A Gathering of Growers
The combined flower-farming knowledge contained in those lively minds and generous souls that gathered in the fields of Charles Little & Co., Charles and Bethany Little’s Eugene, Ore., farm was nothing short of amazing.
We arrived at the bucolic spot on Seavey Loop Road last Monday for the one-day Northwest-West regional meeting of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers- David with little sleep, having driven nearly overnight from Seattle; Debra having flown in the previous afternoon from Los Angeles, shepherded by friend and fellow writer Mary-Kate Mackey, her Eugene host.
The sight of a straw-hatted crowd of about 60 folks standing near the charming, hand-lettered U-Cut Flower sign next to a wooden shed greeted us. In addition to familiar faces, including several stars of the A Fresh Bouquet prototype BLAD, Diane Szukovathy and Dennis Westphall of Jello Mold Farms; Melissa Feveyear of Terra Bella Flowers & Mercantile; and Stacie Sutliff of Blush Custom Floral, we met many new folks. The meeting drew flower farmers from the Oregon coast, the Olympic Peninsula, the cities and rural fields of the west – others whose love affair with cut flowers feels familiar to us.
We were especially gratified to finally meet ASCFG executive director Judy Laushman, a new friend and supporter of this book project. The member farmers of this organization are pretty impressive and hard-working. We’ve read about and heard of many of them – and now we were able to spend a day in their midst, soaking up their wisdom and learning the practical aspects of their craft and trade.
It was an inspiring and educational day, beginning with Charles Little walking us through just a portion of his 35-acre flower-growing operation. He highlighted specific crops, including favorite and well-performing cultivars of plants that produce flowers, foliage, branches, pods and berries for the cut flower trade. Two-hundred-plus botanical ingredients, including herbs, grow here. Charles’s commentary was fascinating (as were the snatches of conversations all around us).
Here then are some of the stellar plants we met, along with a few, choice growers’ secrets and other observations that were shared:
On to woody plants,Callicarpa sp., or beauty berry, is a deciduous shrub that produces small, almost iridescent lilac berries in late fall-early winter. Charles was asked if he has to spend much time pruning the shrubs. “If we get a good crop, we cut it all back,” he says. “That’s the pruning.” And when the Callicarpa is cut way back, its branches go straight to market because it’s a winner at a time of year when the floral color spectrum produces little else in the lilac hue.
- Snowberry (Symphoricarpos sp.), a North American native deciduous shrub, is another plant that elicited a lot of admiration, as well as agreement from other growers on the tour. I’ve certainly grown varieties of snowberry for their ornamental performance in the domestic landscape. But you should hear the growers rave about the many varieties that produce clusters of pearl-sized berries in delicious colors. Charles grows many, including: ‘Green Pearl’, ‘Pink Pearl’ and ‘White Pearl’ – trademarked cultivars. He also loves Symphoricarpos x chenaultii ‘Hancock’ (red berries). There was some dispute about how disease-resistant this plant is, but everyone agreed that “deer love it.” Good thing I don’t have deer living near my garden, because I’m eager to grow this cool plant for its gorgeous winter berries.
- Asclepias, which is known as milkweed in Southern California, is a stunning producer of small, starlike flowers. These perennials are beloved by those who grow habitat gardens because butterflies, moths and other winged pollinators love their tasty nectar. Charles grows a yummy orange species called Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly weed), a native Eastern U.S. plant that produces clusters of bright orange flowers. I was pretty impressed with the diversity of form and bloom color. The farm also has row upon row of pink and white varieties, as well as Asclepias incarnata, a raspberry-maroon form. Wow. All are said to be long-lasting as cut flowers.
- Like Asclepias, varieties of yarrow (Achillea sp.) are a favorite of butterflies. The stunning golden-yellow flowers of Achillea filipendulina ‘Gold Plate’ have clusters up to 6-inches in diameter. Several rows are already in bloom here, ready to be harvested for market. There is another name for the variety Charles grows – fernleaf yarrow – so called for its deep green, fernlike foliage.
- Eupatorium is another landscaping plant that I grew in my former Seattle garden, valued for the chocolaty foliage. This plant does produce fluffy white flowers, but for my money, it’s the awesome leaf color that inspires its use. And clearly the floral trade loves dark foliage as a foil to all that garden greenery. Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’ has deep espresso-plum leaves. The farm also grows the straight green-leaved form.
- Roses are not overlooked at this flower farm, although the roses grown here are appreciated for the hips and foliage more than those blowsy blooms. I spotted Rosa multiflora, which Charles says “makes beautiful red hips.” Yes, you can tell how prolific this plant is by the many-clustered sprays of creamy-white single roses. We also spotted Rosa glauca, which is valued for its blue-gray leaves and sweet pink flowers in the landscape – and for its small, oval hips that floral designers crave.
- Winter berry, or Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’ is another berry producer. There are also cultivars that produce golden berries. This form of Ilex is a deciduous shrub with smooth, oval leaves (rather than the pointy Christmas variety).
- Angelica archangelica is a biennial that reseeds itself, essentially making itself a perennial. An excellent cut flower, according to Charles, the plant resembles Queen Anne’s Lace or a carrot plant gone to seed. I particularly love the pale green flower heads. They had already been harvested by the day of our tour, but a few remnants were enough to get me excited about the architectural forms – imagine them in a modern vase!
- Garden Burnet, or Sanguisorba is a cool perennial with ovoid, serrated blue-green foliage. Its flowers are like little pink bottle-brushes. I had one in my former Seattle garden, a plant I brought home from a Hardy Plant Study Weekend. Again, a vase-worthy plant that also looks cool in the landscape.
After the field tour, we headed in the opposite direction, across another field where rows of the lemon-lime foliage of Cotinus coggygria (Smoke tree) contrasted so beautifully with adjacent deep wine-colored rows of Physocarpus opulifolius (Ninebark). Our destination was Charles and Bethany’s soaring barn and inviting farmhouse (and lunch).
David and I were not the only ones who took a detour when we spotted one of the farm’s crew members harvesting bunches of sweet peas. Who can resist sweet peas, especially when the vines are trained in rows more than 4-feet high? But what caught our attention further was the surprising crop of onions poking out of the soil at the base of the sweet pea plants. Wow – was this a new companion planting scheme we were seeing?
We swapped theories with the others, but figured we’d ask Charles for an explanation. He humored us with a short interview, in which the mystery is revealed as to why he’s paired sweet-smelling annuals with strong-smelling onions:
After a hearty lunch, we gathered under the canopies in an informal circle to “talk shop.” Diane, who is ASCFG’s regional director and Judy, its executive director, led the conversation by asking people to share their new ideas, field-lessons and successes (as well as challenges). The conversation was enlightening, revealing just how demanding it is to grow flowers for market.
We heard about best-selling flowers for Mother’s Day (peonies, tulips); how one small grower uses Facebook updates to attract local flower customers to her farmer’s market stall; how another grower succeeds with ranunculus crops; how several growers band together as a cooperative selling unit as a way to create a successful “buy from the farmer” marketplace – and so much more. They were most generous to ask us to share about A Fresh Bouquet and our vision for this book – following flowers through the growing, gathering and design steps and sharing the passion for seasonal, local and sustainably-grown ingredients. This is a group who understands how significantly this book will influence the floral design trade and flower enthusiasts everywhere.
In addition to heading home with a few botanical goodies: (a packet of Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Rubenza’ seeds from Osborne Seed Co. – can’t wait to grow these dark ruby cosmos flowers) and a potted Polygonatum sp. (Solomon’s Seal) from Charles and Bethany’s farm, we left with an expanded understanding, respect and appreciation for the farmers’ life, passion and commitment to growing flowers.