It Was Flowers All Along
I surprised myself when I decided to become a farmer-florist. I definitely surprised my husband, who still hasn’t quite wrapped his head around the fact that his business suit-clad, reasonably well put together wife transforms on a regular basis into an overalls-wearing, mud-caked and sweat-drenched field hand. That I also leave my floral design studio (ahem, I mean, our kitchen) in a state of Edward Scissorhands post-creation floral cutting chaos leaves him shaking his head and wondering if I’ve lost my mind and am planning to serve flowers for dinner, seeing as they’re taking up all of the available counter space.
Like many who reach middle age (ugh – how I hate to admit to myself that the term applies to me!) and after devoting much of my life to a demanding career that draws mostly upon my left-brain, logical and cerebral self, I find myself gravitating more and more towards activities that challenge my under-developed creative side and let me focus more on doing, and being, in a place and a state of mind that brings me joy.
Happiness in a vase: the first flowers of spring
My “happy place” has always been the outdoors, in the elements. Whether marveling at the shade of blue that the sky takes on a spring day (is it azure? Or cerulean?), or listening to raindrops ricocheting off the foliage around me, enjoying Nature’s exquisiteness fulfills me. Being around our pets and livestock (OK, let’s be honest: the chickens are really pets, not livestock…) in an environment in which they can run free and act like, well, the kooky animals that they are, makes me sublimely happy. And the epitome of bliss is to be able to combine these passions of mine to create works of beauty – in the form of floral arrangements – that exercise my creative muscles and use, as inputs, the bounty that our fields and my toils have produced.
A field of flowers is like a painter’s palette, with colors just waiting to be melded together into an artistic creation that is far more than the sum of its parts.
My love of the outdoors was shaped by my childhood. I grew up in California, and family vacations were spent camping and backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and hiking and exploring the natural treasures of the West. I also watched my parents design, plant, and tend modestly-sized yet stunning backyard landscapes. I was greatly influenced by my mom’s stories of the farm she grew up on, tales of goats and chickens and orchards that my sister and I begged her to repeat time and again. And while I never felt creatively inclined as a child – my sister got the genes for artistic talent, not me -- my father’s passion for art and architecture left its mark, too, instilling in me a devotion to color, form and texture that, today, worships at the altar of the floral tableau that is our fields in bloom.
Our family vacations were almost always centered around the outdoors, and many of my most cherished childhood memories are from those trips. On our first family backpacking trip (right) my sister and I (I'm on the left) were too little to carry full packs -- I'm just carrying a sleeping bag!
Interestingly, my decision to pursue the farmer-florist route was not particularly surprising to my mother. While talking with her on the phone one day and wondering out loud whether I could possibly make this floral dream a reality, she mentioned that my obsession with flowers dated back to my childhood. Whaaattt?? “Sure,” she said, and informed me that at a very young age I spent hours poring over the Sunset Western Garden Book and methodically recording every flower I wanted to grow, along with its cultivation requirements, bloom time, etc. “I think I still have the lists and charts you made. I’ll send them.”
Proof that my belief that a good spreadsheet can solve almost any problem was formed very early: a handwritten compendium of flowers – created when I was around 10 years old
Then I thought about all the signs along the course of my life that suggest that, rather than being some kind of out of character, lightning bolt of an idea, my passion for flowers has always been there. For example, there was the time, right out of college and in my first apartment, that I filled my teeny tiny patio space with as many roses – most in containers – that I could find room for. With no access to the patio other than through my carpeted apartment – thus ruling out a wheelbarrow (not that I could afford such a luxury at that point, anyway) -- I hand carried bag after bag of topsoil and compost from the far-away parking lot, across the apartment complex courtyard, through my apartment and out to the patio. The apartment manager never caught on to my dirt-hauling routine, which I often carried out at night. The roses thrived. I loved them so much I insisted on taking them with me when I moved out of that apartment to go to graduate school. Yes, I’ve been a flower person much longer than I realized.
There was one turning point. Visiting my family in Oregon one summer several years ago, I was feeling unfulfilled by my corporate job and pondering the “what do I want to do with the rest of my life?” question. I was standing in a bookstore – in the gardening/landscaping section (of course) – and saw a book titled You Can Farm: the Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start and $ucceed in a Farming Enterprise, Joel Salatin’s iconic treatise. I bought it, read it from cover to cover and immediately started pondering and plotting a very different future.
Just of the few of the books I eagerly consumed as I educated myself on farming and began to map my future. Several of these I repeatedly return to for reference; others I have read multiple times just because they are so dang good.
It rapidly became apparent that I didn’t know what kind of farmer I wanted to be. Undeterred, and enraptured by the idea of an agrarian future, I kept reading. I read, and re-read, Brad Kessler’s Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese, a book so beautifully written that reading it is like eating from a box of chocolates, each page a delicious morsel to be savored and lingered over before being swallowed. Its depiction of the author’s life – a writer turned goat farmer turned cheesemaker – is romantic and enviable. The tie to the stories of my mother’s childhood, which largely revolved around the goats and chickens on her parents’ small farm, was magnetic. I continued to devour farming books, particularly enjoying memoirs of those who left other careers for agricultural pursuits. Kristin Kimball’s The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love was another superbly-written volume that I read multiple times. Ideas for various farming ventures filled my head.
But I kept stubbing my toe on one, rather significant, complication. While my husband and I both eat meat, neither of us has any desire to raise animals for slaughter. Some may find that hypocritical, but we just…don’t want to. One of the axioms of farming, however, is that there is always death involved, and it’s true. The romantic notion of raising dairy goats (or cows or sheep) is one of placid animals, all with names and each with a personality known to and appreciated by the farmer, walking into the milking room of the barn every morning and evening to have their udders drained while leisurely snacking on their favorite grain. But there is an unavoidable aspect of death associated with this otherwise peaceful, pastoral picture. You see, only females who have given birth recently produce milk, and when those does (female goats) or heifers or ewes bear young, fifty percent of the offspring, on average, will be male. And about the only economically viable market for male livestock involves a trip to the slaughterhouse, as the demand for breeding stock and pets is insignificant.
Vegetable gardening doesn’t have that problem, and so, shortly after moving to the country, I paid a local farmer to till up a patch of our pasture (it wasn't until last year that we bought our own tractor) and proceeded to plant a large vegetable garden. The bounty that first year was sizeable -- perhaps it was beginner’s luck; perhaps the insect pest population hadn’t yet discovered my operation -- and I found a small number of customers who were eager for weekly shares of produce.
My vegetable garden thrived that first year. But while I still grow food for our personal consumption, most of the available space in our gardens and fields has since been replaced by flowers.
In addition to a multitude of vegetables, I’d planted a few flowers, varieties that reminded me of the gardens of my childhood – zinnias, sunflowers, cosmos – and they grew prodigiously as well. So much so, that as I spent one evening stripping the leaves off a huge pile of zinnias I’d cut, my husband asked what I planned to do with such a massive haul and said, offhandedly, “maybe you should sell those.”
His comment stuck with me, and like any seed that’s been planted, it started to swell, and sprout, and grow. Not too long after, I happened to open an issue of Organic Life magazine and saw a multi-page spread on Floret Flower Farm, with stunning photos and descriptions of the evolving market for sustainably-grown, locally-sourced flowers. Just like that, the little seedling of an idea – planted unsuspectingly by my husband – began to put down roots. The article led me to Lynn Byczynski's book, The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower’s Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers, and it was the equivalent of giving a plant a blast of fertilizer and a long, deep drink of water. This flower farming idea wasn’t just a good idea; it was my destiny. I knew it immediately and intuitively.
So, here I am, a self-taught, part time farmer-florist. I still have my day job, and it’s as demanding – and necessary – as ever. But I spend every moment I can with the flowers. It’s my happy place.