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How To Grow Saffron: Research Farm To Home Garden

How to grow Saffron, flowers in bloom

Researchers at the University of Vermont are growing Saffron Crocus corms to study the crop as a possible revenue source for small farmers. This technique translates beautifully to the home garden!

This September, American Meadows donated 1200 saffron crocus corms to researchers at the University of Vermont, who planted nearly 3,500 total in a hoop house in Northern Vermont. I met with Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, a post-doctoral research candidate at the University, to get great tips on how to grow saffron crocus in the home garden. I wanted to find out how to adapt his practices and experience thousands of crocus in bloom!

Saffron Crocus: An Unlikley But Promising Crop

One of the first questions I had for Arash is why research saffron? Arash is from Iran, a big producer of saffron, and he says he noticed climate similarities between his home country and Vermont. This led him and his colleagues to explore growing saffron on a large scale as a second season crop for small Vermont farmers.

How to grow Saffron, lab research

The research lab at the University of Vermont where last year's corms, stigmas and petals are being studied.

Saffron is a purple fall-flowering crocus that is extremely easy to grow and should be planted in the late summer for blooms in just weeks. It yields the rust-colored, edible spice.

Arash says their research is two-fold; they are examining the best way to grow saffron crocus in a large-scale setting in the cold Vermont climate, but also looking at the quality of saffron corms from several different producers. The 1,200 corms we donated to the study were originally grown in the Netherlands. The other 2,300 corms came from Vermont and Pennsylvania.

How to grow Saffron, saffron corms

This saffron corm has sprouted roots and is just a few weeks away from blooming.

Saffron Corms: Food, Flowers, or Medicine?

I always associate saffron crocus with the expensive spice, which is what I’ve grown them for in the past. But Arash explains that the big money isn’t in the spice, which is rarely used, but in the medicinal properties of the chemicals found in the saffron stigma.

Growing Saffron, flowers in bloom

The most expensive part of the saffron bloom are the chemicals extracted from the stigmas, which are used for medicinal purposes.

The three chemical components that are measured in the stigma are picrocrocin, crocins and safranal, Arash explains. The higher level of these chemicals in the stigma, the better the quality. “[These chemicals] are very valuable and they have anticarcinogen effects, so they are really expensive,” he says. “In each gram of saffron, you can find 7 milligrams of picrocrocin and each milligram of picrocrocin can cost $300. So it is very expensive.” Arash says that scientists are exploring the use of picrocrocin as an alternative method of treating cancer.

Growing Saffron Crocus in a Hoop House

Bob Roberts, a farmer and environmentalist in Northern Vermont, donated his land and hoop house to UVM researchers to grow the saffron corms. Bob is particularly excited about saffron's potential ability to cure disease.

Arash says that although many plant saffron directly in the ground, they’ve had better success with planting the corms in milk crates. “We had a lot of problems with rodents last year; moles, voles and mice,” he says. “When you plant the corms in the crates the rodents cannot come inside of the crates because we have weed cloth there [which] works for protecting the corms.”

How to Grow Saffron, hoop house

UVM's saffron crop being grown in Bob Robert's greenhouse in Northern Vermont.

Another benefit to the crates is that they are moveable, making it easy for farmers to bring them inside the hoop house after the preceding summer or fall crop has finished.  “After the growth season you can bring [the crates] back into the greenhouse. With this method we will have two growth seasons instead of one in high tunnels,” explains Arash.

Two (and even three) growing seasons per filed or hoop house is of high importance to farmers, as it means multiple income streams from the same piece of land.

How To Build a Rodent-Resistant Container For Growing Saffron:

  1. Get weed cloth, milk crates and duct tape from your local hardware or garden center.
  2.  

  3. Cut two pieces of weed cloth that are long enough to overlap the edges of the milk crates.
  4.  

    How to grow Saffron, creating a milk crate container

     

  5. Place the first piece of weed cloth in the crate and tape the edges.
  6.  

    How to Grow Saffron at home

     

  7. Place the second piece of weed cloth in the crate and tape the edges.
  8.  

    How to grow Saffron in a pot

     

  9. Tape around the top outer edge of the milk crate to secure the weed cloth.
  10.  

    How to grow Saffron, milk crate container

     

Shop Saffron Corms

Step-by-Step Instructions For Growing Saffron Crocus in Crates or Containers:

After Arash showed me how to create the milk crate planter, he walked me through the step-by-step process of planting and growing saffron.

  1. Whether you are planting in the ground or containers, make sure to have regular topsoil (garden soil) and some compost or potting soil.
  2.  

    Growing Saffron, planting the corms

     

  3. Add about 5” of topsoil to your crate or container before planting corms.
  4.  

    Growing Saffron, planting the corms

     

  5. Plant 11 corms per square feet (each milk crate), making sure each corm is about 2.5” from another. Arash planted them in three rows in the milk crates.
  6.  

    Growing Saffron, planting the corms

     

  7. Plant the corms with the pointed side up. If you can’t decipher which end should go up, plant the corm sideways. It will find its way.
  8.  

  9. Cover the corms with 2-3” of regular topsoil.
  10.  

    Growing Saffron, planting the corms

     

  11. On top of this soil, add another thin layer of compost or potting soil. The nutrition gradually releases into the soil and helps the saffron grow. Another function of this is to help suppress weeds, acting as a sort of mulch.
  12.  

    Growing Saffron, watering the corms

     

  13. Water thoroughly immediately after planting.

 

How to grow Saffron, planting the corms

Ready to grow!

Arash explains that the initial watering is extremely important because that is what helps break the dormancy of the corms. After that, you only need to water the corms every 15 days. “Coming from an arid and semi-arid areas, if you water the saffron a lot fungi will damage the saffron corms,” says Arash. “The greenhouse I am planting these at is like a desert. Moisture is not good for saffron.”

Saffron appreciate sandy, loamy soil and won’t thrive in clay soil, says Arash. He also stresses that the bigger the corm, the better. “The size of the corm is really important,” he says. “Based on research, the weight of each corm has to be at least 5 grams.”

Growing Saffron, flowers in bloom

Adapting This Method Of Growing Saffron At Home

Arash and I talked about how to adapt this method of growing saffron for the home gardener. He explained that it’s basically the same process, regardless of the scale and amount of corms being planted. Home gardeners can use milk crates or containers to help deter pests and to control the environment in which they grow their corms. So whether a home gardener is looking for late season color, or harvesting the flowers for potpourri and spices, there should be a higher success rate when planting the corms in containers.

Results At The Greenhouse

I visited Arash up at the hoop house in Northern Vermont about six weeks later to see how the saffron crocus were coming along. He told me they started harvesting around mid-October. Like he suspected, the corms in the milk crates did much better than those planted in raised beds.

How to grow Saffron, hoop house in bloom

Arash says the saffron corms planted in milk crates did better than those planted in raised beds.

Harvesting Saffron

Every two days Arash comes up to the hoop house to harvest the flowers. The harvesting process doesn’t require a step-by-step list – you simply pick the flower from the stem with your fingers. The stigma (which is red), stamen and petals are also very easy to separate by hand.

How to grow Saffron, harvesting saffron

The stigma, petals and stamen are easy to separate with your hands.

After harvesting the flowers, Arash and his colleagues separate the stigma and stamen and send the stigmas to Mississippi for chemical analysis to compare the levels between Pennsylvania, the Netherlands and Vermont.

How to grow Saffron, harvesting saffron

Different Uses For Saffron

“The saffron petals are also valuable,” says Arash. “In Europe they are developing some type of medicine for animals from them. I’m trying to keep the petals but it’s really tough because you have to dry them perfectly or else the fungi will get to them.” He adds that the United States often uses the petals for potpourri. I never thought of Saffron as overly fragrant, but he proved me wrong with the box of freshly harvested flowers.

Growing Saffron, flower petals

The saffron petals are used to make potpourri in the United States.

Arash says that even growing saffron in the small hoop house in Northern Vermont can be profitable for a small farmer. “The United States is the biggest consumer of saffron in the world,” he explains. “And they are hardly using it as a spice, they are using it to produce medicine. Compared to tomatoes and other conventional crops, saffron can produce more money for farmers.”

How to Grow Saffron, hoop house

Arash says he enjoys days he comes up to the hoop house to harvest.

The key for farmers – especially in colder areas like Vermont – to growing saffron crocus is that they can start the production after the conventional crops have finished for the season.

Arash can’t stress enough that saffron crocus is a tough, hearty crop that doesn’t need much attention, which makes it so special. “They are just so beautiful. I enjoy harvesting days very much,” says Arash. I couldn’t agree more.

How to Grow Saffron, flowers in bloom

Shop Saffron Corms

24 thoughts on “How To Grow Saffron: Research Farm To Home Garden”

  • Andre Revel

    HI
    where would one sell saffron

    Reply
    • Jenny

      Hi Andre, I'm not sure that I entirely understand your question. If you're looking to sell saffron corms that you have bred/ harvested, how you approach this would depend upon your location and the amount that you're trying to sell. There may be testing involved to ensure the quality of your corms. Otherwise, I'm thinking CraigsList or some other regional goods-swapping site may be useful to you. If you're looking to buy them, we sell the corms here at American Meadows: http://www.americanmeadows.com/flower-bulbs/fall-flowering-crocus-flower-bulbs/saffron-crocus-bulbs - Hope this helps and Happy Gardening - Jenny

      Reply
      • Steve Gillette

        Pretty sure Andre's question was about the crop, that's what the article was about. Stamens and petals. Thank you.

        Reply
        • Jenny

          A ha! Thanks, Steve. In that case, I suppose that it depends entirely upon volume and your local regulations. Farmers markets, food coops, and health food stores are the most common places that folks in our area sell their crops. - Jenny

          Reply
  • vis

    Article says in USA, saffron mostly use for medicine purpose. If I grow saffron, which are the drug manufacture(other than local farmer market) are in USA they will buy. How strong market for saffron in next decade or so.

    Reply
    • Jenny

      Hi Vis, I wish I could direct you to the specific manufacturers who buy saffron or give you an insightful forecast into its future price, but that type of info is not in my wheelhouse. However, I did see some numbers mentioned in this article, and thought you might be able to make some good contacts through reading it: http://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/uvm-researchers-tout-growing-saffron-in-vermont/Content?oid=3868418
      Best of luck - Jenny

      Reply
  • Kim Sorensen

    I am interested in planting saffron for my purposes only and maybe a few chef friends. I live an hour away from your location. have a few questions . Once I get the corms I follow the instructions you indicated and leave them outside in milk crates until harvest. Once they are all harvested do I leave them in the milk crates? I have a green house but it is not heated. do I bring them in the green house for the winter? will they freeze or stay dormant?
    Once spring is upon us where do I keep them, green house will very warm by then.

    Reply
  • Dan

    I am very interested in growing saffron in Virginia - is there any way to contact Arash & get more detailed information?
    Thank you.
    Dan

    Reply
  • Satwant Sidhu
    Satwant Sidhu June 9, 2017 at 3:50 pm

    Hi,
    I am from Toronto , Canada and interested in growing saffron here . wondering if i could contact Arash.
    Thank you,
    Satwant

    Reply
    • Jenny

      Hi Satwant, while I don't have Arash's direct contact info, I do know that he works in the Plant & Soil department at the University of Vermont. Hope that helps! - Jenny

      Reply
  • Hamisu shehu muhammed
    Hamisu shehu muhammed June 28, 2017 at 7:24 am

    I will like to try suffron farming in nigeria,but my problem is the market.

    Reply
    • Courtney

      Hi Hamisu – While we can’t speak to the Saffron market in Nigeria, we can tell you that growing your own Saffron is a great way to save on an otherwise expensive spice! Happy planting!

      Reply
  • Margaret Miller
    Margaret Miller July 22, 2017 at 11:09 am

    I would like to know if I can grow saffron in Ohio. Do I need to have a hoop house? Can I grow them outside in milk crates. I would like to plant this year. We currently grain farm and have a custom harvest business. But with the down turn in the dairy industry we are looking for another income source. Thank you for any help you can give me.

    Margaret Miller

    Reply
    • Jenny

      Hi Margaret, yes, I believe that saffron can successfully be grown in Ohio. While you don't need a hoop house to pull this off, it sounds as though you're interested in commercial production and may want to consider that as a best-practices-option in the future. I suggest that you give it a shot this year and see what happens! The biggest challenge will be overwintering your corms and protecting them from hungry mice, etc.. However, in Zone 6, this may be less of an issue as it is in Zones 4 and 3. Best of luck - Jenny

      Reply
  • Scott Garren

    I just planted my new corms in Shrewsbury VT and I am looking forward to seeing them blossom in a few weeks.

    My question is how to over-winter? I am thinking I will put the planters against the basement foundation and cover with lots of mulch to keep them a little warmer. I will put a screen over the top to keep out the critters. Does this seem reasonable? Any advice?

    Reply
    • Jenny

      Hi Scott - how exciting! You're definitely growing your saffron on the fringe of their overwinter-able range - but welcome to the club, so are many of us here at American Meadows. The research farm in this article is located in Swanton, Vermont, right on the Canadian border. I think your plan is very sound and I encourage you to go for it. My understanding is that most saffron corms that don't make it through the cold weather show secondary damage, usually from critters. Even the slightest little nibble can make the difference between surviving and not, so I would make your critter-proofing efforts the most important work you do. Best of luck and Happy Gardening - Jenny

      Reply
  • tamara

    I just received my 30 corms I ordered and they are covered in stems 1 to 2 inches long but no roots and they are going in all directions. I see you said I can plant them sideways but is it to late its Oct 13th. Not sure what to do.

    Reply
    • Amanda

      Hi Tamara,

      Yes, you can still plant them! If it's getting cold you can always bring them indoors and place them on a sunny windowsill. Plant the stems facing up and you'll have blooms in no time.

      Best,

      Amanda

      Reply
  • Addie Gardner

    Hello! I have 300 corms in 30 or so milk crates started here in central Vermont. They are blooming already. I was hoping to get a hoop house up this fall, but looks like that won’t happen. Wondering about overwintering. I have an unheated sunroom that does get below freezing in midwinter. Or would it be worth it to knuckle down and put up a hoop house. What is ideal? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Amanda

      Hi Addie --

      Great question! Saffron Crocus are hardy in the ground through zone 4 -- but not in the crates -- so the best place for them might be an unheated garage. They will want to go dormant and have a cool, dark, place to do so for the winter. The sunroom may be too warm. Another option is to bury the crates in the ground, although that might be a lot of work! Please let us know if you have any other questions.

      Happy Gardening,

      Amanda

      Reply
  • Alice

    My question is about over-wintering here in Zone 6 northern New Jersey. I have my saffron crocuses in milk crates and have just harvested the stigmas. We've had only a couple of nights with temps around 32 degrees so far. I put plastic over the crates those nights when the frosts were forecast, but not sure if that was necessary or even the right thing to do.
    What is the best way to over-winter them? Leave them in the crates? Leave the crates in the fenced garden? Cover with mulch and screens as someone suggested above? Or move them to a different location... garage, greenhouse (which I don't have yet)?

    Reply
    • Amanda

      Hi Alice,

      Great question! Saffron Crocus are hardy in the ground through zone 4 — but not in the crates — so the best place for them might be an unheated garage or basement (if you have one). They will want to go dormant and have a cool, dark, place to do so for the winter. Another option is to bury the crates in the ground, although that might be a lot of work! Please let us know if you have any other questions.

      Happy Gardening,

      Amanda

      Reply
  • Roy Gilbert

    Very interesting stuff
    We have 25 corms that have all come up in milk crates. They are in the hoop house, zone 5a at 8,500 ft elevation in the Colorado front range. So far no blooms.
    My concern is it may get too warm on the usual super sunny Colorado winter days and too cold for them in the crates on cold nights. The ground in the hoop house has never frozen. I could bury the crates but then would need more critter protection. Plan for later in the winter is to stack the crates in the root cellar, What do you think? When should that happen?
    Thinking next year of planting some against the south facing concrete wall of the house. Thoughts?
    Thanks for all the good info......always did want to make my fortune in the silk and spice trade :-)
    Roy

    Reply
    • Amanda

      Hi Roy,

      How long ago did you plant the Saffron Crocus? You should see blooms shortly after the sprouts have reached a couple inches in height. It sounds like stacking the crates in the root cellar is the perfect option for winter storage. After the Saffron (hopefully) flower and have died back down you can bring the crates in for winter storage. I hope this helps! Let us know if you have any other questions. - Amanda

      Reply
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