Rhode Island Flower Farmers Share Their Best Green-Thumbed Tips
These stunning flower farms are part of a field-to-vase movement, bringing spectacular beauty indoors.
Little State Flower Company
Anna Jane Kocon has flowers tattooed on both arms and a genuine, jubilant laugh as bright as the petal edges on the dahlias she’s cutting. It’s August and dahlia season has just started.
“No exaggeration, 50 percent of my clients don’t show up until dahlia season,” Kocon says. “They’re pretty hardy at this moment, but they don’t like to be transported. This is actually one of the flowers that draws the florists to us rather than them buying from the international market. Because dahlias don’t travel well, florists are more willing to buy them from local farms.”
Cafe au Lait dahlias are the most popular variety among brides. Their large, creamy white centers transition to a delicate pink around the flower’s outer edge. “There’s a pretty big market here. One of the biggest destination wedding areas in the entire United States is Newport.”
Kocon, who has a master’s in fine arts, has been farming for about thirteen years. Her first job in the industry was farming edible flowers at Eva’s Organic Garden in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. At the time, “I didn’t know anything about flower farming,” she says. “I thought I was going to weed arugula.” After about five years there, she moved to Robin Hollow Farm, where she worked another three-plus years for the Hutchinsons. Eventually, she reached a crossroads. “I finally said to myself, ‘I’m thirty-five years old. If I don’t start my own company now, I’ll get hurt working for someone else, because farming is super dangerous, or I’ll get too old or I’ll get pregnant. One of those things will happen and I won’t be able to do this.”
In 2014, Little State Flower Company was born. At that time, no one else local was catering to the wedding and event industry, she says, so that’s where she started. “I told them ‘I’m growing for you to buy locally, specifically. I’ll grow whatever you want and I can grow a lot.’ ”
That first year she had twelve clients. She was working alone on a half-acre field owned by a friend in Portsmouth. By the end of the year, she had about forty-five clients. Now she has more than 160 and three employees: two field hands and an events manager.
In addition to florists, Little State sells at the Aquidneck Growers’ Market, they offer DIY buckets and their events business is burgeoning.
“Our style is super seasonal and very New England,” says Kocon. “We stay true to what we’re good at and I think people can see when you’re good at something.”
“We are different from traditional florists in that we never guarantee a specific flower,” says Little State events manager Jill Rizzo. “We do a general color range but because of weather, crop failure and lots of different reasons, we don’t guarantee specific flowers. But that’s part of the draw. You’re supporting your local economy, your local farm and everything is going to be completely unique.”
At this point, Kocon can’t imagine doing anything differently and she has plans to expand: She and her husband, Bradley, recently bought land in Tiverton. In two years when her lease in Portsmouth ends she will move the majority of her farming operation there. Recently, she’s also become involved in the Farm and Flora Collective, an all-women organization in Middletown that grows flowers year-round in heated greenhouses.
“You get bit,” she says. “Once you get bit by the farming bug, you can’t really look back. It’s a life like no other. In my opinion, it’s the best life.”
Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) grows one to three feet tall and features umbrella-shaped clusters of tiny yellow flowers. “It’s a great source for insects that are just coming out of their dormancy and looking for sustenance. It’s also a wonderful host plant for black swallowtail butterflies.”
Raspberry, blackberry and blueberry shrubs are also beneficial. “If there’s room on the property, it’s a good idea to put some shrubs in. Blueberries are especially pretty to look at and they’re great pollination for birds.”
Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) grows two to three feet tall and features aromatic leaves and little white or lavender tubular flowers. “This is probably my single favorite pollinator. It’s just a miracle plant. Butterflies, bees, flies: it attracts all kinds of good stuff.”
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) produces tall clumps of pink flowers, while the shorter butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) features bright orange flowers. “The asclepias is probably the most important host plant for monarchs.”
Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) grows two to four feet tall and produces showy tubular-shaped, lavender-hued flowers in globular formations. Related to bee balm, these plants have a special interest for hummingbirds, moths and bumble bees.
Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) and Virginia rose (Virginiana rosa) — loved by leaf cutter bees — are mid-season blooming shrubs. “Ninebark has a really pretty leaf. You can get them in different colored leaves, but most are dark purple with tiny white flowers.”
Cutleaf coneflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata) grow six to seven feet tall, making them ideal for the back of a border. “The foliage has a really interesting cut leaf shape and they have strong yellow petals with a green nose. They provide seeds for the birds and are a great pollinator.”
Bottled gentian (Gentiana clausa), suitable for sun and shade, feature dark bluish-purple petals that close together at the top like a bottle. “Bumble bees pry the petals open and tumble inside.”
Goldenrod (Solidago) comes in many varieties and, says Case, “almost any kind is good in one capacity or another.” She suggests pairing it with New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), which is usually purple but can also be pink.
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) shrubs produce small white globes that resemble pin cushions stuck with little white pins. These showy plants attract butterflies and moths.
“We start planting as soon as the ground is workable, but we start potting up and will have a lot of things ready to go in April,” says Case.
Blue Moon Farm Perennials, 173 Saugatucket Rd., South Kingstown, 284-2369, bluemoonfarmperennials.com.