Cutting flowers

Ginger Hackley wiggles the stem of a zinnia in one of her gardens to see if it will stay rigid. Hackley sells cut flowers to local restaurants and at farmers markets.

Nestled in a neighborhood off Jonestown Road, a power-line easement with full sun exposure is proving a good spot for growing color. This area is home to one of three plots of zinnias and sunflowers, all grown and tended by local gardener Ginger Hackley.

Hackley, a Winston-Salem native, has been growing zinnias since 1995, turning her hobby into a budding business during the last two years. Hackley’s business, Ginger Blossoms, centers on cut flowers, and she specializes in custom floral arrangements, window boxes, container design and bouquets.

Zinnias and sunflowers make wonderful cut flowers, so it seemed only fitting that Hackley focuses on the production of these two. She grows a few things at her home, but her large production fields are located on shared land owned by others. This is a nice cooperative relationship, as Hackley provides meticulous maintenance for the colorful fields of flowers.

At the Jonestown Road field, rows upon rows of zinnias and sunflowers grow behind lines of deer fencing. There is a healthy presence of wildlife in this field, but Hackley’s flowers don’t suffer too much. Birds and other critters feed on the bountiful seeds from the discarded flower heads, and pollinators flock to the nectar of the blooms. Deer routinely browse the sunflowers, but only seem to aid with pruning for stronger stems — assuming they don’t keep nibbling the same plants.

Cutting at the proper time and stage is crucial to having strong, healthy flowers, so that they last as long as possible in water. Hackley uses the wiggle test to determine if her zinnias are ready to be cut.

“With a zinnia, the very last thing to mature is the neck between the flower and the first set of leaves,” Hackley said. “So before they’re ready to be cut, they have to pass the wiggle test.”

The wiggle test is just what it sounds like. Hackley shakes the stem of a potential cutting, and watches and feels the strength in its movement. If a wiggled stem causes the flower head to bounce quickly and fast, it’s not quite ready to be cut. If a wiggled stem’s flower head has less bounce and more of a fluid sway, then it’s ready to be cut. Cut zinnias will wilt quickly and won’t last very long if they don’t pass the test.

Hackley plants her flowers outside about May 1 each year and has used different seeding methods. If she starts her seeds in trays, she is able to start harvesting flowers sooner than if she direct sows.

“I had somebody start seeds for me last year,” Hackley said. “This year I did everything myself, and most of it was direct sown in the fields. In the first two fields, I did seven or eight plantings because there’s so many birds. I finally ended up netting them.”

At the Jonestown field, Hackley utilized landscape fabric to cut down on weeds and ramp up flower production. She and a gardening assistant rolled out large swaths of fabric, cut out holes and placed seeds directly into them. The fabric provides many benefits: It retains moisture, drastically cuts down on weeds, and eases the pressure of disease.

Hackley sells fresh cut zinnias and sunflowers at a variety of locations. Ginger Blossoms is a staple at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Farmers Market. She also sells directly from the fields, and provides flower arrangements for local businesses.

“I do Diamondback Grill’s table flowers; I maintain three large arrangements and I do all their window boxes and containers. Mondays I take a delivery to Buie’s Market. I’ve done some pop-up markets this year, and I also have sold to a couple of florists.”

Hackley pointed out that 95% of retail purchased flowers in the United States are grown in other countries. She takes pride in being able to grow locally, use sustainable practices and source her flowers to other local businesses.

Originally inspired by a Southern Living article on mass plantings, Hackley has been in love with zinnias since she used the methods recommended in that article. When she sources her seeds, she makes sure that she gets a diverse mix, not only in color and patterns, but also in strength and texture.

“I try to find zinnias that are mildew-resistant and have large flowers,” Hackley said. “Then I try to make sure I do different types — like dahlia types, ones with open crowns and single and double varieties. I have a good mix of all of it.”

The colors on Hackley’s zinnias are all over the spectrum. They include butter yellow, solid corals, oranges, reds, pink, fuschia, lime green, cosmic purple coral combinations, and pink and red peppermint swirls. The sunflowers are yellow, butter, lemon and burnt orange.

“It’s really fun being out here with it. You get to see all these little oddities in the flowers — double crowns and we found two flowers that were half pink and half white.”

Hackley sells and arranges her zinnias with long stems, as there is a muted elegance in the method. This cutting method also benefits the plants in the field, as it makes for a stronger plant.

In addition to zinnias and sunflowers, Hackley also grows borage, basils, ferns, coleus and caladiums for cutting. Hackley would love to make Ginger Blossoms into a sustainable year-round venture, and is actively looking for greenhouse space so she can grow more flowers for year-round cutting.

Hackley has had a lot of life changes over the last few years, so focusing on Ginger Blossoms is all part of a new beginning for her. It’s a fresh start in a lot of ways.

“Growing my flowers this year and last year has been really good for me,” Hackley said. “I’ve met a lot of people, it’s helped me gain my confidence. I’m going in a new direction for me, and I’m really hoping that I can continue doing this. I’ve had a lot of people support me along the way.”

You can find Ginger Blossoms on Facebook or on Saturdays at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Farmers Market.

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If you have a gardening question or story idea, you can find Amy Dixon on Facebook at www.facebook.com/WSJAmyDixon. You can also send an email to her attention to news@wsjournal.com. Put gardening in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101.

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