ALWAYS HAVE A BACKUP PLAN
This past year, we had a wedding that we were very excited for. It was one of those weddings that was being held at a very expensive vineyard with long gravel pathways and fountains and Spanish-style patios and archways. We immediately knew that we would be getting back some gorgeous photography for our portfolio, and that our flowers would work very well for this May wedding.
One of the flowers that we were going to grow for the wedding were Icelandic poppies in shades of white, peach and pink. Poppies were going to be our trademark flower, since it was rare that we would ever be able to buy them in otherwise. Their delicate, papery petals would be adorning every centerpiece and table and bouquet.
Oh, did I mention we hadn’t grown them before?
We had grown the regular Papaver rhoeas, those gorgeous poppies that grew easily, unfurling giant blooms that would shed their petals in a day, revealing those gorgeous blue-green poppy pods. We had also grown the gigantic Papaver orientale, the Oriental poppy with a bloom the size of your face and fat giant stalks. Technically we had grown the Icelandic poppies before, having purchased a few from a local nursery and enjoyed their bright blooms and wiry stems and their profusion of blooms all the way through June. How hard could it be to grow these from seed and have armfuls of poppies by the wedding?
We were confident that everything was going to work out well, given our previous experience with poppies. It’s not like we were trying lisianthus or eucalyptus or trachelium, species that are well-known for their finicky nature and difficulty.
I ordered packets of seeds, waiting until it arrived to eagerly rip open the package to reveal the glossy foil packets. Inside each packet was a packet of tiny black seeds, barely the size of a pinhead, looking more like dust than seed. I didn’t care though, I knew that inside each of those little miniscule dots contained the potential for a plant, a plant with fuzzy green leaves and wiry stems that would unfurl to produce fat green pods that would eventually burst open to reveal satiny wrinkled petals, unfurling outwards like a silk ball gown until a gorgeous beautiful poppy came forth.
I ran out to the garage to quickly mash out a tray of soil blocks, then carefully and lovingly placed a single seed in each of the little divots on the soil blocks. I covered it, watered it carefully, then placed it onto a heat mat to await little happy seedlings.
To my excitement, within just a few days, I saw little green sprouts. I could have danced with excitement! Soon I would be able to run through fields of Icelandic poppies, skipping through colorful rows of their billowy blossoms.
At the end of the week, I ran back to look at the poppy seedlings. And stopped.
They looked exactly the same that they had nearly seven days ago.
I frowned. Maybe I had been mistaken? Maybe they had grown, but I just hadn’t noticed.
I decided to wait another week. I ran back again and lifted the humidity dome that covered them.
There had been a visible change. But not for the better.
Instead of happy little green seedlings, I saw each of the seedlings flopped over, brown and sad.
I picked up a block to check and inspect it more closely. The seedling was slimy to the touch, and when I tugged on it, the stem dissolved at my touch.
Damping off. Damnit! Such a stupid mistake to make, but I guessed that poppies were especially prone to it. I would ensure that it didn’t happen the next time.
I proceeded to make another tray of soil blocks and planted more seeds. Luckily for me, I had given myself enough time to start another tray.
I covered with the humidity dome again. Again, I watched as the little seedlings popped up with their happy little green leaves, but this time with a bit more caution. I ensured that I only used sterilized water, scrubbed everything that I used to touch it, and watched and pampered those little seedlings.
One day I noticed algae starting to grow around the edges of one of the blocks. Given that algae growing was a sign of too much moisture, I took off the lid to allow for better air circulation.
Little did I know that at that same point, we also had a home intruder. The furry, beady-eyed, bushy-tailed kind. And little did I know that after I had taken off the lid, that same day, a furry beady-eyed and hungry intruder would pay a visit to the rack on which I was starting my seeds.
I thought something was weird when I came downstairs. I was pretty sure I had watered the trays, so why did they look so dry? As I got closer, I felt a cold hand grip my heart. No, no, no! Why was there potting mix everywhere? Why did things look such a mess? I reached down to sift through a tray that had once been happy little poppy seedlings, but was now just a mess of roots and broken soil.
It was clear that something had been digging through the trays, even eating some things like the succulents and bachelor buttons I had been babying.
We didn't have poppies last year. It was a big disappointment, and a very sore point in regards to our flower growing. They were so simply, yet so difficult, and is something that we should be more than capable of - but were still somehow incapable of accomplishing. Too hot, too cold, too moist, too dry, unexpected rodents, dropping flats, all in all I planted thousands of poppies and not a single one made it to bloom.
This year, we are starting poppy seedlings. Lots of them, to make sure. But we are also ordering in poppy plugs. Because even knowing everything we know now, sometimes things don’t go according to plan. I mean really, that’s the one constant in farming and growing - mother nature sometimes has a completely opposite agenda of what we are planning. Seeds don’t germinate well, trays get overwatered or underwatered, there’s a late freeze or earlier hot spells, the line of plant is discontinued, or a herd of deer devastate it just before it’s about to bloom.
And yet we all continue to do this. This struggle against nature, seemingly sometimes against the odds, because we are optimistic. We have hope, we too believe that we will at one point in the future that we will have armloads of billowy papery poppies that will make everyone on Instagram so jealous that you are living such a charmed life.
While it’s important to maintain that dream, it’s also important to have a backup plan. In case everything fails, which happens more often than we would like. Especially if you have florists or farmer’s markets depending on those plants. There’s something very important about having a backup plan in case everything else should fail.
This is the first story in our series of personal lessons learned from flower farming