A few of my favorite things

I have found it quite beneficial to read blogs from other gardeners and flower farmers around the world regarding their favorite flowers to grow, so I thought I would take a stab at writing about a few of my favorites – some of the more unusual flowers that might not get as much attention – and share my successes and failures, so that others might be able to learn from my experiences. Each year I select a new flower to test – only growing a few as I have limited real estate – and will incorporate these into my list. Most of my seeds are purchased from either Johnny’s Seeds, which I love because it is company owned and has phenomenal instructions on the seed packet, or Floret Flower Farm, which is a little more expensive given the quantity of seeds per packet, but provides an abundant selection of unusual flower seeds, and I’ve also purchased from Hudson Valley Seed Company and Seed Savers.

BELLS OF IRELAND (moluccella laevis) – These beautiful, light green flowers have an incredible scent reminiscent of mint and apples (which is not surprising given they are in the mint family). I have found the seeds to be a bit finicky with regards to germination, but once they take, they seem to be pretty hardy. A trick I learned was to place the seeds between a moist paper towel inside a ziplock bag and kept in the refrigerator for a week to ten days before planting. Make sure the seeds receive light to germinate. These flowers act as a great filler in my bouquets, although they do not grow as tall as I have seen in other photos, my understanding is that they can gain height if they are allowed to grow year after year. I don’t have this luxury, so my flowers will continue to be about 12” tall.

CLARKIA (clarkia unguiculata elegans) – A member of the Godetia family, this was going to be my ”flower of 2020”, so I took special care to grow as many as possible, but for reasons that are still unclear to me, only a few made it to the yards. Tray after tray of my Clarkia either failed to germinate, or died after early blooming, and I can only conclude, after much research, that perhaps I was overwatering. Listed as a cut-and-come again flower, I did not see any further growth after the first cutting of stems, and I found it difficult to determine the proper harvest time, which was listed as when the lower set of blooms is just beginning to open. While I was, for the most part, able to do this, many of the lower blooms quickly turned brown and shriveled up, leaving very little of the beautiful color that attracted me to this flower in the first place. I did find that the closed blooms would eventually open, although not to full capacity, and the tendril like stems created a beautiful added dimension to the bouquet. These stems also lasted much longer than most flowers – similar to a closed ranunculus. I have not given up on this flower just yet, but may limit how much real estate I devote to it in the coming years.

Cut Clarkia from Spry Flower Farm

LANGSDORFFII (nicotiana langsdorffii) – Also known as Flowering Tobacco, this specimen is being grown as one of my test flowers, and I am loving it! This variety has small, pale green flowers with rather tall stems (around 36”). I have planted different varieties in the past and have found that they really add an unusual element to bouquets. I have yet to harvest the first stems on this year’s crop, but my understanding is that these will produce several stems from one plant. Stay tuned for more on this flower as the season progresses.

CHINA ASTER (callistephis chinensis)- What’s up with the China Aster?! I have tried growing this flower during all three seasons, and each year it gives me trouble. Either the seeds barely germinate, or when they do the flowers that grow from the plant are either too short or all the blooms seem to be on one stem. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but I started to wonder whether I should bother at all. I finally read someone else’s post that also admitted to having difficulty growing these beauties. But China Asters are a hot commodity, and often they go for a higher selling price, so if you can get these to grow, you have a bigger profit margin. This year, I managed to germinate more than I have in the past and, while they have yet to bloom (China Asters have approximately 110-120 days to maturity), I am hoping it will be worth the wait.

China Asters growing in one of the yards. These should be netted as the weight of the flowers will cause them to fall. I will do this next week.

Zinnia Queen Red Lime (zinnia elegans) – I love all zinnia really, but this one is extra special, even if it is becoming extremely popular. The colors are a almost a deep salmon pink edge with a key-lime pie center – the combination is a great accent to a variety of other flowers. These are fantastic for cut-and-come again growers, and a great succession flower as the days to maturity are around 75. A must have in my garden.

Gardening through a pandemic.

We are now into our second month abiding by New York City’s stay-at-home orders due to Covid-19. Early adopters of social distancing practices, we cancelled outings in order to quarantine at home after learning of our direct exposure to the virus. We received a text from our former neighbor – an Italian currently living in Italy – who rapidly texted to us the dire state of his country’s situation. You may recall, the U.S. watched as Italy fell prey to the virus before it reared its ugly head in a similar manner in New York. “Be prepared to stay inside. People over 60 should not go out for any reason, no physical contact with the outside world. Please warn your friends and family.” As the week went on, and more and more people were getting a grasp of what was happening, I called my parents to beg them to stay home. They, too, had been watching the news and, thankfully, cancelled a trip they had planned out of town. We felt confident that our decision to quarantine early was the right one – we heard from friends who had contracted the virus and from others working in hard-hit hospitals. This was unlike anything we had seen before.

The Old Stone House – originally built in 1699 – and the site of one of my flower plots. The J.J. Byrne playground was shutdown during New York City’s Covid-19 stay-at-home orders.

In the beginning, it was easy to stay focused and remain vigilant – our living situation was better than so many others in New York. Early on, we felt strongly, and still do, that it was our duty to stay home to protect not only ourselves, but also those who might not be able to fight the virus should they be exposed. But now, with no end in site, no strategy on how to re-engage, and no real idea of what this virus is, or what it can do, doubts have begun to creep in. Our small savings are dwindling – the local flower shop where I was working has closed and my PR projects have ended – my husband is feeling pressure to go back to his “non-essential” job, and there are people all around us completely dis-regarding the social distancing requirements. And with the repercussions of this pandemic at one moment seeming completely real, and the next contradicting that, the questions keep going through my mind: what is the difference between now and one month from now; why should I wear a mask when so many of my neighbors are not; are we the only ones taking this seriously – should we be; would it be better to just expose myself rather than constantly wonder if I’ve been exposed; when will I be able to see my sister, my parents, my friends? The rest of the country seems to be experiencing less of an impact, and there seems to be an attitude that New York is an anomaly. It feels really lonely.

I have to remind myself that, at the time of this writing, over 80,000 people in the U.S. have lost their lives to Covid-19, and the number continues to grow. Thankfully, and so far, all of my immediate family members and friends are still healthy. Now that I’m no longer working my two other jobs, I’ve been able to focus predominantly on my flower farming, not to mention the creation of this website. While my spring harvest was essentially lost from a financial aspect – I didn’t want to risk potentially exposing anyone to Covid – I took detailed counts of how many flowers bloomed, and when, which has enabled me to better plan for next year’s spring season. I can determine how many flower subscriptions to offer, how many more flowers I might need to plant in the fall in order to supplement, and what to plant to ensure I have a crop for Mother’s Day next year. I have one area of a yard where I farm that gets shade beginning mid-spring, so I’ve been thinking about what might be a good supplement to my tulips and daffodils. My mind keeps turning to hellebores – there are so many varieties that I’ve come across recently, and I’m excited to learn more about them. I’ve also had the time, this year, to research the many types of chrysanthemums, a flower that, growing up, I never appreciated (in fact I hated them). However, after eyeing tall, bright, spider-like yellow chrysanthemums growing in someone’s front yard in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn, I was hooked, and this year I was able to order somewhat unusual varieties from Bluestone Perennials – a family run greenhouse based in Ohio. With names such as Chrysanthemum Cheerleader, Red Carousel, Ivory Pinwheel, and Fred Stone, I’m hoping to have quite a spectacular selection. I’ve read that, due to uncertainty of the flower market, there is a chrysanthemum scarcity this year, so I feel especially lucky to have been able to find these. (I’d love to hear from others on where they might be sourcing their chrysanthemum plugs).

The next several weeks, if not months, are going to be difficult. I have to struggle to find the silver lining during this pandemic, but when I look, I find I have many. Some days seem completely normal, others surreal. In the meantime, I’ll continue to take it day by day and hope that we can all come out of this together and with a stronger perspective on what truly matters in life.

Imposter Syndrome

How I Decided to Start an Urban Flower Farm

Season one, growing local flowers.

The idea to start a flower farm actually began long before my hiatus from the corporate world. I read an article on Floret Flowers, started by Erin Benzakein, and I fell in love. Erin had started a small farm on 2 acres in Washington state. Her flowers were stunning, and her life looked like a dream. Her story about sweet peas – the flower that inspired her farm – brought tears to my eyes. I could close my eyes and see myself walking down a dirt road near my childhood house in Virginia, picking wild daffodils by the bundle, and I felt a yearning. But I lived in Brooklyn, and worked in Manhattan – pavement and skyscrapers were my reality. We had daffodils, but not growing wild, and none you could pick. Not to mention that the city is expensive – I’ve always said its a place for either the very rich, or the very young, and I was neither. However, I had a solid job at a well known wine and spirits company, making a fair amount of money, and I had a family. I couldn’t just leave my job to grow flowers.

Our communication plans would often incorporate working with celebrities. Here I am with the lovely Jackie Cruz.

My decision to start an urban flower farm was ignited when the company where I had been employed for the last ten years decided to implement a re-org which included eliminating the communications department. “Nothing personal”, I was told, but of course when something like this happens, you can’t help but wonder what you might have done wrong. I had many emotions running through me – confusion, panic, disgust, anger – but also relief. I felt stagnant in my job, I just didn’t know what to do about it. After the shock wore off, I did what most people do: tried to get back to a similar space, but it was difficult. Company loyalty was a detriment, it appeared, and I felt like I kept falling into categories of either being too experienced, or not experienced enough. After sending out countless resumes and cover letters, and going on just a handful of interviews, I began to question my abilities. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for the corporate world, perhaps I was too much of a worker ant and not enough Queen Bee, maybe I was considered irrelevant because I didn’t grow up with social media coursing through my veins. I had always thought my capabilities and successes were obvious and, while I believed I was good at my job, I wasn’t good at tooting my own horn. I was taught early on that it was my job, as a PR professional, to remain behind the scenes and promote everyone else around me. Maybe I had taken this lesson too seriously. Or perhaps they could see something I could not. Maybe, I thought, I was an imposter, and everyone around me could see it.

Vertical wine tastings were a fairly regular occurrence working in the wine and spirits industry.

Imposter syndrome is defined as a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Many highly accomplished people have suffered from this including David Bowie, Tom Hanks, Dr. Yvonne Cagle, and Hon. Sonia Sotomayor, to name just a few. I was in good company. I knew I was a hard worker, I knew that I had accomplished many things from a professional standpoint, and I knew that I had been successful in what I set out to do. I decided to think hard about what direction I wanted my career to go. This was a difficult endeavor. When you give yourself the freedom to pick any thing in the world you want to do – seriously ask yourself that question – and you either can’t come up with anything, or feel that none of your ideas are realistic, it can be somewhat depressing. However, I kept coming back to one of my ”unrealistic” ideas – working with flowers. I had changed my profession before – moved to New York and worked my way into the film industry as a camera person – eventually working on one of the Law and Order shows – taught myself how to be a script supervisor (joined the Union), and then changed course to go into marketing. I was agile, learned quickly, and was persistent. But I knew very little about growing, or arranging, flowers. I kept visiting Floret Flowers, reading her blogs, looking at all of her beautiful photos and thinking, “what if?”. After years of working ten hour days in the corporate world, I wanted to connect more with nature, to do something that seemed as though there was a higher purpose to my work life. But it didn’t occur to me to start a flower farm in the middle of Brooklyn. And then, Erin mentioned someone by the name of Sarah Nixon who started My Luscious Back Yard. Low and behold, someone was growing flowers in the middle of Toronto. Someone, this Sarah Nixon person, had started an urban flower farm, and not only that, she was willing to share her secrets!

Sarah is not only a visual inspiration, but she selflessly offers up all of her knowledge on her blog and social media, and she surprisingly and quickly answered any questions that I sent her about starting an urban flower farm. Her openness and generosity was refreshing, and it is something I have found to be evident throughout the flower world, and it inspired me. Right around the same time, Floret Flowers was offering, for the first time, an online course that taught you how to start your own flower farm on a small plot of land. I didn’t have 2 acres, but neither did Sarah, and I thought I could combine the knowledge of growing flowers from Erin, with the inspiration from Sarah to start a little farm in Brooklyn. Now, given that I’m prone to having imposter syndrome, I couldn’t just immediately dive into starting a farm. I decided to call it a flower farm “project”, I felt this gave me the permission to fail without any pressure, and I had to start small.

Setting up landscaping fabric in one of the yards.

After completing Floret Flower’s online farming course, I endeavored to grow my own flowers. I carefully researched all of the items in which I needed to invest, flowers I thought I could – and wanted – to grow, and went to work. But then there was the huge barrier of reaching out to my neighbors to see who might possibly let me grow flowers in their yard. This was a daunting task, primarily because I was now going to have to expose my lack of knowledge, and possible failure, to the world (did someone say imposter syndrome?). Its one thing to grow a few flowers in your back yard that may or may not grow because you don’t have enough sun or you water them too much, its another to ask a New Yorker to sacrifice their precious real estate for your own passion project and hope that something will grow. And of course, there was the need to clarify the concept that I was not a landscape architect – these flowers were going to be, ultimately, for cutting. Who in the world was going to let me do that? I kept putting off this essential part of my endeavor, convinced no one would want to participate. But I was growing seeds in my basement. I had spent a lot of money, I needed to do something. So I sent out a note on a local list serve, explaining my idea, listing my criteria, and awaited the response. To my surprise, I received several dozen responses from neighbors who were interested in my idea! Maybe I wasn’t so crazy after all. I visited every yard, and from the list of about thirty selected five in which to work (I figured this would be more than enough to start, as I was just one person). And that is how I started Spry Flower Farm.

Creating bouquets. I’ve since become more organized with this process.

I still consider this a fluid project – it is an ongoing process of learning, and I don’t know exactly where this is going to go – but I’m now in my third season, and each year I continue to expand my offerings. Do I sometimes think I’m in over my head? Of course. I make a lot of mistakes, there are times when I think nothing is going to grow, but I work hard to push away all of my doubts. I continue to work in PR – this is, after all, one of the most expensive cities in the world, and growing flowers is seasonal – and I have discovered that allowing myself to do something that I love, while connecting with nature, has reinvigorated my ability – and desire – to think creatively and develop strategic programs for other brands. I like to think that I’m also contributing to the universe – bringing beauty to the borough with my flower growing, little by little.