October 17, 2002 | By: Janet Eaton, Ag. Communications Intern

The need to thin out a trial bed of hydrangeas at Robinson Station in Quicksand led University of Kentucky horticulture researchers in a new direction in investigating alternatives for Kentucky tobacco producers.

An overgrown planting of Hydrangea paniculata at Robinson Station was severely cut back and a high level of nitrogen was applied. By the next spring, the plants produced high-quality cut flowers and led the researchers to look at woody cut-flower production possibilities for tobacco farmers and small farm operators.

"What we managed to do was create a potentially high-quality cut flower, but the flower was too big and the stems were five-to-six feet long," said Sharon Bale, Extension floriculture specialist for the UK College of Agriculture.

The size wouldn't sell well because the average floral shipping box is only 48 inches long, but the technique to produce quality cut flowers merits further investigation. The original bed at Robinson Station has the oldest plants in the trial, which now includes UK's South Farm in Lexington and the UK Research and Education Center at Princeton.

"After five years the plants are now large enough that you can get multiple stems off them," said Terry Jones, Extension horticulture specialist at Robinson Station.

According to Bale, each plant produces numerous blooms in the test plots. Top quality hydrangeas could reasonably be expected to bring the grower at least $1 per stem. With each plant requiring only a 3-foot square, the income potential is high.

"I went to a meeting in another state and I think the quality of the flowers produced in Quicksand are much better quality than what they are growing there," Bale said.

An extra bonus with Hydrangea paniculata is they are very hardy and well suited for flower production in full sun. The blooms are useful fresh-cut and can be sold dried at farmers' markets. Since the stem length doesn't matter, the flower gives some harvest options to growers.

At South Farm, Bale examined the hydrangeas and plantings of other possible woody cut flowers. Trials are underway for forsythia, bittersweet, and hollies with gold or red berries to determine their potential for Kentucky growers. Each of these has income potential at least as strong as tobacco.

As with any agricultural endeavor, Bale cautions that relationships have to be established with wholesale and/or retail buyers to ensure a market for the flowers. Local farmers' markets may provide even better profit by selling directly to the consumer.


Sharon Bale  859-257-8605