Whatever type of plants you decide to grow, it will be so important to keep your operation as simple and as straightforward as it can be. I’ll walk through the basics of how to grow flowers and plants from seeds for profit with this straightforwardness in mind.
The larger your nursery and the more varieties or markets that you try to service will increase your chances of failure. Specialised small nurseries that have remained focused on their core business have usually the best chance of success.
I have always had admiration for the growers that I have read about that have kept to one single crop and then steadily increased their market share. With success though will be the temptation to increase your production area and markets.
I would suggest that before attempting to take on extra staff or production that you think it through very carefully as this can lead to problems.
Whatever you decide to grow it will also be vitally important to keep records of your production and especially of your inputs and costs from the beginning. All costs can be offset against your tax.
You will need to keep these records also for your own benefit to measure your profitability. Sales records are so important of every day that you market your produce and you will need to develop your own system for recording this information.
Equally important will be a record of what plants have succeeded, which ones have failed both in terms of sales and growth in order for you to plan your strategy. Records will also need to be kept of your customers and suppliers so that you can build on these or perhaps substitute one for another.
Growing your plants for sale is fun and easy to do. Many people who have had no experience at all in growing plants are surprised at how easy it is.
Growing Plants from Seed
Seed sowing is generally inexpensive when growing plants. The equipment that is required is minimal. It is useful to keep in mind though that a greenhouse is always desirable when growing any seeds as this can protect the young seedlings as well as your seed trays. Even if one does not have a greenhouse then seeds can easily be grown outdoors.
Perhaps the most important equipment that you will need will be trays in which to sow your tree seed. These can be of varying sizes and can even be made up out of wood or old fruit boxes. The best trays to use though are the plastic standard size seed trays available in any garden centre, which measure 37.3cm in length by 24cm wide and have a depth of 5.5cm.
This is a standard size in the horticulture industry and it is always better to buy a heavy-duty plastic as the lightweight trays often will not last longer than one or two seasons. If one is to sow smaller quantities of seed, then there are even smaller trays which are very useful and can measure 23cm x17cm x 6cm. A mini seed tray can be used for smaller quantities of seed and measure 15.5cm x 10cm x 4.5cm.
If one is to keep the seed trays outdoors then it is advisable to use a clear plastic or perspex lid to place on the seed tray to keep pests from the seed. These can easily be found on the internet as well. A covering of clear plastic sheeting can also be used for this purpose, which is stretched over the seed tray and ideally raised slightly above the rim by an inch or two.
This will also assist in raising the temperature when spring approaches. Never underestimate the damage that can be done by rodents (mice and rats) and birds to seed. They have an ability to smell seed (in the case of mice) from a long distance and birds have an instinct to dig up and eat seed in sown trays.
To insert seed into the compost a tool called a dibber is used. These can be made of wood or plastic and are easily found on the internet. They are used for making a hole in the compost into which the seed is placed. A pencil or pen can easily be used for this purpose as well.
A compost presser can be used to firm up the compost in the trays. This is usually a flat piece of wood with a small handle which can easily be made. One can easily use a piece of plywood which is slightly smaller than the size of the seed tray for this purpose and glue a small handle onto it.
Propagators are electric units which supply heat to the base of seed trays to speed up germination. These can be bought in a range of different sizes and prices to fit ones budget. They are very useful when germinating certain types of seed, especially tropical types and when one wishes to speed up the germinating process, towards the end of winter, and the beginning of spring.
The other most important item to include is the compost or growing medium.
As you can imagine there are so many different types of soil and compost mixes to choose from when growing plants or sowing seed. It is very important though to use the best possible growing medium for your tree seeds.
If the soil consists of very small particles then there will be insufficient drainage through the seed tray and the seeds will become waterlogged and can rot. Another consequence of bad drainage can be the growth of moss and liverwort.
If though the particle size is too large and drainage is too rapid then the medium can dry out too rapidly which will kill the emerging seedlings or dry out the germinating seeds. An excellent way to get the best seed tray soil is to mix it personally. For this you will need just normal garden centre compost and fine vermiculite. Vermiculite is mica which has been treated so that it has expanded and this enables it to hold water and it also has excellent aeration properties.
If one mixes fine vermiculite with normal compost roughly in a 50:50 ratio, it will have perfect qualities for seed sowing. It is even better if the compost can be sieved prior to mixing, using a garden sieve which can be found in most garden centres. Vermiculite is easily bought on the internet (e.g. eBay) or through mail-order garden catalogues and is well worth investing in as it is also brilliant for mixing a potting mix for later planting out.
Outdoor Seed Beds
When using prepared seed beds outdoors the soil will either require sieving in order to obtain the correct tilth for seed sowing or a fair degree of preparation. Soil is best prepared by digging over (single or double digging) and then forking over.
The next stage is repeated raking with both a broad rake and then a fine rake to break up all the larger soil clumps and clods. Vermiculite again is very useful to mix in with the raked or sieved soil in order to blend a perfect medium.
Outdoor seed beds can also be prepared on a large scale by rotavating the soil and repeated raking which can also achieve a fine tilth or soil particle size. It is always better to raise the beds either by raking them to a raised level or by building wooden raised beds.
Wooden raised beds are ideal as the young seedlings can be kept in these beds until they are ready for uplifting and planting into pots. These types of beds also hinder any pests such as slugs entering the seedlings and are easier to work with and well worth the effort in constructing them. It is best to use hard-wearing treated wood. Used scaffolding planks are ideal.
There are a number of benefits of growing seedlings in outdoor beds. Conditions are ideal outdoors and the natural soil that is used will contain potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous which are the essential elements for growth. Another factor to consider is that water is drawn up through the soil and on the whole outdoor seed beds will require slightly less watering than seed trays in a greenhouse.
When the time comes to sow your seed it is always best to have the seed tray or area prepared beforehand. Often it is advisable to very lightly spray the soil surface with water to lightly dampen the soil which can then ‘bind’ it for making the seed hole.
The next stage is to use your dibber (or whatever you use for this purpose) to make the holes for the seed. A rough approximation for the depth of the hole for the seed is about 2-3 times the length of the seed.
The dibber can be used to make the seed holes in the soil, spacing these in a straight line about 4cm apart and about 5cm between the rows. The spacing will also depend on the size of the seed.
The important principle here is that the emerging seedlings will have a small space between them so that they don’t compete too heavily for sunlight and nutrients. However this is not a hugely important issue and even if some of the seedlings are growing fairly closely together, they can easily be separated out at a later stage.
When sowing seeds that are very small in size you can easily ‘sprinkle’ these on the surface of the seed tray, ensuring that they are spread out as evenly as possible, by releasing them through your fingers or gently tapping out the seed packet while moving it over the tray.
The surface is then lightly spread over with vermiculite or sieved compost so that it just covers the seed and does not cover it too heavily. It can also be a good idea with this fine seed to leave one or two seeds just exposed so that you can observe when the seeds start to germinate.
Once the seeds have been placed in their holes, then these holes should be lightly covered over with soil by hand. Finally the seed trays should be lightly watered with a fine spray so that the soil is just slightly moist. If it’s too wet for too long then the seeds can rot.
When seeds are sown over autumn or winter to be left outdoors, or in a cool greenhouse, then they should not require much water during winter but the soil should still be monitored to ensure that it does not dry out.
If seeds are sown in spring or summer then the soil will need to be monitored much more carefully as they will require fairly regular watering. Another way to sow seed in larger trays or in seed beds is to draw a line in the soil with a stick or the handle of a rake, to the depth required.
You can achieve a straight line by laying a twine down between two pegs, if the beds are large outdoor seed beds. The soil can then be lightly covered over the line once the seeds have been sown with regular spacing.
Pricking Out and Potting On
When the seeds have started to germinate it is an amazing time. It is definitely one of the most satisfying things, to achieve a good crop of tiny seedlings full of promise. However it is also one of the most important periods as these tiny seedlings will be at their most vulnerable.
Most seedlings will germinate in spring when the weather has begun to warm up and sunshine levels have increased. In the Northern Hemisphere spring is usually slightly cool with sunny days depending where you live.
If the seedlings are being grown outdoors than they will need protecting from an increased activity of pests such as mice, birds and now slugs. Any of these pests can wreak havoc with seedlings and any measures that can be taken to prevent this should be undertaken. Outdoors seedlings will also need to be checked for water requirements at this stage and it is advisable to use a very fine spray on a hosepipe or watering can as a strong jet can damage small seedlings.
If the sun is particularly strong in early spring or summer, then it can scorch tender seed leaves. In spring and summer it is not uncommon to experience strong storms and even hail, all of which will damage seedlings which is another good reason to enclose any seedling nursery with shade cloth or similar protection.
If your seed trays are being kept in a greenhouse or polytunnel, then the increased temperatures in spring can be rapid on a clear day. The windows of the greenhouse will need to be opened to allow for cooler air to circulate or the seedlings can rapidly be burnt or dry out.
Increased sunshine levels are magnified in a greenhouse or under plastic so this can rapidly lead to scorch. It is a good idea if keeping seedlings in a greenhouse, to cover the glass with shade cloth or whitewash at this time, to reduce light and heat build up.
It is also a good idea to start to acclimatise your seedlings to the outdoors now, by bringing them outside for periods. If these are tender annual types though they are better left in the greenhouse until all danger of frost has gone and temperatures are much higher in summer.
Growing Plants Using Liners/Plugs
Liners or plugs are small starter plants that can be bought from specialist wholesale nurseries. They are usually inexpensive to buy and will only cost a few cents/pence per plant, and are sold per unit of 50 or 100 plants.
This method is an effective way to grow on plants for sale in a few months and is profitably affording a faster turnaround. Perennials, shrubs, and some herbs, in particular, are often best bought in plug/liner form. The production of liners or plugs can be either from cuttings or from seed.
Growing from Cuttings
Many herbaceous perennials and shrubs are propagated by using cuttings (vegetative propagation), which is an inexpensive method of producing certain plants.
The resulting plant grown from cuttings will be ‘true to type’ or an exact clone of the parent plant retaining its flowering characteristic, for example. Some plants are easier than others to grow from cuttings, and some may benefit from a degree of heat such as that provided by a greenhouse.
Keeping Stock for Seed
Some herbaceous perennial flowering plants such as Delphiniums and Lupines are easily grown from seeds sown directly into beds. With plants such as these, it is a good idea to keep some stock specifically so that you can harvest the seeds for sowing.
Wait until the flower heads have begun to dry out in the fall/autumn or late summer, cut the flower heads and leave these to dry hanging in a paper packet. With some shaking, you will soon have more seeds than you can imagine by this method. There are many varieties where it would be worthwhile to harvest your own seed using your own stock. I have grown many thousands of plants, such as delphiniums using this inexpensive method.
Spacing Your Plants in Beds
Whether you have grown your plants in trays in a greenhouse, or sown directly in beds, or have bought in your plugs or liners, you will need to plant these out in your beds with adequate spacing between the plants. This is important as each plant will not want to compete directly with its neighbor for nutrients, water, or sunlight.
Spacing distances between your plants will depend on the varieties as some will be larger plants when mature than others. If the plants are too close together, it can lead to disease, but on the other hand, closer planting will also develop taller and straighter stems.
As a rule of thumb, your larger perennials such as Delphiniums should be spaced at least a few feet apart. If you have sown seeds directly into beds, then these will also need to be lifted and spaced apart once they have reached a few months in age or in early spring if sown in the fall/autumn.
Taller plants (such as delphiniums) may also require staking to ensure that the flower stems do not get blown over in high winds.
Fertilizer requirements will also depend on the quality of your soil. Sandy well-drained soils will require more fertilizer than soils that have high clay content. If you are applying manure in the winter, which has been well roatavated into the beds then your fertilizing needs should be minimal.
If your business is with potted plants then it will be a good idea to incorporate a slow-release fertilizer into the soil medium when potting up. Fertilizers can also be applied at any stage through the watering process in the form of liquid fertilizer.
Pests and Diseases
Hopefully, you will not have to bother too much with either pests or diseases. Still, it is worth noting that certain plants such as Lupines are particularly prone to greenfly/aphid attack in spring and summer and will often require spraying with an insecticide to keep these pests down.
Slugs will also present a problem in spring and summer and can cause a lot of damage to young seedlings in particular. Downy and powdery mildew needs to be prevented if outbreaks occur.