By CALLIE DANIELS BRYANT
When one pictures Mississippi fragrant magnolias come to mind as well as seemingly endless fields of cotton. Now picture those fields but with bright flowers from floral shops all over the South: peonies, Asiatic lilies, dahlias and even sunflowers for cutting to sell to florists. Thus was born the state’s inaugural Mississippi Grown Cut Flower Association, an organization that educates locals to grow profitable cut flowers that can be sold to venues.
The president of Mississippi Urban Forest Council, Donna Yowell, has had this vision ever since she owned a flower shop in Jackson – the first “bucket shop” that sold loose stems of cut flowers for 15 years.
“We purchased from wholesalers that bought most flowers from other countries and we ordered from a cut flower farm in South America. Every time I opened a box of flowers I was reminded that we can grow 90 percent of what I was ordering from Bogota,” said Yowell.
Those imported flowers took over two weeks to arrive at stores too, and Yowell realized that locally grown and cut flowers would not only be speedier and fresher but also support Mississippi’s economy as the state can import its locally grown flowers to other states with shorter growing seasons.
“The varieties we can grow in Mississippi is huge,” Yowell said. “It ranges anywhere from annual, perennial, bulbs, corms, shrubs, foliages and tree branches. A florist quality cut flower is only different from other flowers in that it should hold up in a vase five to 10 days and with sturdy stems to be used in bouquets as well as other florist products.”
There are over 165 varieties of Asiatic lilies, gladiolus, sunflower, liatris and dahlias that could be grown in Mississippi “and that does not include all the possibilities – those are just the easiest to grow,” said Yowell.
In the northern part of Mississippi the residents could grow colder climate varieties such as peony, poppies and other flowers that would be difficult in central or southern parts of the state. Those on Mississippi’s coast could grow some tropical flowers that would not otherwise survive the winter in central or north Mississippi.
“Majority of flowers recommended can be grown throughout the state. One the ones with particular needs as to hot and cold weather make the difference as to the best growing locations,” Yowell said.
Yowell saw firsthand success of this vision when she planted and maintained the state’s first public cut flower garden for the governor’s mansion for nearly a decade in the 1990’s.
“The purpose of that garden was to provide cut flowers for decoration and events in the mansion. It turned out to be a very successful market,” she said.
This vision never left Yowell, who is a Master Gardener since 1989 with a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture from Mississippi State University. She has helped develop numerous projects for Mississippi like Edible Forest, Storm Preparedness and Mitigation for Mississippi Communities and Bloom Town Mississippi which she then expanded Mississippi Grown Cut Flower Association from.
The Bloom Town Mississippi program trained city leaders on how they could add blooming trees, shrubs and flowers to city and town landscapes to enhance communities for economic success, tourism and quality of life. Yowell successfully trained over 169 cities so she felt it was time to offer that education to everyone in Mississippi especially since there were sustainable economic opportunities in growing cut flowers to sell to venues.
“This is a project I have always wanted to do but never had the time raising a family as a single business mom,” she said. “But now is the time, locally grown markets are everywhere and are very popular. And we have a better handle on our asset in farming in Mississippi and the diversity of crops we can grow over and above conventional commodity crops.”
Yowell did sample marketing over the past two years to see if businesses would support locally gown and cut flowers. She found that nearly every venue from flower shops to hotels and offices as well as event planners and restaurants are willing to buy locally grown flowers if the supply is there. Yowell believes Mississippi can meet that demand.
She went to Nellie Neal, known as GardenMama to Mississippian’s radios, whom she has shared projects with in the past.
“Since the focus of this project is training and education I thought two minds are always better than one,” she said, “so I invited Nellie to join this effort as well as Horticultural Therapy program. Growing cut flowers is very specific. Details (do) count as well as knowing what to grow, where to grow and when as well as conditioning and a lot of smaller details are important for success and happy customers.”
Nellie Neal, who operates the website GardenMama.com where people can learn horticulture, added that she and Yowell are “serious about changing the way we grow and market cut flowers in Mississippi.”
She and Yowell both see that there is money to be and kept in Mississippi, for produce farmers to add to their crops as well as new flower farms to emerge, but also for backyard growers to supplement their income.
“Cut flowers are a very profitable crop compared to food,” Yowell said. “We are trying to grow that industry in Mississippi for citizens, farmers, homeowners and others who want to grow cut flowers for selling. We have 12 months of the year that we can produce blooms, woody stems, foliage and other material that is valuable in the cut flower industry. What’s important is that we can produce these without greenhouses.”
Yowell and Neal began the project in November of 2017 with a few small but comprehensive workshops on producing and marketing cut flowers.
“Donna Yowell and I are both horticulturists with different specialties that allow us to teach everything from flower choice and cultivation to business plans, branding, and creating products for diverse markets. Between us and the other speakers we invite to the workshops, we offer a mountain of education and experience suited to novice growers and veteran flower farmers,” Neal said.
Mississippians showed so much interest in those workshops that they decided to expand to a 10-week training series. Since establishing a Facebook page, “Flower Growers of Mississippi” the association grew to over 1,200 members in less than a year. Over 175 people participated in all or a part of the training series with now seven graduates who trained the entire series Yowell and Neal had to offer.
Neal said, “Beyond those important statistics, however, I can say that everywhere I go, people are asking me about the Flower Growers of Mississippi and want to know when the workshops will be coming to their area of the state.”
One of their students, Dianne Horne, signed up for their workshops with her husband, Randy Horne, last year.
“The first class was on November 29, 2017,” Horne said. “We went to the class to get an overview of what the program was all about. We liked it so much we committed to it that day. We live in Olive Branch so that meant driving three hours each way to attend the classes. We were so excited about the classes that we didn’t consider that a problem.”
The Hornes are both Master Gardeners who inherited the love of gardening from their mothers. They thoroughly enjoyed “an intense study of all things to do with cut flowers from planting seeds to cutting and conditioning the end project” in addition to the business end of selling and marketing. The classes included three hours of study along with new speakers that made each class exciting for them.
“Yowell and Neal were wonderful! Their knowledge of cut flowers is amazing. We also took a field trip to one of the local nurseries. They worked very hard to teach us and they were always there to answer our questions and help us,” Horne said.
Horne added that they will be growing Asiatic lilies, dahlias, gladiolus, zinnias and sunflowers in an experiment to see what grows best for them. This undertaking has been rewarding to them since they are both retired, in addition to planting milkweed to attract Monarch butterflies to help boost their decreasing migration numbers.
Yowell added that they have had people from Louisiana and Alabama attend their workshops.. She said that this July they will conduct another 10-week series in central Mississippi plus a farmers’ market exhibition for all growers to showcase their products at the Jackson Market.
They also have two-day seminars coming up in New Albany and Diamondhead / Ocean Springs. That summer they will also host a farmers market exhibit for all growers this July.
“We are offering these two-days’ training seminars to any city or community groups that is willing to host these events. So, if any community has over 25 people interested in growing cut flowers for profit or fun or both, please contact us,” Yowell said.
Yowell and Neal were also invited to speak at Oxford Landscape Camp held at the Inn at Ole Miss on May 25 to 27.
“I did the Oxford Landscape Camp last year and presented a show of what flowers we can grow in Mississippi and demonstrated samples from the local grocery store on what could have been grown in Oxford instead of South America. Rosie Vassallo said they liked it so much they invited me back to share more growing detail on some of the varieties as well as doing a design from locally grown products,” said Yowell.
Director of the Retirement Attraction Program for the Oxford-Lafayette County, Rosie Vassallo, had invited them to speak at the workshop. Last year was the inaugural Oxford Landscape Camp in which the University of Mississippi’s landscaper Jeff McManus was the featured speaker where he shared tips, tricks, and secrets on how the University of Mississippi has been recognized by numerous publications as the most beautiful campus in the country. A line-up of professional horticulturists were added, including Yowell.
“Donna Yowell was invited to share her expertise on cut flower gardening. I knew she was responsible for starting the first cut flower garden at the Governor’s Mansion and thought that would be of interest to our campers. She was highly complimented last year, and has been asked to speak again this year at our second annual Landscaping Camp,” said Vassallo.
She added that Yowell’s expertise goes beyond curb appeal in making flower gardens turn a profit.
Yowell and Neal are excited to welcome new and experienced gardeners to their workshops.
Neal said, “We are stronger together – join us to learn what you don’t know and share your experience. Together we will make Mississippi a driving force in the Vase to Table movement of fresh, locally-sourced cut flowers.”
Yowell added they will talk about horticultural therapy as a modality using gardening activities to address physical and mental issues ranging from stress, team building, kids at risk, addictions, formerly incarcerated, veterans, PTSD, physical challenges, aging and other issues.
“Horticultural therapy has been used since 1800s to address physical and mental issues in a formal setting and is common in other parts of the United States but just recently have we introduced it to all Mississippians as a therapeutic modality that is effective and low cost.”
Mississippi Grown Cut Flower Association holds tremendous promise for the state: an energized local economy, a profitable venture for citizens as well as therapeutic for those who need an outlet. For those who would like to learn more can email firstname.lastname@example.org or join its Facebook group: Flower Growers of Mississippi.
To learn more about the Mississippi Urban Forest Council which offers educational programs and environmental initiatives for Mississippi, visit msurbanforest.com.
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