I’ve spent the last few months traveling around the country as a freelance floral designer–always south of home, but usually in the warmer climates of the South and Southwest. Spending time in these states and visiting with their inhabitants has prompted a lot of personal reflection on home and my business here.
Minnesota has arguably one of the harshest climates in the U.S. Often in the path of the polar jet stream and about as far as you can get from an ocean, there are 3 frost-free months if you’re lucky, and maybe 5 months of weather warm enough for plants to grow. Sometimes, it’s less than that. Temps can dip below -30* or -40* before wind chill. Watching the eyes of countless southern folk pop right out of their heads when I tell them this, really puts into perspective just how insanely difficult it is to grow flowers here.
It has taken me these 5 seasons to even begin to build a successful calendar of logistics. Here’s what it looks like:
I begin starting seeds around the middle of January, stretching the recommended length of time for seedlings to be grown indoors before transplanting outside to its absolute limit and beyond. I need those little plants to be as mature as possible before transplanting them out, because I need them to bloom as soon as possible.
With this year’s addition of a high tunnel, I plan to set out an experimental batch of extra seedlings only as early as the second-to-last week of April, with the additional protection of frost cloth. These are plants that must be able to tolerate cooler weather, as temps can be highly variable in April and often dip below freezing outside. They will be monitored carefully, and if they die from cold (an event that is totally possible, but impossible to predict) they can be replaced by their “official planting” counterparts in subsequent weeks. If I am lucky, and I mean very lucky, I might have some flowers, including tulips and narcissi which are hopefully going to be coaxed into early bloom in the high tunnel, by Mother’s Day.
Then, I have a few rows this year that will be protected by low tunnels, so I can transplant some things one week before the projected last frost date–which is MAY 17th, people–after which I will frantically plant the rest of the garden (almost all of it) all at once. Then, if everything goes according to plan, which it usually doesn’t, I will have a decent volume of salable flowers beginning around the middle of June.
This will be a huge improvement from last year’s crop, which didn’t begin producing until the middle of July as we had a cold June which stunted growth and production. This left me with 1.5 months (during which the number of days that got above 90* could be counted on one hand) to frantically sell as many flowers as possible before sales abruptly dropped after Labor Day, followed by production tapering off due to cooler weather and shorter days, and then all flowers being killed by frost, usually around the middle of September. This coming and any year, there could be a frost as late as the beginning of June that could kill everything. Or, everything could warm up early and I could have my best year ever. You just never know, and you have to risk it all (with precautions that may or may not work) or gain nothing.
Running a business where you have about 3 months in which to make money, but a full year of planning and marketing activities, is a challenge at best and just about impossible to maintain at worst. I am so grateful that my growing and selling season lines up with the tourist-y summer season, where the population of the surrounding area grows about 300% between Memorial and Labor Day… if not for that, the money made in those 3 months would not even be worth it for me, living rent and care-free with my parents.
I don’t write this all out for the purpose of complaining. This is the life and work I have chosen, and now that I’m a grown-up 19 year old I could choose to leave and do something else, or grow flowers somewhere else. I’m staying this year because of the amazing and supportive community that I’ve come to know and love, and because I know I can do well and succeed if I work hard, make a solid plan and stick to it like it’s my religion.
I wanted to provide this look into my work to inform my customers and followers about just how challenging it is to do this, and how valuable the flowers are that come out of it. Being a flower farmer is not easy anywhere you live, and every region has its unique challenges, but Minnesota really doesn’t pull punches. The flowers that I produce are the product of incredibly hard work and intensely detailed planning followed to the T. My respect for all of the other flower farmers (and farmers in general) that are hustling hard in Minnesota and other frigid climates knows no bounds.
As much as I wish for an easier growing season and warmer weather, I always find that the hard work, uncertainty, and occasional disappointments are all worth the beauty and joy that come out of it, and the creativity and autonomy I have in my job. I will continue learning and working through every blizzard, late frost, and challenge that this fierce but beautiful state throws at me.