Let's Start a Farm

“Steve,” I texted my husband one day last July. “Let’s start a flower farm.”

(I’d just learned that term, “flower farm.”)

Out went a series of clipped messages in quick succession. That’s my custom when I’m super excited.

“At my Dad’s.”

“Full sun!”

“A huge cutting garden!”

“Kids will love!”

“Endless fresh flowers!”

“Maybe even a little business?”

He responded immediately: “Yes.”

My heart flopped in my chest. My husband is a wonderful man, but he’s never been the most spontaneous guy on the planet, and his quick assent was at once exhilarating and terrifying. A response of “What?” or “But we already have jobs” or “Does it come with dental?” would’ve required a long explanation of the slow flowers movement (another brand-new-to-me phrase) and extensive enumeration of the benefits to be gained by striking out on our own in this endeavor. I would’ve had to convince him—and myself—of the plausibility and rightness of this plan.

But he’d said only, “Yes,” and his support obligated me in a way that sent a hot bolt of panic flashing through my guts.

The truth is that we’d both been waiting around for something exactly like this, ready to stumble off the precipice into an endeavor that would consume us wholly. Starting a successful business, being our own bosses, and controlling our own destiny has always been our dream (duh, isn’t it everyone’s?), but until that hot day in July, the nature of our work hadn’t presented itself.

And yet, in many very subtle ways, it had, over and over again.

I’ve always grown things. I planted my first “garden,” an 8’x10’ mulched bed off my parents’ back patio, when I was twelve. [No. Now that I think of it, that wasn’t my first attempt. A few summers before the patio patch, fresh off my first pass through The Secret Garden, drunk with visions of my own walled paradise and probably speaking in a terrible English accent all the while, I arranged some cut roses in a few of my mother’s urns and set them behind a row of lilacs in our yard. I added a plastic lawn chair and excavated a small hole into which I placed my fishbowl. Not exactly Misselthwaite Manor, to be sure. I can’t recall if the fish survived his time in my first garden, but I do maintain a clear memory of his muddied bowl water.]

My second effort was more successful. I grew a sweetbay magnolia, some catmint, and a bunch of garden center shrub roses in a patch adorned with a homemade (wood-burned) sign that read, Mary Beth’s Garden. There was a little iron bench (quite an upgrade from the 1980s lawn chair) and a real kidney-shaped pond, complete with a tiny (and noisy) pump fountain and a few actual koi. It was magical. I remember tending the roses and then sitting by the pond, taking it all in and feeling at once proud, happy, and so free. It was a heady combination, and I realize now that I’ve been seeking it in gardening on and off for years ever since.

The off years included most of high school (horses and my lame social scene consumed all my time and attention), college (I was studying) and graduate school (reading, writing, and working took over my life). When we moved back home to Pittsburgh, gardening still wasn’t at all on my mind, and when we bought our first house—a cape cod on an old street with lovely neighbors and mature trees—I never thought to myself, “Hmm, there’s not a single patch on this property that gets full sun for the majority of the growing season.”

We moved in, renovated much of the interior, and I set about making the gardens. The place had been “landscaped,” I guess you’d say, but it was a pretty bleak situation: holly bushes in front, a few oddly placed and badly overgrown rhododendrons, and lots of hostas and orange lilies. I pruned, clipped, transplanted, rearranged, brought in plenty of new plants, and got a seed starting regimen going, making a lot of mistakes and learning a lot of heartbreaking lessons, chief among them: 1) when a plant’s tag says it requires “full sun,” it really does require full sun; and, 2) soil matters and short-cutting amendments never works. I killed lots of plants in those first few seasons, but through this exciting (though expensive and sometimes very frustrating) routine of trial and error, I figured out what works at our house, and we’ve grown tons of gorgeous tulips, narcissi, peonies, lilies, iris, clematis, foxgloves, sage, bee balm, catmint, phlox, hydrangeas, and “shade tolerant” roses.

Gardening at home has been a blessing. It’s gotten me through some very difficult times. I think it actually saved my sanity—and, I don’t want to be overly dramatic here, but maybe even my life—during my second pregnancy, when I was so fraught with anxiety that I couldn’t even sit still in a chair. Is there anything more therapeutic than getting out into the garden, breathing in the air, putting your hands into the earth, exerting yourself mentally and physically as completely as possible? All in the cultivation of beauty. What could be more salubrious?

It became clear to me a few seasons ago that I’d outgrown our home gardens. I found myself bored and in want of projects that would never be possible. I wanted to design. I wanted to grow all sorts of things that would never grow here. I wanted to build something really big from nothing. Feeling stuck, in limbo, I didn’t do much with the gardens for a couple of seasons except enjoy them, cutting flowers and bringing them into the house or giving them away to friends. We decided that we ought to start thinking about selling our house and getting some land so I could stretch out and grow. It was an exciting but distant prospect, and I was getting antsy. I needed to make a big move right away.

And then I stumbled onto Instagram (only seven years late!), and everything became instantly clear: what I’ve been after—what I want to do and be—is possible. It’s a thing, as the kids say, and others are doing it. They’re living the dream! Maybe I, too, can be a “flower farmer.” I saw right away that it had all the pieces: the growing and all that comes with it (the body-breaking, tire myself out, dawn to dark work, the involvement of the children, the satisfaction of success), the creativity, the beauty, the writing, the hope of sustainability, and that life-changing, the sky’s the limit quality that suggests our future might look like something we can’t even envision right now.

And so, one day in August when we were visiting Dad, I laid down a measuring tape and started digging out our first field.

We played around with lots of possible farm names. The most honest one, Midlife Crisis Flower Co., lacked finesse, we thought. Lots of others sounded pretty but felt ultimately unsuitable: Foxglove Farm (foxgloves are the first flowers I ever grew from seed), Good Dog Flower Co. (we’d just put down our beloved 15-year-old Labrador, and we buried him at the farm so he’d be with us on this adventure), Righteous Blooms (well, we still listen to a fair amount of Grateful Dead), Tangled Arbor Flower Co. (the old grape arbor I used to play under still stands near the fields we’re cultivating), Bird and Bee Flowers (lovely imagery and I’ve always liked that John Lennon number), et cetera. We finally settled on Summer House Flowers because it best sums up what we hope this endeavor will be for us and for our clients.

We hope to grow the finest possible flowers. We hope to do it in a small batch, from scratch, with love, by hand, one-at-a-time fashion. We want our clients to feel as though their blooms have come to them not from a faceless foreign corporation but from the private gardens of a beloved friend. We picture ourselves living at the farm with Dad from June-September so that our kids grow up knowing it as their summer house—the place to which we escape each year, where there are no screens and where the only hustle and bustle relates to harvesting and getting to market. With this undertaking, I intend to give my children a piece of my own childhood, which was spent in those fields, running and riding and imagining. And, as for me, well I couldn’t be happier to be returning, and going home feels like just the ticket.

I only recently and randomly stumbled across the slow flowers movement and flower farming and CSAs, but it’s clear to me now that I’ve been led here. Something’s been pushing me toward this for a long time and it feels miraculous and such a relief to have realized it finally.