Whether you want to grow a cut flower garden for your own enjoyment or to start a business, you will find Lisa Mason Ziegler’s advice on succession planting with flowers very useful. Lisa, a cut flower growing expert and author, returns to the podcast this week to share her tips.
Lisa is the founder of The Gardener’s Workshop in Newport News, Virginia, which offers seeds, supplies and online courses. She’s been farming flowers for a quarter of a century and is the author of “Vegetables Love Flowers: Companion Planting for Beauty and Bounty” and “Cool Flowers: How to Grow and Enjoy Long-Blooming Hardy Annual Flowers Using Cool Weather Techniques.”
With her emails, videos and courses, Lisa provides a great service to flower farmers and anybody who just wants to grow flowers better. Anytime Lisa sends anything out, I forward it to my farm manager, Tobi, because Lisa’s word is gospel to us, with great wisdom behind it.
On my property, the GardenFarm™, the entire perimeter of the vegetable garden area is now dedicated to growing flowers. I’m excited to have Lisa here to explain how to keep it in bloom throughout the growing season by practicing succession planting.
What Is Succession Planting and Why to Practice It
Succession planting is the practice of spreading out when seeds are sown and when transplants go into the ground, so harvests will be staggered over a longer period. In vegetable gardening, this means you’ll enjoy fresh produce for a greater span of time. In flower gardening, it means having fresh-cut flowers for months rather than weeks and blooms available to attract and sustain pollinators for an extended period.
Instead of aiming to plant her whole garden all at once — which is a lot of work — Lisa divides her garden in three and plants a third right away, the next third later on and the final third even later.
“There are so many benefits to this,” Lisa says. “Not only is this the secret to how farmers have a consistent supply of whether it be vegetables or flowers to sell commercially, it actually makes the most out of your own resources.”
Lisa often hears from growers that they don’t have enough heat mats, grow lights and space to start all of their seeds. Succession planting to the rescue!
“Twenty-five years in, and I still don’t have enough space,” Lisa shares. “… That is a constant challenge.”
She compares succession planting to running a 50-yard dash rather than a marathon. Instead of starting a ton of seeds at one time and then planting them out all at one time, start the seeds you have room for. When it’s time to plant them out, start the next round of seeds on the recently vacated heat mats.
“It gives you a consistent supply of product, whether it’s flowers or vegetables,” she says. “It spreads out the work, it makes the most out of your resources, and for me as a commercial flower farmer, what I learned is when that 10-minute Thursday afternoon weirdo weather event rolls across my farm and flattens 2,000 sunflowers, guess what? There are two other plantings on the other side of the farm that weren’t touched.”
I always aim to practice succession planting with my tomatoes, but then I overdo that first round of sowing. I intend to root tomato suckers to be planted as a second crop in July, but by then my garden is full and it is hard to muster the energy or even the desire to plant more tomatoes. I know it will take mental preparation and cutting back on the volume of my initial planting before I can follow through on succession planting.
For Lisa, succession planting is more of a necessity.
“I was forced to really get into succession planting because I’m a commercial producer of flowers and I needed to have as much to sell to my customers,” she notes.
The biggest cash crop time of year for commercial flower growers is spring, Lisa says, and fall is the second busiest. Growers are a bit burnt out after spring and summer, but if they forget to plant fall crops like amaranth or sunflowers, they miss many opportunities.
Lisa says exercising control in the beginning is not emphasized enough, particularly for the home gardener and the budding commercial grower. “They’re so eager,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Pace yourself.’ Because the big bang is later in the season if you hold off and leave space in your garden, space in your mind and space for your back to actually do the job.”
Lisa’s Succession Planting Strategy
No matter the size of your garden, break it up into thirds. In the first third of growing space, plant it in fall with cool-season hardy annuals that will bloom in spring. The second third, planted in spring, is dedicated to the first warm-season plants, such as basil, sunflowers and zinnias — a mix that Lisa calls her “summer recipe.” And in the final third, plant it weeks later with the summer recipe.
As the final third is being planted, that first third that was fall-planted is just about spent and can be planted with a third round of summer flowers.
Learning to Pull Out Plants
“The hardest part of this job of succession planting is removing crops when they need to be removed,” Lisa says. “People hate pulling out stuff.”
When plants are not producing because they are diseased or have fallen victim to pests, it’s time for them to go. Your garden will be better served by removing them to make room for something that will actually be productive.
It is tough to remove a plant when you think there may be some life left in it. The will to do so comes with time, and it comes slowly. I will tell you that I’m getting a little bit better each season with that, and I feel empowered by being okay with pulling something out. It is a psychological boost to know that you are allowing yourself to actually follow through on what you know you need to do.
In a commercial operation, the need to turn over a garden bed is that much more important. For a home gardener, keeping the same zinnia plant in the garden until it is killed by frost can be very satisfying and a very good use of the space — especially for attracting pollinators. On a flower farm, growers know that zinnias will produce their biggest and best blooms in the first weeks, and the blooms that follow won’t be as robust. So a plant that is acceptable to a home gardener may not be acceptable to a farmer, but knowing this about zinnias may inspire some home gardeners to do a second planting to enjoy better blooms in late summer and early fall.
Lisa warns that if you do plan to turn over an unproductive bed, get to work. Don’t allow weeds to take over while you wait. Get it cut, brush hog it if necessary, and cover it with silage tarp to suppress weeds until you’re ready to replant it.
When to Sow Flowers for a Late Crop
If planning a second or even third round of blooms, it’s important to be conscious of the days-to-bloom written on the seed packet as well as the expected date of the first frost. If a flower takes 70 days to bloom from the time the seed is sown but there are only 60 days left before frost arrives, it doesn’t make any sense to sow those seeds. Opt for a flower variety with a shorter days-to-bloom span, and in the future plan ahead to sow with adequate time before frost.
“The best tools that people can have on their toolbelt is knowing their first and last historic expected frost dates,” Lisa says.
If you find you have missed your window of opportunity for a late-summer crop, you can instead work on cool-season hardy annuals that will come up in spring.
“There’s always something to plant, I typically say, for most people,” Lisa says. “There’s always something to do for your succession garden and to be starting something.”
Know What Seeds Want
The only direct seeding done on Lisa’s farm is in the fall for the handful of cool-season hardy annuals that love the variation in temperatures that fall planting offers. It’s really hard to duplicate that variation — warm days, cool nights — indoors, Lisa notes.
Some seeds can be both direct-seeded and started indoors successfully, and Lisa prefers starting indoors when possible.
“As commercial growers, hands down, you get easier, less labor, more efficiency by starting everything indoors as much as you can,” she says. “Direct seeding is more labor intensive for sure.”
If you love to grow tomatoes as I do, you know that when a seed packet reads “days to maturity,” you count from the day the seedlings were transplanted outside rather than from the day seeds were sown. For Lisa, growing flowers, she counts the “days to bloom” from the date that the seeds were sown in soil blocks.
Benefits and Methods of Soil Blocking
“In our high production years, soil blocking allowed us to start and support indoors — and grow lights and shelves — 100,000 seedlings a year throughout all the seasons,” Lisa says. “And it just was so easy to maintain and do — and super space savvy.”
Lisa learned soil blocking from market gardener Eliot Coleman’s book, “The New Organic Grower.” She is a big fan of Eliot, and so am I. What I think a lot of people love about Eliot is that he’s a real thinker and doer, and he’s been at it forever. He’s always asking, is this the best way and is there a better way? He’s very forthcoming with his information and his support of the little guys out there. He’s a treasure.
One difference in how Lisa does things compared to Eliot is the size of her soil blocks. She uses block makers that produce ¾-inch soil blocks, which are smaller than what Eliot uses and allow her to fit more seedlings in limited space.
Lisa never bumps her seedlings up to pots or larger blocks. She says that she didn’t have the option to use a larger block maker because she doesn’t have the space that would be required, and she needs to start thousands of seedlings at a time, not just a couple of hundred.
Lisa says that the transplants she starts in soil blocks don’t go through transplant shock, which is a big reason to use soil blocking rather than cell trays. Roots in soil blocks naturally “air prune” when they hit the edge of a block. In cells, the roots keep wrapping around and then have trouble adapting when planting in a garden bed.
“The bottom line is this timing,” Lisa says. “We plant zinnias when they’re two to three weeks old. They’re four to five inches tall, and they are gorgeous in that little block. But if you try to push them a week past two to three weeks, they start getting ugly and diseased and stretching. There’s nothing you can do.”
She says she based her career on being able to start large volumes of seeds. She does a tabletop version of soil blocking where the blocks can be watered on racks with solid bottom trays with no drainage holes.
“People most often start way too early and then they send me pictures of these horrible-looking seedlings in the ¾-inch block,” Lisa says.
Her first question is how old the seedlings are, because if they are more than three weeks old in those tiny blocks, it would explain why they are struggling.
“That would be like putting 200 people on a school bus and leaving them on there,” Lisa says. “You just can’t do it that long.”
Lisa’s Soil Blocking Recipe
- 16 cups sifted peat moss or coir (coconut fiber)
- 4 cups sifted finished compost
- ¼ cup greensand or kelp powder
- ¼ cup rock phosphate powder
Mix the ingredients while dry, then add three parts of the dry mixture to one part water and mix. This will make enough soil blocking mix for 500 ¾-inch blocks or 36 2-inch blocks.
It is important to use sifted ingredients and powder in order to form the blocks, Lisa notes.
Covering cropping is the practice of sowing seeds in an empty bed to crowd out weeds, prevent erosion, encourage beneficial microbes to proliferate, and put carbon, nitrogen and organic material into the soil. This is typically done over the winter or whenever a field or garden bed is out of production. Cover crops are sometimes called “green manure” because once they are turned into the soil, they improve the soil’s fertility.
Lisa does not recommend that beginners use cover crops on their resting flower beds. It can be a big hassle to turn in cover crops, particularly so in raised garden beds.
“Cover crops can lead you into a dark spot if you leave them too long, and then you’ll never come back,” Lisa says.
She recommends amending soil with compost or leaf mold to build up organic matter rather than cover cropping.
If you haven’t already listened to my conversation with Lisa Mason Ziegler on succession planting with flowers, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Have you had success succession planting with flowers? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing, and harvesting your favorite vegetables: no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
The Gardener’s Workshop Live Shop on Fridays at noon ET — see the harvest and more.
The Gardener’s Workshop Digital Catalog
Lisa’s Flower Farming School Online: The Basics, Annual Crops, Marketing & More is now available anytime.
“Vegetables Love Flowers: Companion Planting for Beauty and Bounty by Lisa Mason Ziegler
“The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower’s Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers” by Lynn Byczynski
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.