Disturbing the Flower Wagon – Winnipeg Free Press
This week, Erin Benzkin, owner of Floret Flowers, took a giant, transformative step in a new direction. Floret Flowers is a family-run flower farm and seed company in Washington’s Skagit Valley. There is no flower grower in North America who has not been influenced or inspired in some way by Benzken’s visionary approach to building a successful flower business. Her creative vision has influenced flower growers and gardeners not only in North America but also in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
Benzkin is more than just a seed seller. It specializes in breeding new varieties of cut flowers for gardeners, farmers and designers. This week Benzquin launched its first offering of farm-grown seeds called Floret Originals. The new seed varieties have never been available to the public and are not grown anywhere else on Earth. As exciting and unique as this sounds, it also means that the flower varieties that Floret Flowers offered in the past will no longer be available. Floret Flowers is at the peak of its success, so why would it make a change now in the seed varieties it offers? Why switch to breeding and developing new varieties of flowers, which has become the largest and most ambitious project in the farm’s eighteen-year history? Some of the answers lie in Benzine’s passionate drive to support small businesses. Pioneers are destined to shake things up and take the lead in innovation.
“Breeding new flower varieties is usually done within giant companies,” said Benzkin, who I spoke to recently by phone. “There are actually very few independent plant breeders who do any kind of breeding work. There is such a disconnect between the breeder and the end consumer – the home gardener and the flower grower. Benzkin saw a better way. I skipped all the middlemen and went directly to the growers. I talked to the flower growers American and Canadian flower growers and flower growers around the world.
“We asked them what they needed, what kind of flowers and colors would make a difference on their farms and in their business,” Benzkin said. “We have a very large global network and we have all been frustrated for many years with the lack of flowers being raised with a small local flower farm in mind. We went to work trying to create different types of flowers to fit that need.”
It took seven years of cultivating and refining hundreds of flowers, and now twenty-six varieties that Benzkin put her heart and soul into developing are available for purchase. They are unique varieties of zinnias, celosias and dahlias. “While we are only seeing 26 varieties as part of this first offering, we have nearly 500 unique varieties being developed at Floret as part of our breeding program,” Benzkin said. “This new offering represents a turning point for us in the business, as we retire older varieties.” Let’s take a closer look at what makes the new Floret Originals products so special, not only for flower growers but also for home gardeners.
Mass-produced flowers are usually hybrids, and major seed companies don’t devote resources to educating farmers about saving and raising flower seeds, Benzkin said. “If you save seeds from a hybrid variety and plant them the following year, the plants you get from that seed will not go back to the plant you collected them from. That can be very frustrating.” All varieties bred by Florette are open-pollinated which means the flowers are fertilized by bees, birds, etc., and even wind and rain. When you save and grow seeds from an open-pollinated plant, the same plant is produced the following year.
Why focus on zinnias, dahlias and celosia and what makes these new varieties unique? “Zinnias are one of the most popular cut flowers you can grow in the summer. Every flower farm I know has zinnias produced in their fields, but the big complaint has always been that they’re all too bright and bold, although that’s great for farmers markets or selling to grocery stores But brides and florists wanted softer colors and softer colors. “More pastels so I went to work on that,” Benzkin said.
Zinnia Golden Hour is a new variety with large flowers that come in soft shades of watermelon, warm honey and cantaloupe. “I named this variety after the last hour of the day on the farm when the light turns golden and covers almost everything in sparkles. In September, when the flowers are in full glory, they are exactly the same color as the golden light.
Zinnia Little Flower Girl is another collection close to Benzakien’s heart. When she was a little girl, her nickname was Little Flower Girl. Small button-like flowers in colors of blush, soft pink, pale peach and champagne are borne on long, sturdy stems perfect for flower arrangements.
Dahlias are also what every farmer and gardener wants. In the past few years, interest in growing dahlias from seed has increased, Benzkin says. “You can save the tubers, they will come back to life, and you can actually discover and name a dahlia that never existed before,” Benzkin said. “Growing dahlias from seed is much less expensive than growing tubers. The amazing thing about growing dahlias from seed is that it only takes about 90 days from the time they germinate to their first flower, so they are very similar to a cosmo or a zinnia.
Benzquin created four dahlia blends. One blend, called Petite Florets, offers a beautiful, muted array of pastel colors including lavender, peach, apricot, dusty rose, sun-bleached raspberry, and buttercream, each one with an iridescent quality. “They’re not like any other dahlias I’ve ever seen before,” Benzkin said.
Celosia is the park’s unsung hero, Benzkin said. But much of the breeding has gone into bedding plants for flower gardens and containers in colors such as bright crimson red, canary yellow or purple-pink. There was a need for heavily branched celosia varieties with tall stems and more subdued colors that would be more versatile in flower arrangements and complement other plants in the garden. For example, New Celosia Rose Gold is a very unusual antique color with two or three different tones blended into the petals and a metallic wash above the shafts. Free-flowering plants are very productive, easy to grow and blend very beautifully, Benzkin said.
A growing guide is included with every seed order from the three different plant groups. Later this summer, Floret Flowers plans to offer a free online course on seed saving. To learn more about Floret Originals farm-grown seed varieties, visit www.floretflowers.com.
Colleen Zacharias writes about many aspects of gardening including trends, plant recommendations, and how-to information uniquely relevant to the prairie gardener.
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