must-grow cutting flowers, plus dahlia how-to, with jenny elliott

YES, YES, I KNOW; you plan to grow the usual rows of zinnias, but what other among organic flower farmer Jenny Elliott’s must-grow list of cutting varieties do you have lined up and ready to sow, or have a source of starts for? In an interview recorded before our world changed so much, but whose colorful subject seems especially welcome now, I asked Jenny for her list of flowers you shouldn’t garden without.

Copake, New York-based Jenny is a farmer-florist with partner Luke Franco and their crew, at Tiny Hearts Farm. They’re my beloved neighbors and friends, growing flowers organically both for the wholesale market, for subscribers to her weekly flower CSA, and also for events including weddings.

jenny’s dahlia webinar, and tiny hearts’ tubers-by-mail

BECAUSE of the prospect of forced shop closures throughout spring 2020, Jenny (below, with ‘Cornel’ dahlias in the field) and Luke will sell their favorite dahlia tubers by mail-order (or for local curbside pickup behind their Hillsdale, NY, store by prepaid pre-order)—and Jenny will give an online class in “Growing Knockout Dahlias,” too, on April 19 via Zoom webinar. More on all that at the bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the April 6, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

must cutting flowers to grow, with jenny elliott



Margaret Roach: Welcome back, Jenny. How are things in bustling downtown Copake, New York?

Jenny Elliott: Oh, busy, busy, you know?

Margaret: I bet.

Jenny: Actually, they are right? Because it’s March and it’s sunny. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Yes. But today’s agenda is to get us all to widen our palette a bit beyond marigolds and zinnias and so forth—wonderful, wonderful. But you, as a farmer-florist, you look at flowers, not just for color even, but structure or the potential role they can play in your designs, don’t you?

Jenny: Right, right. I’m in the middle of crop planning now and I’m doing it in chunks this year so I don’t lose my mind. So that’s all I’ve been thinking about lately. Yes, I think through things as how I’m going to use them in design, or how the florists that we sell to are going to use them in design, because that’s so much of what we do.

Margaret: Right. So you might think of some like as focal points, for instance, right? Is that what you … Do you know what I mean?

Jenny: Yes, I have three main categories. I think one as focal flowers; two is the accent flowers (those littler guys that you still need in an arrangement); and three is a lot of people call them whimsy flowers, maybe. We call them yoo-hoos.

Margaret: Yoo-hoo? [Laughter.]

Jenny: Because they pop up out of an arrangement and go, “Yoo-hoo.” Of course foliage, too, is a really important one.

Margaret: In those groups, where should we start? What are some of the … And I guess I should say, I think it was last year when we spoke on the show, you and I talked a lot about a lot of your favorites among some of them more commonly grown, like the zinnias and marigolds I just mentioned—about your favorite varieties. And about succession planting, sowing more than once with those.

We’ll give a link to all that and we can talk about it a little again. But with those focal flowers, what are some of the examples of that in your planting plan that you’re working on?

Jenny: Yes, so it’s something that we think about as needing to have a focal flower at least through the entire season, so from at least May through November. A lot of those are quite picky [laughter], and need greenhouses or whatnot, right?

Like our first one that comes in is anemones and ranunculus, followed shortly by tulips. Then we plant lilies in crates in the greenhouse that kind of fill in a gap between tulips and peonies, and then again between peonies and the summer flowers that are coming in.

Then we’ve got sunflowers and then all those loves that we already talked about: the zinnias and the marigolds and Rudbeckia and things like that at high summer. On to dahlias and then heirloom mums. And that’s kind of an overview of how we think of our focal flower season.

Margaret: So we gardeners now… I mean, we can’t plant tulips now, but we could put in an order for the fall, when the listings come, and think about having that to stretch our cutting garden. And lilies; some of those are sold at different times of year, but many in the fall. Peonies, same thing. I mean those are important for us to think about. Maybe not just having in a bed and border where we might be hesitant to cut it, but adding a few to a bed that’s more of a nursery or cutting area.

Jenny: Yes. Not being afraid to cut those suckers out. Yes.

Margaret: [Laughter.] Yes. Dahlias and sunflowers sounds like two that are ones that we should consider. Dahlias are a little special in how they’re grown. Tell us some of the ones you love, both in the dahlias and sunflowers; some of your favorites, or the types that you like. [Above, ‘The Joker’ sunflowers at Tiny Hearts.]

Jenny: Yes. Well, let’s see. Dahlias, they’re my favorite flower; have been my whole life.

Margaret: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Jenny: Yes. I love them. I was like the nerdy kid who wrote letters to dahlia companies saying, “May I please have a catalog?” when I was in like middle school. [Laughter.] You know, pre-internet. But what I love about them so much is all the shapes. Right?

Margaret: Yes, yes.

Jenny: There’s so many shapes and sizes and colors, and the variety is just tremendous. Can be a little overwhelming, so we try a lot and keep our favorites.

But one of my favorites is ‘Sierra Glow.’ It’s like a huge salmon dinner plate. We say it looks like a lobster or a sea anemone or something. It’s very dramatic. Of course, ‘Cafe au Lait’ we grow tons of. We do wedding work, so-

Margaret: So ‘Cafe au Lait’ [above] is what color? How would you describe the color?

Jenny: Oh, it’s blushy, milky, sometimes almost tan. Kind of ivory color.

Margaret: Is it big or small? What shape is it?

Jenny: It’s pretty big. I think it’s classified as a dinner plate, but for us it never is quite that big, maybe 5, 6 inches across. And they have just these beautiful faces, lots and lots of petals. Then I really, really love ball dahlias, the perfect, perfect balls.

Margaret: Yes, yes, yes.

Jenny: Yes. One that I was late to the game with but we finally put them in last year was ‘Cornel Bronze.’

Margaret: ‘Cornel Bronze.’

Jenny: Oh, my gosh. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Huh.

Jenny: Yes. It’s a perfect ball, actually bronze-colored, and so prolific, like it just sent up stem after stem after stem.

Margaret: Huh.

Jenny: We’re doing a lot more of those.

Margaret: Huh. Do you grow any of the cactus-y kind or any of the other shapes or more dinner plate and the ball types?

Jenny: We don’t do cactus ones because they have such a short vase life.

Margaret: Oh, interesting. See, now I didn’t know that.

Jenny: Yes. The balls lasts the longest. You can get … It’s hard with dahlias because they do have a short vase life just in general. But the balls usually lasts for about a week, which is the longest. Then some of the dinner plates are really surprising. You can get five days out of them or so. And then the cactus ones, the more loosey-goosey the petals are, like the less structure there is in the flower-

Margaret: I see, I see.

Jenny: …the shorter the vase life.

Margaret: That makes sense.

Jenny: Yes. But there’s all kinds of classifications of dahlias. We grow formal decoratives and informal decoratives, and anemone-type dahlias and the balls and the pompoms, the teeny-tiny pompoms, which I love.

Margaret: Yes. So dahlias are kind of… Do you just put them out in the field, or do you pre-start them somewhere? Since we’re talking about them, why don’t we cover some tips that you’ve learned from growing them on this scale for quite a while.

Jenny: Yes, so we just plant them straight into the field, for the most part. We make sure that there’s an eye, preferably by the time we’re planting, which for us is around mid-May, second week of May or so.

Margaret: And we’re in Zone 5B, so that’s the Northeast, just for people’s reference. If they’re elsewhere they can adjust.

Jenny: Yes. And yes, I’d like for that eye to be sprouted. We’re planting so many that we don’t actually stop and look at each one. [Laughter.] [Tuber with eye sprouted, above.]

Margaret: Right, right, right.

Jenny: But that’s it. Six inches or so deep on their sides, and they really sprout pretty easily.

Margaret: When you said “on their sides,” tell me what that means.

Jenny: So you know the tuber is usually a pretty … Well, the tubers come in all kinds of shapes, too, which is interesting also, but usually they’re fairly long, and so you don’t plant them straight up and down.

Margaret: Right. O.K.

Jenny: You lay them on their side, so your planting hole has to be kind of big.

Margaret: O.K. All right. All right. So 6 inches, once the weather is settling is what you’re talking about.

Jenny: Yes. What is it? Soil temps around 55, I think, for dahlia?

Margaret: O.K. Do you stake them, or and put up some kind of support, or what do you do?

Jenny: Yes. We’ve tried all kinds of things and we got pretty jealous when some other growers that we know were not staking their dahlias at all. We thought, “Oh, that’s a good idea. What fools we are for staking all our dahlias all these years.”

Margaret: Oh.

Jenny: Well, you know how windy Copake is. [Laughter.]

Margaret: Yes, yes. We should tell everyone that the first day I met you, when you moved to Copake—when a group of new farmers moved to Copake, you among them—and someone at the table said to me, the old longtime resident, “So what’s the weather like here?” And I said, “Windy.”

Jenny: Mm-hmm. And it’s proving to be true.

Margaret: Yes. Yes. So you are staking or supporting them.

Jenny: Yes, so that didn’t go well. So we’re staking in all kinds of ways. Our favorite way right now is to weave Hortonova netting, like vertical netting, which makes it really difficult to harvest from because dahlias have so much foliage.

Margaret: Yes.

Jenny: But it’s easiest to put in in May, when we’re really, really busy.

Margaret: So is this like a grid that goes parallel to the ground? That’s …

Jenny: Yes, yes. And then they poke through it.

Margaret: And they poke through it. O.K.

Jenny: Mm-hmm.

Margaret: Hortonova netting, yes.

Jenny: Yes, which is not pretty for gardens, though. But-

Margaret: So we can stake. We can put a stake in when we plant the tuber so we don’t pierce it, because we’ll know where it is. Right?

Jenny: Yes. And then like bamboo teepees work really well for dahlias or …

Margaret: Oh, that’s a good idea. A bit nicer. And do you pinch them or when the plants come up? Is there any aftercare or what else happens?

Jenny: Yes. They don’t really like to be super-wet once they’re planted, so we don’t water them unless it’s very dry, because you don’t want them … It’s still cool out when you’re planting them. You don’t want them to rot underground.

Margaret: Right.

Jenny: Then once they sprout, and they may be, I don’t know, 5 inches, 4 inches, 5 inches tall, we pinch them down to three sets of leaves. That way you get your flowers a little bit later, but not much later, and you get a lot more stems off of the plant.

Margaret: Oh, O.K. Great, great, great. You’re an organic farm. I’m an organic garden. Is there any nutrition program going on or compost? Or …

Jenny: Yes, well, they are hungry, because it’s a big plant and they’re forming all those new tubers underground, so they’re hungry and they’re thirsty all season long. So we start with a good soil test to make sure that our soil’s pretty well-balanced before we put them in. Then they love a scoop of compost and while they’re growing, while they’re young and putting on a lot of that bushy, green growth, we just do kelp-fish emulsion about every 10 days or so.

Margaret: O.K. And is that a powder or a liquid or how do you …

Jenny: It’s a liquid. We use a liquid. Foliar spray.

Margaret: Huh. All right. So dahlias, there’s some improved advice for growing dahlias. And you mentioned sunflowers. Any favorites that you want to share with us? Because there’s so many. [Laughter.]

Jenny: Yes, and I’m so surprised I mentioned sunflowers because I’ve been a hater for years.

Margaret: Oh, I didn’t know that. Oh.

Jenny: Yes. Well, as a grower, they take up a lot of space, just one cut and you’re done. They’re heavy, they’re cumbersome to move around the farm. They take up all the cooler space.

But this year I met some that I really liked, and I learned that I’m not crazy about a traditional sunflower for arranging. It makes everything automatically feel very backyard-y, which is great if that’s what you’re going for in your design. But usually we’re not.

Margaret: Right.

Jenny: Some of the dark sunflowers and some of the very pale sunflowers are great this year. We did one called ‘White Lite’ [above], which is fairly new. It’s a very pale, pale yellow, the petals and the center.

There’s one called ‘Starburst Lemon Aura’ that I really liked, which is a double, or almost like a ‘Teddy Bear,’ really. It’s so full of petals and the same thing, that really pale yellow color.

And then there’s one called ‘Red Hedge’ [below photo], which I’ve not liked red sunflowers in the past because they lose their petals easy.

Margaret: I didn’t know that.

Jenny: Yes. They tend to just drop petals and it looks like it’s missing a tooth or something. [Laughter.] So these ones didn’t drop their petals so much, and the petals are twisted just a little bit. They have like a torque to them, so it looks like a sunflower, but almost not.

Margaret: ‘Red Hedge.’

Jenny: ‘Red Hedge.’

Margaret: All right. So those are some good ones.

Jenny: Yes, I like them.

Margaret: So what’s next on the list? You grow cosmos, yes? And that’s an evolving world, certainly.

Jenny: Yes. Cosmos has been interesting lately, right?

Margaret: Yes, yes, yes.

Jenny: A lot of new colors have come out. I’ve always loved the Double Click series.

Margaret: Yes. Double Clicks! [A bundle of one of the Double Clicks in the field, below.]

Jenny: And we’ve got tons of those.

Margaret: Yes, yes. They look a little more puffy, right?

Jenny: Yes. Oh, yes. They’re great. Tons of petals packed in there, and they come in really nice colors. After trying a lot of cosmos varieties, those were the ones that they’re reliable, they’re prolific. The flowers always look nice, so they’re a winner.

But recently ‘Xanthos’ has been really cool. You know that yellow one? Not as prolific and not as tall, not as sturdy of a grower, but that color can’t be beat. Then we did one called ‘Rubenza‘ a couple of years ago that was gorgeous. Just this rust-colored, really. Kind of an in-between color, in between red and purple and brown, which is a really nice thing to have when you’re designing with flowers. Like a color that’s an in-between colors that can tie other colors together in an arrangement.

But just lots of new cosmos coming out all the time. We’re going to be trying a lot more varieties this year.

Margaret: I’ve noticed there is a Cupcake series, because the petals are fluted like cupcake wrappers.

Jenny: Yes.

Margaret: And then there’s another …

Jenny: It looks like a cupcake wrapper.

Margaret: And then with your Cupcake you could have the variety called ‘Apricot Lemonade,’ which is, it’s like the color of the dawn. Have you seen it? It’s like the softest apricot and pale yellow with like a ring of blush pink.

Jenny: Yes, I’m excited to try that. If it comes out like the pictures, it’s going to be incredible.

Margaret: Yes. Yes. So there’s deep, deep colors and, like you said before, like the Double Click or puffy and so forth.

O.K, so what else should we put in the garden? Name some of the other annuals that you want us to do that are in … we’re past your focals and now what? Like the cosmos, what would they be? What would you call them? Are they in the accent group or what are they in?

Jenny: I consider them accent. It kind of depends. These groups cross over, of course, because it depends how you’re using them.

Margaret: Sure.

Jenny: Sometimes you get that big massive flower that’s going to be a focal, but let’s say they’re accent flowers. Some of the others, I was just trying to think of ones that are just reliable and prolific, and ones that I wouldn’t go without. Scabiosas. [Above, perennial scabiosas at Tiny Hearts.]

Margaret: Pincushion flowers. Is that what we used to call it?

Jenny: Mm-hmm. There’s the perennial and annual varieties. So for perennials, we do the Fama series. There’s white and blue, and those are great big, huge flowers. Those could almost be considered a focal.

Then the annual ones, which we grow tons of, are smaller, but they come in such fantastic colors and they can just be just tall and sturdy and amazing. There’s one called ‘Black Knight,’ which is really nearly black, and one called ‘Salmon Queen.’ There’s one called ‘Fata Morgana,’ which is kind of a pale yellow apricot color, which I quit growing because it’s not so prolific. It’s just not like the other ones.

Margaret: For your use. Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

Jenny: But the color, I think I’m going to bring it back. [Laughter.] Oh, it’s just incredible. I do this a lot. I give up on something and then I really miss it and I bring it back. So I love the scabiosas.

Then I feel like they’re all over—we grow so much of it, but gomphrena. I just could not do without gomphrena. We grow all the colors, every color. And depending on from a design perspective, there’s the bushier ones, right? The globosas?

Margaret: Yes.

Jenny: And they come in the paler colors, the pinks and purples. Then I’ll butcher the Latin here. But the haageana types, I think they’re called.

Margaret: Oh, I don’t know; whatever.

Jenny: Yes, right. And they grow more of a … It’s like a single-stem habit. They’re the really bright, the dark pinks and the crimsons and the oranges. Those are… like the bushy ones we’ll use as an accent, and the single-stem types are more of the yoohoos that pop out of an arrangement.

Margaret: Some other yoohoos?

Jenny: Other yoohoos. Well, my very favorite yoohoo is fennel.

Margaret: Fennel, like copper fennel, or all fennel?

Jenny: All the fennel. I love all the fennel. Ooh, we could do a whole thing on vegetable/flower crossovers. My favorite.

Margaret: [Laughter.] Yes.

Jenny: We grow big, long rows of fennel just so that it will bolt so we can get the flowers. Then we do a ton of bronze fennel and let it bolt so that we get those tall stems with the kind of dusty gold flowers. So that’s one of my favorites.

And then grasses of all kinds. I love the feather-top grass. Ooh, grass names. Gosh, I don’t know. We call it feathertop grass [Pennisetum villosum].

And then the ‘Ruby Silk’ love grass [an Eragrostis]. Do you know that?

Margaret: Yes, yes.

Jenny: Very drapey, fantastic. We grew a green one this year, which was really nice, also.

Margaret: So we need some grasses in the cutting garden.

Jenny: Mm-hmm. Then you know what’s super-hot right now? [Laughter.]

Margaret: Yes, I know.

Jenny: Back on the popular list are dried flowers.

Margaret: Yes. So give us one of those.

Jenny: We’re doing quadruple the larkspur this year that we’ve ever done.

Margaret: Oh.

Jenny: Yes. Tons of it. Especially one called ‘Earl Gray.’ Kind of the lavender-gray, dries beautifully. And then also doubling our Ammobium crops this year.

Margaret: The winged everlasting, a tiny little sort of daisy-ish thing. Yes. [Above, when dried.]

Jenny: And when it dries, keeps that pure, pure white color, which is really nice. A lot of things dry brown, you know?

Then there’s an Ammi that we’ve been growing, which I quit growing because it gave our whole staff really terrible rashes one year.

Margaret: Yes. I was going to say that, that the Ammi, for people who don’t know it, people can get a contact dermatitis from the milky sap in it.

Jenny: Yes. We were all very sensitive to it one year. I quit growing it and I missed it, brought it back. We did not really pick it this year. We just let it go to seed, and we picked and dried all the seedheads.

Margaret: O.K, so you got past the milky-sap point.

Jenny: Yes, fantastic.

Margaret: All right, so we should plan to make some room for some of these drying subjects as well in our cutting garden.

So we’re almost out of time. And I think for a lot of these where we will be making successions, like we talked about last time, where they’re going to sow them multiple times. Or anything general for a minute you just want to say about growing these?

Jenny: Yes, a lot of these are ones that we do twice a year. We’ll do it early sowing and then sow again maybe in, oh, I don’t know, May, or so, late May, to get some fall flowers. Early June even, to get some fall flowers, just to get a fresh-

Margaret: So you do an indoor sowing even earlier to put out at that time, frost time and then you-

Jenny: Right. And then sunflowers, we’re just direct sowing those every two weeks or so out in the fields.

Margaret: O.K. All right.

Jenny: But I think everything else I mentioned, aside from dahlias, of course.

Margaret: Yes. Well, that’s why I wanted to get the details on those, because those are great tips.

Jenny: Right. Cosmos, we squeeze in a lot more, but-

Margaret: More repeats, more successions?

Jenny: I think we do five cosmos succession over the year, but we’re cutting awfully heavy off of those.

Margaret: Yes. Well, Jenny Elliott of Tiny Hearts Farm, I will see you in downtown Copake any minute. [Laughter.] Thank you for making the time to talk about this. Now go back to the greenhouse and get sowing, O.K?

Jenny: That’s where I’m headed.

jenny’s dahlia webinar, and tubers-by-mail

BECAUSE of the prospect of forced shop closures throughout spring 2020, Jenny and Luke will sell their favorite dahlia tubers by mail-order (or for local curbside pickup behind their Hillsdale, NY, store by prepaid pre-order, too)—and Jenny will give an online class in “Growing Knockout Dahlias,” on April 19. Browse the online store, and use the form below to order a webinar ticket.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 6, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. It is so exciting to hear a Grower talk about all the different varieties they grow. It is that time of year especially if you have a greenhouse to get started early. It won’t be long and we all will be able to plant seeds. Best of luck with this season despite the virus.

  2. Nicky in Bristol, England says:

    I love the idea of thinking about how you’ll arrange the flowers in the vase right from the seed-buying stage. I realise now that I am always wooed at that stage by the “focal flowers” and so end up with not enough “yoo-hoos”. This year I’ll have a think about that balance. Thank you!

  3. Ellen says:

    Dear Margaret, do You know about Green Envy mulch? I’m trying to get sweet peat for the beds but my local supplier only has Green Envy which was described as horse manure. Any feedback GREATLY appreciated. Thank you, ellen

  4. Gabriele says:

    I love listening to the podcast and then come to the website and see the photos – always gorgeous pictures! Thanks for inspiring me in so many ways!

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