Planting a seed in the soil and believing that it will germinate, grow and develop into a fully-formed and resplendent flower is a revolutionary and fiercely courageous action in my humble flower-farming opinion. There truly are SO many things that could (and often do) go wrong. Too much rain. Too little rain. Freezing or soaring temperatures. Not enough compost. Too much compost. An incorrect balance of nutrients IN the compost even when you apply exactly the right amount. Wind. Insects that attack roots. Insects that attack stems. Insects that attack foliage. The wrong kind of bacteria or fungus on your plants. Lack of air circulation. Birds that peck your flowers out of the ground….you name it and I can guarantee hundreds of enterprising farmers across the world have valiantly attempted to nurture a plant through it.
The miracle of farming really is that we are as successful as we are as often as we are. It really is a testament to the knowledge, experience, persistence, patience and pure grit of farmers who have some of the most innovative and creative minds I have ever come across.
I have to step back here, just in case it sounds like I am boasting that I have one of the most innovative and creative minds. I did not grow up in a farming family. My mother is an artist, educator and art therapist. My father was a composer and musician. Creativity we have, but I will never be as enterprising and self-sufficient as some of my friends who have been farming for a lifetime. I consider myself a humble flower farmer. Now in my fifth year of growing, I feel like I have made it to the third grade in the flower farming world. Long enough that I am painfully aware how much I do not know, and still enough in love with the flowers that I continue to press seeds into soil and plant new life with great hope year after year in spite of the odds.
This flower season has been cold and exceptionally wet. Now that the sun has finally started appearing on a regular basis my flowers are being chewed to death by insects loving the warm, moist weather. Most days I head to the field with a list of things I want to accomplish and leave having spent most of my time battling insects to just try to keep my babies alive. After months of nurturing and tending, it can be a little discouraging to have so much turning into insect fodder.
The one thing that makes it all worth it is the joy and connection that the flowers that do make it bring to my community. The edible flowers that a local confectioner turned into sweet lollipops and biscuits. The stray strawflowers that I had on my farmers’ market table that I gave to two curious little girls who delighted in their texture and bright colours. The joy on my dear friend Hope’s face as she married her love a couple of weeks ago holding a bouquet I had made.
When you purchase a bouquet of local flowers to take home with you this summer, in addition to taking pleasure in its colours, textures and perfume, maybe take a moment to celebrate all the hope that each of the blooms that was carefully nurtured, harvested and arranged in it represents. Hope for the future of agriculture. Hope for our continued and deepening relationship with the natural world. Hope that future generations will also have the bounty of interacting with nature. Hope that we hold onto the awe and pure-hearted playfulness and joy that we have as children into and through adulthood. Hope for the promise of another bountiful season to unfold in the coming weeks and months.
The question I get asked more than anything else is what types of flowers do you grow? When I first started growing I would immediately launch into a long, enthusiastic list of all the flowers I grow, but soon realized that listing the names of the flowers I grow almost universally elicits a glazed over look in the listener. The reality is that even those of us who love flowers rarely learn the names of more than the most common blooms. Last season I grew more than 40 different plants and even though I spend so much of my time surrounded by flowers I meet new ones every single day. The world of flowers is a very humbling one. I love that they are constantly beckoning to us, inviting us to learn more about the plant world.
With the early bird signup for my weekly flower bouquets ending on March 31st this seems like the perfect time to introduce you to some of the beauties that those of you who are signed up for my weekly flower bouquets (aka Community Supported Agriculture or CSA shares) will be enjoying this summer. I am retiring some things that did not do so well last season, continuing to grow the blooms that have consistently been workhorses for me, and adding quite a number of flowers that I will be growing for the first time this season! I share the seasonal journey on my Facebook page and Instagram feed, so follow me there to see regular updates on what is happening on the farm this season.
Here are some of the flowers you can look forward to seeing in your CSA bouquets this season:
1. Zinnias. Zinnias are one of my workhorses. They take a while to get going because they like it super hot, but once they get going they churn out bright, happy flowers week after week all summer long. Zinnias are cool in that the more you cut them the more they grow and bloom. The key to having constant supply is to make sure you give them good air circulation (I find they often get powdery mildew as the season goes on if there isn’t enough space between plants), feed them (I apply foliar fish fertilizer every couple of weeks all summer long to keep my plants strong) and finally cut, cut, cut. Even if you don’t need every stem, cutting deep and often will guarantee that fresh blooms keep coming. If do you do all of these things they will only start to slow when the weather cools off in the fall.
2. Snaps (a.k.a. Snapdragons). Snaps are another workhorse for me. They get started in early to mid-July and then crank out consistently long-stemmed, bright towers of colour all summer long. Unlike the zinnias, most insects avoid them for some reason, so I rarely have leaf, bud or blossom damage, which is always a godsend. I have been told by more experienced growers that if you literally saw off your entire zinnia row once you have harvested they will grow back. Maybe it is the shortness of our season or maybe it is something I have yet to figure out but even though I cut these babies hard all season long I have yet to have a second crop from the same plant. Some growers pinch their snaps to encourage the growth of multiple stems instead of one larger, taller stem. I tend to pinch some and leave some so I have a variety of stem lengths and sizes to work with. The pinched flowers also tend to bloom slightly later so even though I have multiple successions to guarantee constant blooming all season I find pinching staggers bloom time too.
3. Foxgloves. Also known as Digitalis because the bells can be fit over the ends of fingers like a thimble, I fell in love with foxgloves while interning at Field of Roses in New Zealand. They had lots of varieties that had re-seeded themselves and grown taller than me. I love how they are creamy and elegant on the outside but if you peek inside each of the “bells” hanging from the stem you enter a world of rich and vivid colour and texture. The leaves of the Foxglove are super soft and silky. I find that Foxgloves like consistent moisture and slightly cooler temps than we have had on Prince Edward Island the last couple of summers, so mine hung out for a good portion of the summer before finally shooting up and bursting into bloom in August. It was worth the wait as those who purchased some of these beauties from me at the farmers’ market can attest to. I’m looking forward to seeking out other varieties of these in the years to come. For an interesting read about the etymological origins of the name Foxglove, click here.
4. Frosted Explosion. I simply love the name of this grass, and how perfectly it captures the way it literally explodes like a firework come summer. I plant and use a lot of this grass and it grows and grows and grows, all summer long. The focus in any bouquet is usually the flowers, but in its own way, Frosted Explosion is a showstopper for me, and I get lots of comments about it and how magical it looks in bouquets. You can see the dreamlike green spray from the Frosted Explosion in the arrangements below:
5. Nigella. Also known as Love in a Mist, this flower comes in various shades of blue, pink, white and purple. The plant is very hardy, so if being direct seeded it can go in earlier than many of my other plants. It has lovely airy, star-shaped flowers but I find they shatter faster than I would like in bouquets so I mainly grow it for its seed pods, which are to die for, and add pops of colour and texture to late summer and fall bouquets that I couldn’t do without. There are a number of varieties. My favourite is Love-in-a-Mist Starry Night which is a combination of Delft Blue, Midnight and African Bride. Here is an up-close shot of a nigella seed pod, followed by a bouquet that has seed pods in it.
6.Poppies. My relationship with poppies is an ever-evolving one, but the more I learn about these beauties the more I plant. Poppies are interesting in that they have to be harvested when they are just beginning to open and long before the flamboyant unfurled phase, which, if I am doing my job well, should happen after they get home with you in the vase. Another trick of making sure that poppies have a vase life is to singe the bottoms of the stems. I use a blow-torch, but for a smaller quantity a lighter will do the trick too. When I do this they can get a vase life of a full week before dropping their petals. I have tested out a few varieties. The ones that do best for me are Icelandic poppies, which look like whirling dervishes in arrangements. I also grow a Breadseed Rattle Poppy. It looses its petals too quickly to use in arrangements, but its enormous seed pod is a great addition to my late summer and fall bouquets.
7. Ranunculus. I have been wanting to grow these for a while, and 2019 is my first foray into finally doing so. I have yet to find a Canadian source for Butterfly Ranunculus (my favourites, and one I will most definitely be adding to the mix at some point) but this season I am growing a few ranunculus that those signed up for my CSA are going to love. The multiple layers of fine petals in many ways remind me vaguely of small roses, and the variety of hues is truly breathtaking. This year I am growing Elegance in a range of colours including Salmone, Viola, Pastello, Bianco Sfumato and Bianco. Keep your fingers crossed for this new adventure! I cannot wait to share these with you once the weather warms! this is a photo of me holding some of Kori’s ranunculus this spring.
8. Mums. When we hear the word Chrysanthemums in Atlantic Canada, most of us think of the humdrum bedding flowers we see in pots at Home Depot. This past fall and winter I have been volunteering at Dawn Creek Farm, owned by Kori Hargreaves. Kori is an heirloom Mum whisperer, and spending time with her has introduced me to Mums that I never could have imagined existed. I have been in search of a Canadian source for heirloom mums ever since and finally placed an order this week, so if things go well I will have a beautiful crop of fall heirloom mums to share with you this year. Below are two photos: one of me holding one of my favourite varieties (River City) at Kori’s farm and another of an arrangement I made with some of Kori’s mums.
9. Sweet Peas. I have had a long-standing love affair with sweet peas ever since Erin at Floret introduced me to them back in 2013. Having grown up in the Mediterranean, this was not a flower I had been familiar with until then, but now that I live in a climate that is conducive to growing this vine I have been growing an increasing number and variety every year. Last year we had a very cold spring so my sweet peas really struggled to get started. I had just barely started harvesting them when it got so hot that they basically stopped growing. They did very little for the remainder of the season, but then in September as the temperature cooled they started blooming again! I had never planned on offering fall sweet peas, but this year I have two sowings planned — one in the spring and a second in the late summer. Fingers crossed you will see sweet peas in your bouquets in September as well as in June!
There are so many other flowers that will be blooming in the garden this year, but I will share more about them in future posts. If you have any questions about the plants I have mentioned above, about my CSA, market bouquets or individual arrangements please leave me a comment below this post or send me a private message. I hope some of you will join my CSAthis summer by signing up for either five or ten weeks of fresh local flowers! You can do so in the online store. Remember: Early-bird prices end on March 31st!
I have been thinking a lot about community lately. As any small business owner knows, no small business ever succeeds without considerable community support. Since moving onto the property that I currently grown on at the Mount Continuing Care Community and starting to sell at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market my community has grown considerably, and many of the interactions I have had with my community have moved me deeply, so I want to share twelve snapshots of my red roots community from this past season.
Last season I had one customer who purchased her Community Supported Agriculture weekly bouquets long before anyone else. Rebecca ordered four weeks of spring flowers AND twelve weeks of my summer flowers and edible flowers. When you are just getting started with a business you hope for investments like these from close friends and family. But receiving this order from someone who had, until then, been a complete stranger to me gave me faith that I will some day achieve my goal of actually being able to support myself fully growing flowers. With my mother getting sick in the late summer and my having to shut my farm operation down sooner than expected, her twelve weeks of flowers were cut short. I offered to reimburse her for the weeks I would not be able to deliver flowers, but instead she opted to receive multiple bouquets for the weeks leading up to my departure. I have been sitting here in California this winter planning out my season ahead and wondering whether I will manage get signups for my weekly bouquets this season being on the opposite side of the continent. Then the other day I received Rebecca’s order for the 2019 season. Receiving that vote of confidence from her was just what I needed to kick off a new season.
The first time I met Iris she was standing on the edge of my flower field quietly peering down at me from the road. I asked if she needed anything and she asked if it would be alright if she came and wandered among my flowers. Of course I said that would be fine, so down she came. She wandered quietly among the flowers while I worked without interrupting my flow, and it was kind of nice to have her quiet company in the garden for a while. After that first visit Iris came by a number of more times during the season for a quick chat and to see what was in bloom. After I left to come care for my mother in September Iris sent me a note asking if it would be alright if she went and picked some flowers. Again I agreed. A few days later I received an email with photos of what she had created from my garden. A couple of weeks later I got another message from her with more photos of her arrangements. Seeing that my flowers were being enjoyed and that all my hard work was bringing the people in my community joy was the perfect wrap up to the 2018 season.
I received an instagram message from Alistair from Australia who was looking for flowers for his girlfriend. His mum had apparently met me while I was interning at Field of Roses in New Zealand. He and his girlfriend were on Prince Edward Island because she is an islander and they were visiting her family. He wanted to give her some locally grown flowers so his mum had suggested he look me up. When he contacted me I had just left for California, so I explained that I wasn’t able to make him a bouquet, but that if he wanted to he was more than welcome to go to the farm and harvest flowers and make his girlfriend a bouquet himself. It sounded like a lot of work, so I wasn’t sure if he would do it, but a few days later I received a message from him with the following photo. His girlfriend must have loved his creation because this sweet couple are now engaged. I love that my flowers got to play a small role in their love story!
In September I received a message from Justine. Justine works on a farm in Quebec, but was coming to Prince Edward Island at the end of September for a family reunion event, and was writing to see if she could purchase a couple of buckets of flowers from me that she could arrange herself. Again, I had already left, so was in no position to be harvesting flowers for her, but I let her know that if she wanted to harvest flowers herself for the event she was welcome to. A few weeks later I received the following photo and a thank-you note from her. I am really happy that these fall blooms got to be a part of this family celebration.
When I first started growing at the Mount I didn’t know any of my neighbours. Shortly after starting to plant the neighbour right across the street from the farm came over to introduce herself and ask me what I was growing. It turned out that her name was Michelle and we had a friend in common. Throughout the season Michelle would stop by to check in on me and see how it was going. A couple of times she ordered flowers from me. Once she could see I was running low on energy so she brought me out a much appreciated glass of homemade iced tea. One of the problems on my current piece of land is a lack of storage space. I mentioned this to Michelle in conversation one day, and she offered to have me put some of my farm equipment in her shed for the summer. In exchange I took flowers over to her place once a week for the remainder of the season. Michelle went out of her way to make me feel at home in the neighbourhood, and her friendly waves on her way in or out and kind gestures of friendship made me feel welcome in my community. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of her holding my flowers. Will have to add that to my bucket list this season!
One hot mid-summer afternoon while I was working in the garden I had the sense that someone was standing in the pathway between flower beds next to me. Looking up I found one of the builders from the construction site on the property where I am growing looking down at me. I asked him if he needed something, and he explained that he was wondering if I would make him a bouquet of flowers for his daughter. “Right now?” I asked. “Yes” he said. I asked him if his daughter had a colour preference. He said her favourite colours were pink and purple. After a little more discussion I discovered that his daughter was seven years old, and that he was on his way to pick her up from school. I made the bouquet in the field and took it over to him. He paid and then jumped in his truck and headed off to pick her up from school with his pink and purple bouquet. The sweetness of his gesture made my day.
This past fall I had to head to California to help support my mother who is battling pancreatic cancer before my season had ended. I left a field still blooming profusely, which was really, really hard to do after all the hard work I had put in to grow so many flowers. I know I made the right choice — family always comes first — but I didn’t have time to break down my field for the season before the snow arrived. After I got to California I started thinking about my field and the fact that I really didn’t want to leave all my netting and support rods up in the field all winter long — both because it would damage my equipment, but also because it would not be very aesthetically pleasing for my neighbours. So many people had already offered so much support to help me pack up my apartment in such a hurry that I felt terrible about having to ask for additional help, but I eventually decided to reach out anyway. I figured if it was too much to ask the person I asked could say no. The person I asked was my dear friend Stephen and he immediately agreed. He untangled all my netting from the remaining crop and rolled it up, painstakingly pulled all my support rods up out of the earth and transported all of my gear to his home where he and his wife have it stored safely for the winter. His willingness to help me in this way actually moved me to tears. When I say I couldn’t be farming without the support of my community, this is a perfect example of what I mean.
I have one customer who I have nicknamed the Sweet Pea Lady. She has told me her name but I am terrible with names (I’m hoping that I see more of her this season so I can ask her again, and this time write it down!!). We had a very cold spring and a super late last frost, so my sweet peas, generally a late spring/early summer crop on PEI, only had a very short window to grow before the heat kicked in and growth slowed. After the initial very short burst of flowers I was no longer happy with the quality of the blooms because of the impact of the heat, so I stopped selling them at the Farmers’ Market. I did however pick one or two bunches per week to have on my table at the market for kids to smell. I always like to have something that children who visit my booth can smell. It gets them engaged with the natural world (something that is really important to me) and watching their faces light up when they inhale all that sweetness makes my day. The first week that I took my little jar of sweet peas that were only for display to the market I had a lovely woman come by the booth and bury her face in them. She emerged from the cloud of colour and sweetness glowing with delight and asked me how much I wanted for the sweet peas. I explained that they weren’t for sale, but after she explained that they reminded her of her mother I finally caved and sold them to her. The next week I brought two bunches: one for the kids to smell and one for her. She came most weeks all summer long. Every week I cautioned her that this would probably be the last week of sweet peas and every week she smiled at me and said “you said that last week.” Every week she came back, and perhaps because she did, every week when I checked the sweet peas there were always just enough still blooming through the hot, dry weather for two bunches for my table. One of the last weeks that I was at the market I asked her if she would let me take a photo of her with the sweet peas. She graciously obliged. Here is my Sweet Pea Lady. I’m really hoping to see her back at the booth this summer.
When I made the decision to pack up and come to California to help support my mother this past fall it meant leaving my farm, but it also meant leaving my part time English as a Second Language teaching job. A few days before I was due to leave, my boss Judy handed me a sheet of paper with a list of twenty flower bouquet orders on it. Out of a desire to be supportive of my having to give up my job and the accompanying salary my colleagues had all ordered bouquets to help me sell some of the flowers that were still in the field before I left. Their support and encouragement both before I left and while I have been on the west coast has been unwavering. I will never forget the surprise flower order that they placed, and the vote of confidence that they gave me.
Operating a booth outside at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market means having a tent to set my table up under. I managed to purchase a tent from my friends Lorna and Brian, but the tent is a heavy unfolding contraption that is impossible to set up alone. This past season my dear friend Claude offered to help me set up every week. I would pick her up on my way to the market, we would set up the tent together, and then she would do her weekly market shop. It only took a few minutes, but knowing that I had her support took a huge amount of stress off my shoulders every Saturday morning. Claude doesn’t have a car (or a driver’s license), so once she went home from the market with all of her groceries I did not expect her to return. But every week that I sold at the market this past season, without fail, Claude walked back to the market to help me break down my booth and pack it into the car. Sometimes she would even manage the booth for while I ran inside for a bite to eat. I’m not sure if she realizes what a life-saver she was, but I wouldn’t have gotten through my first market season without her. Here is Claude being the boss lady that she is at my flower booth last season:
Lorna and Brian had a permanent booth indoors at the Farmers’ Market until this past season. They farmed; they cooked; she wove; they pickled….they are exceptionally talented human beings. When I needed to buy a tent, I bought one from them. When I ran out of space to plant things at the farm Lorna took my extra seedlings and planted them at their farm. And when i needed somewhere to dry my flowers Lorna offered their barn. I had not managed to harvest all of the drying flowers before I left this past fall and so Lorna, in her endlessly generous way, offered to harvest what was left for me and add it to what was already drying in the barn. Lorna and Brian cheered me on through the season and were always available to offer suggestions or support. Their encouragement and support are another example of why I am farming today.
Because I headed to California in mid-September I had to stop selling at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market before the season ended. My community knew why I was cutting the season short, and so my last Saturday at the market customers turned out in droves to purchase flowers. I had so many people come to buy flowers that Saturday in fact that I sold out before noon and spent the last two hours of the market sitting at an empty table awkwardly smiling at customers who I had nothing to sell to. Not that I’m complaining!
I have many more stories about the ways in which my community supported my fledgling flower farm this past season, but those will have to be shared in a future post. Suffice it to say that the reason why I named my farm Red Roots Flower Farm is because it wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the unwavering support of my community. Do you have any stories about ways that Red Roots flowers have contributed something positive to your life this past season? I’d love to hear your story in the comments section below this post. Thanks so much for reading friends!