Rick Gush has long been a staunch organic gardener. While a student at the University of California at Davis he worked at local tomato and sugar beet farms and continued in the agricultural and horticultural industries for many years. A career move in the 1990s led him to design computer games, but no matter how much of a techie he’s become, gardening and farming remain his principal passions.
In 2000, Rick moved to Italy, where he writes to you about his cliff garden and other experiences in Italian urban agriculture.
Photo by Rick Gush
I have often advocated that small farmers should consider growing some florist crops along with their edible crops. A well-established bed of perennial flowers can produce regular revenue with minimal maintenance input. One of my favorite crops for this purpose is the Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia), aka Torch Lily. It is my experience that flower stems of this regal lily can be sold to the wholesale market for 50 cents to $1 each. I have also found that growing these spectacular plants where people passing by can see them will lead to a lot of people asking for young lily plants, which can be sold for $5 each or more.
Growing these plants is really easy, and once you’ve found a location with a lot of sun and good drainage, the plantings will grow for five or six years before they need to be divided and the bed needs to be refreshed. Kniphofia doesn’t like too much cold since the plant is native to South Africa, but my own plants were snowed on last week, and that didn’t bother them too much. There are a few places around the world where these plants are considered weeds, but their rampant growth can be a good thing for a small farmer anywhere else.
Propagation is often accomplished by digging up the mature clumps and dividing all the different shoots for replanting in separate locations. In a good location, the plants can increase fourfold or more every year. Gardeners sometimes make the mistake of planting the small, floppy shoots too deeply so that they stand straight up. It’s better to keep the crown close to the surface and bear with the floppiness until the plant grows and straightens up on its own, which will only take a few months.
The flowers do produce a lot of seed pods, and if these are allowed to dry on the stem before cutting, the seeds can be sown successfully in a germinating bed that has bottom heat. A seedling planted in the garden will usually flower the following season.
There are a lot of different Kniphofias, but the common, big, orange and yellow Kniphofia uvaria are among the most spectacular and, therefore, the most sellable. A normal, mature clump of these plants can contain as many as 20 or 30 individual plants, and the flower stalks can be more than 5 feet tall on the most luxuriant clumps. There is a connection between clump size and flower size, and the small clumps that grow less luxuriant will produce smaller and shorter-stemmed flowers.
When harvesting Kniphofia for the floral market, it is important to store and carry the cut flowers in an upright position to avoid the bending that happens when cut flowers laid down horizontally reach up for the light. Most growers feed with cut-flower food, wrap the individual blooms in wet newspaper, and then wrap those together in the industry standard of 10 stems of about 30 or 40 inches in length.