I Started a Flower Farm.

By Marcia Kirinus, EMGV

This is the first article in a series of articles about starting a flower farm in the backyard of my mill house in Old West Durham. I hope you enjoy it.

All photos taken by Marcia Kirinus

I retired, and like most people, I freaked out. After 40 years of waking up to the beat of a full workday, it’s hard to get off track. The new rhythm of waking up when rested and walking the dog for miles and miles did not make me feel light and airy as I had hoped. I craved kinship and needed focus in my day.

A friend suggested I might be a good fit for the upcoming Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Training offered by the Durham County Cooperative Extension. I felt somewhat old and predictable, but signed up nonetheless! Soon I was listening to lectures from esteemed horticulture professors and local experts with topics ranging from botany to soil to entomology.

A key component of the course was to grow a garden on a small plot of land, whether it be a window box, a raised bed, a farm, whatever was available. By the end of the class we would have a detailed plan for creating the garden of our dreams.

The Plan

Inspired by a recent YouTube craze on flower farming, I decided to carve out a piece of the backyard lawn to grow cut flowers as my project. My “farm” would consist of six rows that run north to south, each four feet wide and 50 feet long.

It was early January, the winter-hardy annuals should have already been planted, and the soil was not even prepared. Direct seeding was no longer an option, as the ground was too cold for successful seed germination. However, I could start seeds under lights and set out young plants.

In addition to starting seeds I also bought Lizianthus plugs. Lizianthus is the toughest yet most delicate flower you could grow. It can take the cold, it is fairly drought tolerant and it takes the heat of our NC summers just fine. However, it takes a long time to germinate and it is fussy, so purchasing plugs is ideal.

The flower farm as imagined on paper for the Master Gardener’s class. Circles represent existing larger plants, including trees.

The Challenges (& The Help!)

One of the deals I made with my husband when I retired was that I would stick to a meager budget since we were no longer a two-income household. Looking through seed catalogs, I could see how hard this promise was going to be. There were all kinds of things I needed to get this project going – seeds, seedling mix, plugs, field soil amendments in the form of compost, hoops, lightweight fabric to cover and protect the new plant babies, and an irrigation system with a controller. It was adding up, but I hoped to repay the money invested with earnings from a future plant sale.

Laying out the rows at the flower farm in mid January.
Germinating seeds under light. Image shows 320 plants one week away from going into the ground.

Not only is my husband a tolerant, loving man, but he has also been a critical part of this flower farm project. He’s helped me secure cover cloth in the middle of the night with whipping winds and pummeling rain, working by phone flashlight to secure growing tunnels before they fly away.

Lizianthus planted on Feb 15, 2023. Harvest starts late June into August.

There were many trying moments like that throughout the winter, and I was skeptical the plants would reach maturity. But I followed the plan and learned.

As I followed the plan, most seedlings grew strong. Some, like the ranunculus and snapdragons, were eaten by rabbits, indicated by the clean cuts caused by their sharp incisors. We’ll eventually need a fence, but I just planed and observed what they ate –  ranunculus, anemones, sunflowers, dahlias, marigolds (!), and buckwheat. They left the zinnias, strawflowers, monarda, asclepias, lizianthus, celosia, statice, and feverfew alone.

The good husband holding a bouquet from the flower farm.

The Results

In addition to all the learning I did in my first year as a flower farmer, I started a new tradition. On Mother’s Day, I invited neighborhood children to pick flowers for their moms. It was rewarding to see the kids and their dads overcome by the bountiful flowers.

I also had a successful plant sale! I advertised on our local neighborhood listserv, which was enough to generate the $4,000 I borrowed. I also taught classes on making hypertufa planters, and I plan to teach other classes in the future.

Friend carting a bounty of flowers away for a high school graduation party.
Participants in one of six Hypertufa classes. I am in the orange cap standing next to friend, assistant, and Durham Extension Master Gardener, Monica Card.

I’m not big and can never be, as I’m hemmed in by the size of my backyard, but I am growing my knowledge base, and the rewards on this little farm are plentiful. Perhaps the most heartfelt is providing habitat and food for pollinators. Multitudes of insect species visit these plants. Their presence makes me happy. Where once there was a sterile lawn, bountiful flowers now grow.

Future Plans

In the year head, I plan to reintroduce many of our native plants, which likely were here years ago. I will grow some for cutting, but most for the insects and birds. The biggest reward for me is knowing that as a gardener and flower farmer, I am having a positive impact on climate change. However small this farm is, it provides more benefits to our environment than it takes away. If I can sustain this farm so it sustains my passion to garden, then I will be successful.

From Left to right: Lambada Monarda with feverfew, Sunflower, and Lizianthus on the flower farm.

Honey Bees on Asclepsias tuberosa at the flower farm.

Resources and Additional Information

Looking for general resources on growing flowers? Check out the “Flowers” page on the NC State Extension Plants Portal: https://gardening.ces.ncsu.edu/gardening-plants/flowers-2/

For all things cut flowers, check out the “Cut Flowers” NC State Extension Portal: https://cutflowers.ces.ncsu.edu/

For a beginning level background on growing flowers in the garden, the herbaceous ornamentals chapter of the North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook has you covered: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/10-herbaceous-ornamentals

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