums and some other really cold-hardy perennials that are arriving in mid-April. They’ll be able to get thrown into the ground as soon as the ground can be worked. When these plugs arrive, I know that I will need to “harden them off” – essentially to get them used to the cold, get them used to the wind, etc. You don’t just throw them in the ground the day you get them, or they’ll probably die. So, you get them and let them sit in the shade in the wind for a little while, then the next day you give them a few more hours and then a few hours of sun, then maybe the next day they’re outside in the sun. You do this gradually, and you just keep an eye on them. Ideally, you take about a week to do this – bring them in at night and let them rest.

Some of my Lisianthus and Snapdragons, which are more cold-hardy plants, are going to come about May 1st (remember, my last frost date here is around May 15th), so they’re going to come about two weeks before the last frost. And then the rest of my plants (plugs) are coming May 8th, even though I know I can’t probably plant them until about May 15th. I have a Google spreadsheet, and I spread them out that way. So that way, I can be like, “for the plugs, yep, I know what day they’re coming, and I have an inventory of it. That’s all I need to know for that because I can’t plant them any earlier than when they’re coming.” I also ordered a TON of Eucalyptus – Silver Dollar and Baby Blue – but I have those coming May 15th because I’m hoping by the time they’re ready to get planted, I’ll have a lot of my other stuff finished. I’ve got some ideas for experimenting with those, so I want them to come about a week later than the rest. So, that’s how I divided up my plugs without them all arriving at once. Now onto seed-starting – I divided them into two different categories: 1) starting in trays or 2) direct-seed. The earliest I’m starting any of those will be mid-March. I know I had said April 1st is usually my cutoff for starting seeds, but actually, it will be in mid-March because that’s when I’m going to start my Stock. Stock is pretty similar looking to Snapdragons, as they are cold-hardy annuals.

With these, you need to think, “When will these need to be planted?” I will start my Statice, Celosia, Delphinium, Strawflower, Yarrow, Stock, Blue Glitter, and Gomphrena in trays. None of them take longer than six weeks, except for the Stock, so that’s about eight weeks. I shouldn’t say that’s it … it probably takes about six weeks, but you can transplant them much earlier than May 15th. I think I transplanted them around April 25th, and they did excellent. Depending on how long they need to be started before transplanting, sometimes it is more than six weeks before the last frost, if that makes sense. Essentially, I don’t want to be responsible for keeping them alive in trays for more than six weeks. That was how I decided what was worth ordering plugs for vs. starting on my own.

Now let’s talk about what is direct-seeded – Scabiosa, Cosmos, Dara, Orlaya, Nigella, Amaranth – I put that all in a different tab on my spreadsheet. I put the number of seeds I have so I can relatively know the spacing, the plant date, and then I put notes next to it and where to plant. I do the same thing with my Celosia and other started seeds – just trying to keep that all organized. That’s the very first step when you’re making this calendar of trying to decide when to plant them. At least then you can divide it up … like “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” In the next episode/post, we will discuss everything else: where to plant it; is it cold-hardy? Does it need spacing? Does it need shade? Does it need sun? Etc.

What happens when all your plans go wrong…

Now I’m going to switch gears – what I want to talk about the rest of this episode is what happened to me last spring when my best-laid plans went wrong, and guess what? It still worked out fine. So picture this … we’re entering season 3. I had a brand new growing space; I expanded; I had all of my seeds ordered, and I had TRIPLE the amount of subscriptions from the year before. I am so excited! I’m ready to go. I also have a six-month-old baby, my other daughter is 4 ½, and my husband had passed away the December before that.  In 2016, Josh and I moved out into the farmhouse that was built in 1888. It was not in great shape, but nobody else in the family wanted to live in it … we’ll put it that way. His one sister was like, “I am shocked that you guys are going to live in the house.” We really didn’t have a choice, if we wanted to buy the farm, then we had to buy the house. We had to live in it for a while because we could not afford just to build new right away. The plan was to build new within five to ten years and just go from there. When he passed away, it was like … the heating bill was ridiculous. I didn’t realize how much work he did on the house while he was alive, and if we didn’t have space heaters on in the bedrooms, they’d get down into the low 40s. Literally, my daughters’ bedrooms were like 43° one day when it was super cold out. We had humidifiers going, and the electric bill and the heating bill were well over $500 each per month, and it was just insane. So, I decided to move forward, and we were going to build the house that Josh and I had planned on.

I had a contractor, and we tore down the house on April 1st. I was seeing my now fiancé at the time, and he actually bought a camper for us to live in. The plan was that we were going to move into the camper around mid-May after we had gotten water lines dug down to the shop. We were going to housesit for about a month for some friends of ours that were going to be gone, so I had the garden all planned months before any of this was going down. I planted my cold-hardy annuals around April 20th, and then I had a rough idea of where everything else was going to go in rows, knew what we had to plant around the last frost (May 15th), and I even planned ahead so much that from May 10th through May 20th, I took seven days of PTO. I was only going to work a couple of days during the whole month of May. I had been saving up those vacation days from job one to work on job two. I thought, “Yep, this is going to be great. It’s going to be relaxing in the sunshine and is going to be beautiful.”

All of a sudden, on May 12th, this enormous storm came through and absolutely destroyed all of our plans. We had a temporary well for our water – that got flooded, so all this dirt got in there. We literally didn’t have drinking water, and we couldn’t shower. That had to be completely cleaned out. And again, we were trying to stay in this camper. Then some sand got in the lines and clogged all the water lines in the shed, so Brent had to take those apart completely. And I think we had almost 20 mature pine trees just drop where the garden was. They dropped on where our Peonies were. They dropped on where we were supposed to be tilling, and we had a couple of 100-year-old white pines that were over 100 feet tall drop in the middle of the yard. I can’t even explain how much of a mess that was to clean up.

In the main shed where I stored my Dahlias, I had over 180 Dahlias potted up. The window broke during the storm, and 90 mph straight-line winds destroyed the room. It crashed in, and all of those Dahlias were just on the ground – some of them I lost, some of them I was able to salvage, but they weren’t individually labeled (I had just labeled each shelf). The Dahlias were now completely mixed together. My seed trays were completely destroyed – everything that I had started from seeds. The roof of our main barn, where all of our stuff from the house was stored (boxes and furniture), blew off, so we had a huge insurance claim.

My fiancé (boyfriend at the time) had bought me this really cute 1965 International truck to take pictures in the truck bed for the flowers, and a building flipped over on top of it and completely bent up the bed of the truck. We had brown water coming out of the faucet because it was muddy, and I just wanted to be able to take a shower.

Again, it was May 12th. I had to get my garden planted, and I literally sent out my email newsletter to 1,500 people at the time, where I said what was going on. I explained, “We’re fine, I know when you drive by the farm, it looks really bad, but we’re fine. The camper is fine. We’re going to be gradually cleaning up. Stay tuned because I don’t know if we’re going to have a season.” I told subscription holders to “Stay tuned because I might be refunding you all. I don’t know that we’re going to be able to get the field planted because we have all these trees to clean up, and I just don’t even know what to do right now. If we don’t get planted in the next couple of weeks, it’s not going to happen…”

What I didn’t expect was this overwhelming response of people saying, “I’ll come help,” “I’m retired, I’ll come,” and people just showed up in waves. They asked, “Where can we go? What do we do?” I told them where the landscape fabric was; I was handing out seed packets, etc., and we got everything planted in two days. When all was said and done, it was actually really laughable because I had this plan of having all my Dahlias color-coded, and it was an absolute rainbow. There was nothing in order – all the tubers got mixed up, and there was half a row of Celosia, half a row of Statice, and half a row of Zinnias, and half a row of Amaranth. Then the next row was a different kind of Amaranth. It was just a mess – really tall stuff to the south of something shorter, so there was shade on it. None of it was ideal, but it was fine. It was fine.

So, honestly, when I’m talking about how to plan your garden, and what to plant where, and when to plant it, also keep in mind that Mother Nature does its thing, and they’re going to come up anyway. Just try to take notes and be better next year. There’s a reason that it takes time. I really think it’s going take a good 5-10 years before I figure out exactly what I want where. Even then, you rotate it because different plants have different nutrition requirements. My biggest piece of advice is to be flexible. If you’re a new flower farmer, try to put as much planning into the events you’re going to do and how you’re going to sell the flowers as what you’re going to grow. Keep in mind that, at the end of the day, your business is selling flowers, not growing flowers. Or if you’re just a hobby farmer and your goal is just to pick a bouquet every week, AND you want the garden to look pretty, that’s a different focus. Just keep in mind that sometimes Mother Nature is going to disrupt your plans, and it’s all going to work out anyway.

Next episode, we are going to talk about where I put the flowers and how to decide on what to put where. Thank you for listening.

Abbey is here with questions again. Once again, Abbey is a novice gardener.

Liz: What do you got for me, Abbey?

Abbey: Okay, first one – you said you use a spreadsheet to map out your flowers for the year, with the dates and what you’re thinking of when you want to harvest and whatnot. Do you have a specific spreadsheet that you use? Do you use Microsoft Excel? Do you recommend a journal? What are you thinking about that?

Liz: So, it just depends on where you’re at. I actually have a journal on my website that says “Ideas in Bloom,” and it’s tiny little squares that you can use to map it out that way. And when I’m planning where I put things, then I draw it out. I map it out on a piece of paper, or I use a whiteboard … something like that. Or I name the rows 1 through 18 when they’re down in the field and kind of go from there. But for this episode/post of when to plant, I use Google Sheets (which is Excel), and I put all those little details in there. Then I can quickly change it to put them in alphabetical order, or I can “control+F” and find where the Gomphrena is on my list, or the order of dates because I’m not gonna worry about things for three weeks from now (you can add some rows and don’t look at that part of it or put those on a separate page). I like to use Google Sheets because then I can add those little notes, and I can access it from my phone, my iPad using the app, or my desktop. So, that’s how I usually do it. Then when I’m trying to decide where it’s like a free-for-all drawing. I’m much more of a visual person there.

Abbey: Okay, next question – when you are making that plan of how many you are going to be planting and whatnot, do you factor in things like that storm that happened last May? Do you factor in leaving some seeds aside in case something bad happens?

Liz: Yes and no. Ultimately, I know how much space I have. I like to plant extras, just in case. We’ll call it my “oh shit policy,” essentially. For example, I am getting married in October, and I know that I’m going to want certain colors of Sunflowers at MY wedding. I’m gonna plant them in the high tunnel because it’s past the last frost, and I want to extend the season out there. So, I’m going to plant those on August 1st. So yes, I’ll set some aside for that.

My summer subscriptions start the second week of July, and they’re 10 weeks long. I know that I have roughly 62 subscriptions, and each bouquet has about a dozen stems in it. So, 62×12 means 744 stems every week just for the subscriptions. I know that every week a Zinnia plant can give me three stems. If I want three Zinnias in every single July subscription and each plant can give three stems, essentially, I’ll probably need 66 Zinnia plants of that color. If I know that’s what I’m going to need, that’s how I decide on numbers there. Sunflowers, for example – in July, pretty much every bouquet includes a sunflower. Not necessarily in August because I have other stuff starting to bloom … the Dahlias, etc.(those focal flowers). So, if I know I need 66 bouquets a week for sure for that, and then stem bars, well, that means I want 150 Sunflowers a week. And those bloom 45 to 55 to 60ish days, depending on what the variety is. Also, Sunflowers hold up really well in the cooler if you want if you pick them right before they’re going to open. So then that’s something that I can harvest a bunch of at a time.

I don’t want to plant 1,000 Sunflowers on May 15th because guess what? They’re all going to bloom in the same 10-day stretch. I need to plant 250 of them, then 10 days later, another 250 of them, etc. That’s a little bit more of the succession planting because sunflowers are one and done. Where the Zinnias are, the more you cut them/pick them, the more they’ll continue to produce – we call that “cut and come again.” That’s how I decide on quantity … I decide what I want most of my bouquets to look like. And being in Year 4 of this, I have a good idea of what that looks like. I know that July is going to have a ton of Snapdragons. I know that it’s going to have more of what those more cool-hearty flowers are. Then again, in August, I’ll need more of the more heat-loving flowers, plant some fresh Zinnias, or whatever. So, I go by numbers from that standpoint, too.

Abbey: I never knew there was so much math involved with flower farming.

Liz: Yep, there’s a lot of math. There is a lot of math. And again, as a general rule, I try to plant way more than I think I’m gonna need. The thing is, I want to do the you-picks, I want to do the stem bars, but at the end of the day, those are extras. I have already pre-sold subscriptions, so they need to get filled first. I have already pre-sold nursing home sponsorships, so those need to get filled first. So, as of now, I’m hoping to do stem bars, and you-picks, and all of that starting in July, but we’ll see. They might have to wait until August. It’s one of those things you just have to wait and see about, and sometimes it can be delayed up to three weeks, depending on if it’s a cold spring or not. And I’d rather have extra flowers, and usually, the more you pick them, the more they produce. Planning ahead always helps, but again you can have the best-laid plans, and then a tree falls on your truck, or a building falls on your truck, but whatever, it’s fine. It’s fine.

Abbey: Well, that’s all I’ve got for questions.

Liz: All right, well, thank you, guys, for listening/reading. In the next episode/post, we’re gonna talk about how we decide where to plant my flowers.

Thanks for listening to/reading the Sunny Mary Meadow podcast/blog. I’m your host, Liz. If you like what you’re hearing/reading, please subscribe and rate us. You can also find us on InstagramPinterest, and Facebook.

You can subscribe to our email newsletter below. We love to hear any podcast-related feedback at our email podcast@sunnymarymeadow.com, and all other inquiries can be sent to liz@sunnymarymeadow.com.