When I first started designing for weddings, nearly every couple asked me for roses. My first season, I stuttered a good bit, trying to explain how I didn’t have them because they are very challenging to grow organically in our climate. I didn’t mention that I also happen to strongly dislike roses. Too much fuss, and I hate those thorns! I realized pretty quickly that I needed to have a good alternative to offer if I was going to be successful as a wedding florist. Enter lisianthus – a far superior rose!
I remember my first ASCFG conference and listening to experienced growers debate the merits and shortcomings of lisianthus. I got the decided impression that they were hard to grow. So when I started growing them myself, I was so surprised at how easy they were. Lisianthus are now one of our top crops in terms of quantities and sales, second only to the dahlias. Realizing that there are currently a lot of new growers, especially farmer florists, in our membership, I thought it might be a great time to demystify this crop that really is ridiculously easy to grow with a few tried-and-true tricks up your sleeve.
It is important to note that all our lisianthus at Love ‘n Fresh Flowers are grown in the field. You do not need a greenhouse or hoophouse to grow beautiful lisianthus.
1. Plant Early
Just about everyone knows how slow growing lisianthus are. If you don’t, you’ll soon find out with your first crop. What is maybe less common knowledge is how cold/frost tolerant lisianthus are since these blooms are most often associated with the high heat of summer. While the plants love the heat to throw up their flouncy blooms, they actually also love cool temperatures for putting on root growth, which is what ultimately supports tall and bountiful harvests.
As such, we are religious about putting our lisianthus in the ground, out in the field, on April 1st each year, regardless of the spring conditions. The tiny rosettes hug the ground and therefore are well protected against freezing and frost. If the weather is particularly nasty, we will cover them with a layer of frost blanket, but that’s rare.
To get them in the ground April 1st, we make sure to talk to our plug broker in November so the plug grower(s) have enough time to get our plugs going. While we grow 99% of what we have at the farm from seed ourselves, lisianthus is the one crop that I will never bother to grow from seed again. Instead, we get our plugs from our supplier(s) the last week of February or the first week of March in 210s and typically bump them up to two inch soil blocks as soon as we get them and grow on in those for a month until planting out.
This early planting date gives the plants plenty of time to put on growth before the heat of summer and also gives them a bit of an edge over those tenacious summer weeds.
2. Weed Management
Speaking of weeds, if you’re going to grow lisianthus, you need to have a serious weed management game plan in place for them. Because these plants stay small for several months and most of the leaves are at the base as a rosette, aggressive weeds, especially creepers like crabgrass, will quickly overtake plants and smother them. This is a high value crop worth investing in so I gladly pay for a plastic mat system called FloraFlow (www.floraflow.com) that comes with pre-punched holes that are only two inches in diameter so there’s very little room for weeds to grow up though the holes. It also keeps the lisianthus cropping system very tidy and efficiently spaced as a whole so we can fit a lot of plants into a small amount of space.
But plastic is not a silver bullet for weeds. We make weeding the lisianthus top priority around the farm. It’s much easier on us and better for the crop if we weed early and often rather than waiting until the situation is dire and we pull up as many young lisianthus as we do weeds. So put some reminders on your calendar to get those lisianthus weeded at least every two weeks if you have decent weed pressure at your farm. Make sure to water well immediately after each weeding so that the delicate roots get re-settled into the ground.
We grow organically at our farm so we rely on regular foliar applications of fish and kelp emulsion to feed our lisianthus. When prepping the beds in the spring, we amend them with compost, cotton seed meal and green potash. We have a really nice loamy clay soil at our farm that the lisianthus love because it holds water but does not stay wet. I suspect that growing this crop in sandy soils or heavy clay might be more challenging, but I don’t have experience with that.
As with all flowers, you need to consider your end buyer before you make any decisions about which lisianthus varieties to grow. We use all our lisianthus “in house”, mostly for weddings and occasionally for straight bunches sold through our grocery store accounts. As such, we have the luxury of being able to grow some of the shorter varieties that hold up better to bad storms and do not need netting and some of the oddball colors like Roseanne Brown. But if you are selling wholesale mostly to florists, you will be expected to grow the taller varieties since stem length (sadly, in my opinion) means more money. If you’re selling mostly at a farmers market, you probably should avoid Roseanne Brown because all your customers are going to think it looks dead (and frankly, it does). So, before you start drooling over every cool photo in the catalog, think carefully about who’s going to be buying from you.
Something to also consider when choosing lisianthus varieties is if you want to net them in the field or not. I’m going to be honest: I hate netting. I’m working hard to get away from it as much as possible at our farm. It’s expensive, both to purchase and to put up every season (mucho man hours) and it makes harvesting so much slower and often a bit wasteful with all the broken stems, especially when it comes to brittle lisianthus. So we’ve been net-free on our lisianthus for two seasons now. This means that some old favorites have been given the boot (ABC 3-4 Pink, I’m looking at you) and a lot of new varieties have been trialed specifically to find out if they’ll stay upright on their own, even in our wicked summer storms here in the Mid-Atlantic. Some varieties that have done particularly well for us without netting are ABC 3-4 White, Echo Champagne, Echo Lavender, and Rosanne Green.
Like snapdragons, lisianthus are segmented into bloom-time categories so you will sometimes see numbers associated with variety names (i.e., ABC 3-4 White). Also like snapdragons, I have found that programing blooms in the field is much harder than it would be in a greenhouse, which is where that number system were developed. Inevitably, your lisianthus are going to bloom pretty much all at once when field grown. Be prepared for this with a sales outlet eager to buy them as soon as you pick them. There was an article in a recent Quarterly that talked about experimenting with pinching lisianthus. We did not have a chance to try pinching to stagger the blooms this year, but plan to give it a go next year.
5. Second Flush
Assuming you were diligent in getting your plugs into the ground in early April, in the Mid-Atlantic area there is a long enough growing season to get a very nice second flush off of your lisianthus, usually sometime in early to mid-September. This second flush is much welcomed at our farm since it’s perfectly timed for our very full autumn wedding season.
To get a good second flush, you need to do a few important tasks. First, when you harvest the first flush of blooms in July, make sure you are cutting the plants back almost to the base. Do not leave stumps of stems that will just result in weak secondary growth. Once you’ve gleaned all of your first flush of blooms, take time to thoroughly weed the bed, irrigate, and fertilize, ideally all on the same day. This gives the plants a huge boost and the signal to go ahead and put energy back into putting on new growth instead of shutting down. Then remember to be diligent about weeding every week or so thereafter. At our farm, we have to battle the crabgrass in particular in late July when it’s rampant.
Remember to keep your lisianthus well irrigated while it puts on this new growth in the middle of the heat of summer, especially every time after you weed. I try to spray again with fish and kelp emulsion as the new stems are beginning to get taller. Any and all TLC you can give the lisianthus while they put out the second growth will result in taller and more plentiful blooms in September.
Now is a great time to start thinking about what lisianthus plugs you want to order for next year!