"The flowers then travel away from the farm, full to the brim with history of place and shaped by countless choices. They are like little ambassadors of our land."
There are as many ways to grow flowers as there are flower farmers. Far from simply placing a seed in fertile soil and nurturing it into a beautiful bloom, a farmer must decide at every stage of the process how to interact with the land, where to source materials, and what growing principles to apply to ensure the productivity of their crop. Our flower philosophy is reflected in this decision-making process, which daily reminds us of the key tenets guiding our farming practices: responsible land use, sustainability, and regeneration.
Decisions begin with the land. How it is situated, its natural features and resources will determine what can be grown. This extends beyond planting flowers that will survive in our USDA agricultural zone. We consider whether a crop is native to our area, whether it supports beneficial insects or protects other plants from harmful insects, and whether it will thrive in our mountainous environment. We grow all of our flowers in the field rather than in a greenhouse or other structure, so selecting varieties that can withstand a little spring or autumn chill is important for us when trying to grow as much of a year’s worth of flowers as possible.
Before the flowers can go in the ground, there are decisions to be made about the ground in question. We placed our “big garden” (in contrast to the little kitchen garden) on flat-as-can-be bottom land at the base of a mountain. (A Virginia-sized mountain, so imagine something more like a very ambitious hill.) We benefit from the proximity to forest, which offers good traffic of birds into the garden to eat pests. We keep large animals out with a 10-ft electric fence powered by a solar battery. Wind is a challenge here. We’re in a valley–a wind tunnel in spring and fall. An embankment of a creek provides a little protection from northern winds, but sustained gusts of over 20 mph are difficult to mitigate on open ground with no barriers nearby. We’ve found that placing bales of straw at the end of rows reduced wind damage to a noticeable degree. At the end of the season, these bales are excellent brown matter for compost, particularly as they tend to grow all kinds of mycellia over the course of the season.
The most crucial questions arise when the farmer considers her soil. Soil is the lifeblood of our–or any–farm, and it occupies a tremendous amount of our thinking. Plants photosynthesize their “food” of course, converting sunlight into energy and carbohydrates. Soil, however, provides plants with the materials–macro and micronutrients–needed to build the plant-stuff: roots, stems, leaves, and the coveted bloom. Soil is profoundly complex, and I could talk about it endlessly despite having so much to learn on the subject. Suffice to say it is of utmost importance to the vitality of the farm.
The big soil questions include: how will we prepare our soil? What will we add to it? How will we preserve it for future use?
Soil preparation is a spectrum. One could plant a seed in a bit of dry, barren earth and, if it was the right seed, it would no doubt grow there. Probably nasturtium or dock. But many would not, and when attempting to repeatedly produce a yield of many different and vibrant flowers, greater preparation must be done on the soil to make it useful. Methods include: ploughing, tilling, or the no-till method. Each deserves its own lengthy discussion. I will share with you what we do.
When we start a new patch of field, the untouched ground is ploughed. Untouched dirt can be (and is, in our case) extraordinarily dense and hard, and we must in some way loosen it up so that it can be manipulated. Moreover, our soil is extremely rocky–big rocks, not little ones. I draw a distinction because rocks are an excellent thing to leave in the soil to build structure. But we have to rid our field of the largest, which tend to be prohibitive to planting. After ploughing, a cover crop is then planted for a season to nutrify, aerate, and help reduce weed growth.
Once the cover crop has grown to its peak, the plot is lightly tilled. This buries the cover crop matter into the soil, trapping its nutrients within for later use by the flowers. Depending on the cover crop, different nutrients are captured, but the crucial ones include nitrogen and carbon, some of the plants’ favorites. Indeed, “hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon account for a whopping 96 percent of the mass of a plant*,” with carbon and oxygen dominating.
Then, to improve things further, we add things to our dirt: more dirt! Compost and mulch, that is. This is highly carbon-rich dirt in the making, containing wood bits at various stages of decay as well as other material like moss and plant matter. We purchase compost and make some of our own. Going forward, we would like to create 100% of our own compost from aged leaf matter.
We very occasionally add soil amendments. These include: bone meal, blood meal, kelp meal, rock phosphate, etc. These are always derived from natural sources–harvested from plants and animals or rocks–not chemically manufactured. However, these are also something we would like to one day leave behind, as there are other ways to re-nutrify the soil. We are in the research and testing phase of implementing such methods, which mostly involve brewing plant matter to multiply good bacteria to support soil biology to the utmost.
A side note. I am a firm believer in chemistry. However, there are good reasons to avoid chemically-derived amendments and fertilizers in the garden. They can have very different effects on plants than naturally derived ones. Differences include release times, propensity to leech into the wider environment (it's extremely easy to over-fertilize with chemicals), and availability to the plant. Using chemical amendments is a desperate, short-term solution with an overall negative impact on the wider environment. We never use them.
Once the soil is covered in a blanket of nutrients, it is made into rows. The dirt is mounded towards the center by our row-maker, a piece of tractor-drawn equipment that makes the rows, lays down irrigation pipe, and covers everything with weed cloth all in one go. We hope, one day, that this is all of the soil disruption we will need to do, forgoing tilling altogether. The soil must be built up first, however. We invested in the row making tool last year; I think it put years back on our lives. Previously, water was hauled manually to rows and weed cloth was secured by hand, which involved shoveling dirt onto each side of the row (we have thousands of feet of row when you count each side).
Weed cloth offers another decision point. Some farmers plant into landscape tarp, some into uncovered rows. We use a product called Bio360. It is a compostable, biodegradable, very thin, corn-based film that lays over the rows and helps prevent weeds, retain moisture, and regulate soil temperature. We make a small hole in the film where we want a flower to grow, and place a seed or seedling there. The rest of the row’s worth of dirt remains covered. Over the course of the season, the film slowly degrades. By the end of fall, it is all but gone, and whatever bits remain get rolled back into the earth with the next tilling.
Once all these decisions are made and executed, the growing of flowers begins. A new round of choices emerges with the baby plants, things like what (if any) fertilizers to use and how to manage pests and irrigation.
Most of the fertilizing has been done, of course, with the soil preparation. But commercially grown plants can benefit from a quicker source of nutrients, too, particularly since florists and flower buyers prioritize large heads and long, strong stems. We feed ours with fish emulsion, a less-stinky-than-you-think, um, “tea” of fish bits. This we can drip through our irrigation system or apply by hand with a sprayer. We also add worm castings or aged chicken manure to plants that need intense nutrition.
We are on well water; all the water used in the garden has come trickling or roaring down the mountain as it heads to the Rapidan River. We do our best to use it wisely by growing thirsty plants in the same rows so they can be watered even when others can tolerate a little dryness. Each row can be watered independently due to valves in the irrigation pipes). We are lucky to have fairly reliable rainfall as well.
Pest control is, as hopefully you will guess, achieved without chemicals. We rely on birds and predatory insects like ladybugs, assassin bugs, and praying mantises. The last of these we cultivated directly by placing egg sacs around the property. We’ve found numerous new ones over time, a reassuring sight. Good soil biology is the best defense against disease, so that's what we focus on to control pests. At risk of sounding like a broken record, it starts (and ends) with the soil. Several sources I have studied call it the "digestive system" of plants, and we all know how important the digestive system is!
Our biggest enemy is the Japanese beetle, the prolific invader without natural predator in North America. They particularly like our roses and can strip them completely of their leaves. We spend too much time picking them off by hand. This year we will fight against them more aggressively with the application of milky spore, which contains a bacteria that is fatal to the beetle larva. We also use traps that directly target this beetle.
Our flowers are harvested stem by stem, usually early in the morning, and placed in cold storage. Some of the stems, particularly those that are slow to take up water, are dipped in a product called Quick Dip, a hydrating solution. This product is a mixture of citric and sulfuric acids and water. Here is its full data sheet with safety info. The major takeaways: it’s chemically stable and produces no known hazardous decomposition products.
The flowers then travel away from the farm, full to the brim with history of place and shaped by countless choices. They are like little ambassadors of our land.
We of course face many other decisions along the way about how to package and transport items, how to meet challenges in the garden, and how to best support ourselves and our enterprise. Importantly, these decisions must be long-term. Our garden is meant to last and produce season after season, running at the hands of very few individuals for now. Every choice is made with an eye to the future or this place, our welfare, and the preservation of the wider environment.
USDA agricultural zone: a number 1 to 13 assigned by the USDA to represent various growing conditions across the map of the United States; usually used to determine which crops can survive there. Many crops will thrive in multiple zones. We are 7a/6b.
Mycellia: fungal hyphae
Cover crop: a crop planted (often in rotation) with a marketable crop to add nutrients back into and change the structure of soil. Popular cover crops include: buckwheat, rye, grasses, and even root vegetables. Cover crops are often planted on fields during the winter to maintain soil structure, another practice we employ.
* Lowenfels, Jeff. Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardener's Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition. Timber Press, 2020.