Bouquets by the acre

In Connecticut, Steve Kinkade has mastered the art of growing and harvesting unusual blooms

IF YOU HAPPEN TO DRIVE by the quiet crossroads of Washington Depot, Connecticut, before noon on a summer morning, you’re bound to notice Shepaug Flower Farm’s stand. The “Cut Flowers for Sale” sign will be partially hidden behind a small herd of flower bunches, huddling under an umbrella and drinking up the cool moisture from containers filled to the brim with water. By four, despite a lack of rush-hour traffic, scarcely a bunch will remain, except perhaps a few bundles of didiscus (Trachymene coerulea), the blue Queen Anne’s lace look-alike. The didiscus’s lack of popularity is one of the great mysteries for stand owner Stephen Kinkade, but he stubbornly continues offering it, certain that the public will someday see the light.

Most of the time, Shepaug Flower Farm’s stand is unmanned, and customers come prepared to help themselves. But if you’re looking for orange zinnias and none are left, Kinkade can usually be found down in the fields somewhere, pulling weeds. He’ll be the one in the grungy yellow waterproof overalls.

Then again, he might be in the house, shifting bunches of dahlias or some equally fussy flower from one conditioning bath to the next. Kinkade devotes a lot of time to that task, and I always hope that he’ll be in the process of giving something its special conditioning treatment when I stop by to pick up a special order. When it comes to knowing the exact procedure to follow if you want buddleia to hold up more than a day or two, or if you need to know which zinnias produce the biggest, most reliably uniform flowers over the long haul, Kinkade is the guy to ask.

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN Shepaug Flower Farm is virtually a one-man operation, with occasional help from Diane, Kinkade’s wife. Most of Kinkade’s waking hours are spent in his fields, in clear view of the road and in easy reach of customers. The farm’s location was no accident. Kincade spent many years eyeing the seven-acre property before it came on the market eight years ago. With the Shepaug River cutting a scenic swath right down the middle of the land, it afforded a paradise of excellent irrigation opportunities, if also a hell of early and late frosts. And as it happened, the local traffic flow wasn’t bad either.

byTOVAH MARTINPhotography byRICH POMERANTZ

Before purchasing the farm, Kinkade worked as a plumber at Yale University for 13 years. When he tired of the world of leaky pipes, he knew that horticulture was somehow in his destiny. He didn’t know exactly which avenue of the field beckoned, though, so he worked at White Flower Farm for a year in the growing fields to study the possibilities. After considering hydroponics, greenhouse production, and several other options, he came up with cut-flower production as the only method of earning sufficient income to raise a family. As fate would have it, this epiphany coincided with the availability of the property.

Kinkade isn’t the sort of person to jump into a new endeavor unprepared. Initially, he invested many hours studying effective methods of growing cut flowers, aided by Allan Armitage’s book, Specialty Cut Flowers, and the quarterly publications of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, every word of which he still devours. The rest of his considerable knowledge has been gained in the field.

MAKING THE CUT Because of an inherent stubborn streak, Kinkade doesn’t give up easily when a flower fails to endure trials as a “cut.” Instead, he searches through the literature on the subject, tries another method of cultivation, or experiments with other conditioning treatments. That’s how he came up with the process of soaking dahlias up to their necks in hot tap water and letting the water cool, before moving them to clean water laced with floral preservative. Labor intensive though it might be, this sort of procedure can spell the difference between success and failure for a cut flower. (For more conditioning hints, see page 60.)

To tip the balance in his favor, Kinkade likes to harvest most of his flowers in the cool hours immediately after dawn, when the flowers are fresh and full of moisture. (Because moisture is key to a cut flower’s longevity, Kincade’s theory is that watering the ground generously the day before cutting will extend any flower’s show time in a vase.)

Flowers especially sensitive to the effects of stress, such as rudbeckias, lilacs, snapdragons, delphiniums, dahlias, and foxgloves, are only cut during the early-morning run, which halts abruptly before 10:00 A.M. on any warm, sunny summer day. The remainder of the inventory, which includes such relative rarities as China asters, amaranth, cosmos, gomphrenas, ornamental grasses, liatris, lisianthus, centaureas, and asclepias, is harvested (if time allows) in the morning, or waits until the evening, right before dark, after flowers have spent the day building up their reserves.

For flowers that are particularly prone to wilting, like buddleias, Kinkade brings a bucket of hot tap water into the field and plunges their stems into it as he cuts. Later, back in his kitchen, he’ll recut their stems under hot water and place them in a floral preservative bath. Platycodon grandiflorus, the balloon flower, requires even sterner measures. After cutting, Kinkade immerses its stems in boiling water for one minute, taking care to protect the flowers from the steam with a towel, and making sure that his hands, face, and other exposed body parts are also well away from the steam.

Despite his efforts, some cut flowers defy his attempts to extend their vase life. “Under the best conditions,” Kinkade warns, “cosmos will only last five days.” Nicotianas and Centaurea dealbata are also short lived, no matter how well they’re treated. Delphiniums are, too, with the exception of the ‘Blue Butterfly’ strain, which endures longer “but isn’t up to typical cut-flower heights.”

Stephen Kinkade’s Tips & Tricks

CONDITIONING CUT FLOWERS

Balloon flowers (Platycodon grandiflorus; above) Dip stems in boiling water for one minute. Take care to protect the blossoms, as well as your hands and face, from the steam.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) Recut stems underwater before dunking them in hot water with preservative. Let the water cool slowly before putting the flowers in the refrigerator.

Daffodils (Narcissus spp.) Condition alone and discard their conditioning water before mixing them with other flowers.

Peonies (Paeonia spp.) Cut stems as soon as the first true color shows in the buds.

Pincushion flower and columbine (Scabiosa atropurpurea and Aquilegia spp.) Place blooms in cool water up to their necks immediately after cutting.

Tulips (Tulipa spp.) To keep tulip stems straight, wrap them tightly in newspaper and plunge them up to their necks in cold water. Leave overnight.

Zinnias (Zinnia spp.) Place cut stems immediately in cold water, but do not refrigerate.

FLOWERS TO CONDITION IN COOL WATER (45°F)

Delphinium, Delphinium spp.

Globe thistle, Echinops spp.

Lupine, Lupinus spp.

Phlox, Phlox spp.

Stock, Matthiola spp.

Zinnia, Zinnia spp.

FLOWERS TO CONDITION IN HOT WATER (110°F)

Ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’

Dahlia, Dahlia spp.

Foxglove, Digitalis spp.

Lavender, Lavandula spp.

Mealycup sage, Salvia farinacea

Speedwell, Veronica spp.

A FEW OF KINKADE’S FAVORITE BLOOMS

Columbine—‘Nora Barlow’ types

Cosmos—Sensation mix, Versailles series

Dahlia ‘Kelvin Floodlight’

Delphiniums—‘Pacific Giant’ hybrids, and Belladonna hybrids

Foxglove ‘Foxy’

Lavender ‘Munstead’

Peonies—‘Karl Rosenfield’, and ‘Sarah Bernhardt’

Phlox paniculata ‘David’

Rudbeckia hirta ‘Indian Summer’

Tulips—Darwin hybrids, ‘Angelique’, and ‘Queen of Night’

Veronica spicata Sightseeing mix

CHOICES, CHOICES, CHOICES To please a customer base fond of all the usual suspects, Kinkade keeps ample bundles of zinnias, cosmos, sunflowers, snapdragons, foxgloves, baby’s breath, marigolds, salvias, and delphiniums at the flower stand. Among these crowd pleasers, however, he’s made a careful study of which varieties perform best. ‘Foxy’ foxgloves are his favorites, as are the Gold Coin series marigolds. For snapdragons, it’s Spring Giant hybrids or the Rocket series. And though almost every cosmos under the sun finds a place in his fields, ‘Picotee’ and the Sea Shells hybrids rank on the top of his list. When it comes to zinnias, he swears by the big, buxom Blue Point series; for smaller ones, he opts for the Oklahoma hybrids. For sunflowers, he likes the pollenless ‘Sunbright’, ‘Moonbright’, and ‘Teddy Bear’, since they won’t shed pollen all over the kitchen counter.

Experiments with other potential stars keep his life interesting. In addition to common bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus), you’ll also find yellow Armenian basket-flower (Centaurea macrocephala) in his fields. For more adventuresome arrangers, he keeps a supply of interesting vegetables and grasses, like artichokes and fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum). And he has scores of unusual flowers, like perennial pea (Lathyrus latifolius), obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), throatwort (Trachelium caeruleum), globe thistle (Echinops exaltatus), columbines (Aquilegia spp.; he prefers the double, rose-type Barlow hybrids), and corn cockle (Agrostemma githago). And, of course, didiscus. Because his time is limited, Kinkade doesn’t bother with flowers that perform for only a brief harvesting period, such as wallflowers, stocks, and lupines.

WELL GROUNDED Over time, Kinkade has learned a few important lessons about field preparation. Initially, he prepared his fields repeatedly with a tiller, an exercise that proved counterproductive. Although it whipped the upper layer of soil into a fine tilth, the process compacted the soil below into a hardpan that took several years to soften up. Then there was the fertilizer issue. Kinkade’s instincts ran against loading the soil with compost, since he thought a leaner foundation would lend his flowers a less blowsy look. While this approach worked superbly for cockscombs, for example, which prefer poor soil, he’s discovered a direct correlation between being more generous with the manure and bigger, more bountiful blossoms for other crops like delphiniums, balloon flowers, and foxgloves.

Many other factors besides fertilization also affect the quality and longevity of flowers. Although soil moisture keeps blooms turgid over the long haul, irrigation can be a tricky issue. Zinnias, for example, need water early in their careers but tend to fall victim to black spot later in the season if their foliage is continually damp. And Kinkade is always struggling with the vagaries of plant spacing. His secret formula for encouraging the longer stems that promote easier bunching is to plant his flowers more closely together, thereby forcing the flower stems to stretch. But close bedfellows can lead to a trade-off with plant vigor. He’s always fiddling with the formula, in search of the ideal configuration.

Success can remain elusive in other ways, too. At any given moment, Kinkade must balance the time demanded to sterilize his conditioning buckets with the caprices of public demand, and with the weather. Yet no matter how many days of solid rain or scorching drought we get in a row, Kinkade has never threatened to quit. In fact, when the weather is absolutely lousy, this cut-flower grower is just thankful that there are some factors beyond his control.

For sources of these plants, turn to page 114. For more on growing and arranging your own cut flowers, check your local newsstand for our special cutting-garden edition of Garden Style, or send a check for $9.98 to Horticulture, 98 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, Attn: Cutting Garden.

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