Canadian flower farmers I: Antonio Valente Flowers and Dahlia May

Posted by Glennis Byron on October 28, 2022

Main image: Dahlia May flower farm in Ontario

All images from the respective websites in this post are reproduced with permission and remain copyright of the owner.

If you're a gardener who likes cutting flowers for the house or for sharing with friends, you may have little interest in flower farms: after all, you grow your own, right? But in this two part posting on Canadian flower farmers, I want to show you exactly why, especially here in Canada, flower farmers are so important to us home gardeners, and to talk about five I have ordered from this year.

The flower farm

Flower farms are generally small businesses, often family run and set on just a few acres of land, with flowers grown and harvested by hand, and machines involved only to prepare the soil for planting. They provide local florists and markets with fresh, sustainably grown flowers of a kind unavailable from the big companies.

Since flower farmers sell only locally, this might mean growing flowers that just don't travel well: seasonal bouquets full of annuals like cosmos and scabiosa, for example, or real roses with fragrance rather than the soulless florist rose. These are nothing like supermarket flowers, usually grown on large monocultural and heavily sprayed farms, sometimes with dodgy working practices, and then flown half way around the world.

Or it might involve growing speciality flowers. As Antonio Valente of Antonio Valente Flowers in Ontario explains, as 'one of the “little guys” in the field of cut flower growing, I’m competing with large-scale growers who are producing acres of flowers, so I choose to grow specialty varieties that a florist wouldn’t typically find from a large scale wholesaler. ... This allows me to differentiate myself and compete with the “big guys".'

When it comes to bulbs, corms and tubers, these speciality varieties are often developed for the cut flower trade by European growers. They offer a greater range of colours, higher bud count, larger and more vibrant flowers, longer, stronger and more numerous stems and longer vase life. A ranunculus tuber developed specifically for the cut flower trade, for example, will produce something quite unlike that ranunculus you buy in a garden centre. And if you want to grow some really gorgeous flowers for cutting in your own garden, you need to get your hands on some of these.

In Europe I used to buy these cut-flower specific varieties from speciality companies such as Sarah Raven and Farmer Gracy; in the US, they are available retail through companies like Plant Gem, and Halden. But in Canada I have found no such equivalents. So finally, here's the crux of the matter. Why are flower farms important to the home gardener in Canada? Because a few of them not only sell their speciality cut flowers to local florists and markets, they also sell through mail order a selection of those same bulbs, corms and tubers from which they grow their flowers.

I've ordered bulbs and tubers from six flower farms this autumn and five have proven outstanding. I was rather surprised to find that, in terms of corms and tubers, the sizes offered were not only bigger than anything you'd get in a garden centre, they were also, invariably, much larger than those I used to buy in Europe.

Here's an example using tubers of 'Bianco Centro Nero' from the much sought after range of Mistral anemones developed by Italian grower Biancheri. At the bottom is a tuber bought in Europe from Farmer Gracy (stated size 2/3); at the top is a tuber bought in Canada from Dahlia May (size not stated, but my guess is at least 6/7). The European one is a tiddler in comparison.

All the anemone and ranunculus tubers I received from Canadian flower farmers were similarly impressive in size and this will be reflected in the number of flowers they produce: in the case of tubers, there's no doubt: bigger really is better.

And buying from a small business like this is just so much more pleasant than buying from the big mail order companies. I found bulbs and tubers were, as far as possible, packed in cardboard boxes or paper bags rather than in plastic bags. Customer service is typically outstanding, friendly and efficient; the only one I used where it was poor is not included here and there were extenuating circumstances.

In this first post, I'm going to focus upon Antonio Valente Flowers and Dahlia May, both in Ontario, and then in the second post, Special Effects Flower Farm, Vancouver Island, British Columbia; Lily Stone Gardens, Manitoba; and Five Acres Farm, British Columbia.

There are no doubt others, and I look forward to discovering and reporting on them in future posts. If you've had any good experiences with other such small flower farmers who similarly sell bulbs, tubers and plants to the Canadian home gardener, I'd love to hear about them in the comment section below. If you've never ordered from a flower farm before, I hope you'll take a look at these.

Antonio Valente Flowers

Antonio Valente of Antonio Valente Flowers

A small scale Ontario business committed to organic methods and sustainable flower farming, Antonio Valente Flowers supplies local florists with cut flowers but also sells what is probably the best selection of speciality bulbs and tubers available here to the home gardener. In particular, check the outstanding line up of stunning ranunculus in his autumn shop: you won't find anything like it elsewhere in Canada.

The three Butterfly Ranunculus offered as tubers by Antonio Valente Flowers: top, 'Ariadne'; bottom left, 'Isis'; bottom right: 'Minoan'.

I was particularly happy to see he's just added three Butterfly Ranunculus. As far as I'm aware, this is currently the only place Canadian gardeners can buy tubers of these beautiful flowers (I posted about them a few months ago). You might not recognise them as a ranunculus at first glance, as they have multiple stems and multiple flowers on each stem; some are single, some double. Not only are they wonderfully prolific as a cut flower but they also fit well into the garden - something that isn't always the case with ordinary ranunculus which I prefer to grow in a separate patch for cutting.

I've just treated myself to blush pink 'Isis' and apricot 'Minoan', but I thoroughly recommend the other on offer, 'Ariadne', which I think is one of the most beautiful flowers I have ever grown. AVF says you'll get 3-5 stems per tuber, but I actually got more than 10 from both 'Ariadne' and 'Europe' (heaven knows what I fed them: I think it was just a weak comfrey tea). Each stem has numerous flowers and in my experience as the buds keep opening each stem will last up to three weeks in a vase. Three tubers will cost you 28CAD which is very reasonable. For the first time, I just saw some Butterfly Ranunculus offered at a local florist in Victoria, disgracefully droopy but still 18.99CAD per stem. Yikes. That means each tuber could produce flowers worth 189CAD if you go heavy on the comfrey tea. Definitely best to buy tubers and grow your own.

The stunning Ranunculus Cloni 'Grand Pastel'

I was also tempted by a number of other ranunculus that you won't find elsewhere, including the stunning Cloni 'Grand Pastel', above, in a blend of apricot, pink and pale coral. Cloni (sometimes mistakenly spelled Clooney but no relation) is a series of cloned ranunculus with dramatic huge and many petaled flowers reminiscent of English roses; three tubers for 28CAD and again well worth it. The Italian Elegance line is a steal at 18CAD for five tubers. You can barely get a bottle of decent wine here in BC for that, and the ranunculus will offer a much less fleeting pleasure. As long as you let them die down naturally and dry in the ground, you can dig them up, and keep them dry until you are ready to replant. In my experience, the tubers get bigger and the stems more prolific each year.

Antonio Valente's autumn shop also includes tulips, daffodils and hyacinths, carefully selected varieties that are particularly good for cut flowers. Dahlias, gladiolus and other spring planting bulbs and tubers become available in April. In addition to the website, check out our Canadian cut flower king on Instagram. He's invariably entertaining.

Dahlia May Flower Farm

Getting a parcel from Dahlia May is like waking up to find it's Christmas.

Box of treats: my parcel from Dahlia May

There's clearly a lot of attention paid to detail at Dahlia May and this flower farm sets a very high standard. Each package of tubers or bulbs gives growing instructions on one side and a description of the flower with suggestions for combinations on the other (I am definitely going to try putting the tangerine orange Ranunculus 'Clementine' with some pink-toned variety.)The burlap bags for the larger bulbs is a great touch, and there's even a little note pad packed along with your order. Now I want the t-shirt!

Melanie Harrington and the Dahlia May flower farm

Florist farmer Melanie Harrington is the owner and operator of Dahlia May, founded in 2014 and based in the Murray Hills of south-eastern Ontario. She is probably Canada's best known and best loved flower farmer with 96.7K followers on her always inspiring and informative Instagram page. She offers flower subscriptions, supplies local speciality shops and farmers' markets and hosts a farm stand where you can buy the flowers every weekend, March - December.

Two of the Elegance line of ranunculus available from Dahlia May: 'Clementine' on top, and 'Crema' on bottom. 5 tubers for 18CAD.

The mail order shop offers Canadian gardeners some select narcissus and tulips, perfect for cutting - I managed to snap up some 'Verona' tulips that I'd searched for everywhere - as well as the much sought after Mistral anemones and Elegance ranunculus, both bred by Biancheri.

Once you've tried a gloriously big velvety Mistral anemone, you'll never be happy with an ordinary De Caen again. If you like your colours subtle, try 'Rarity'.

Mistral anemone 'Rarity': a soft mix of lavender, lilac and pale pink and excellent value at 10 corms for 18CAD

if you want to make more of a splash, there's always the rather startling 'Tigre'. I haven't seen this one offered anywhere else in Canada.

Mistral anemone 'Tigre' makes a big statement

And at Dahlia May, of course, in spring there will be dahlias.

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