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.
Thanh Luu’s journey to flower farming began with a sick aunt. “She was going through lung cancer,” says Luu. “She couldn’t eat and she was depressed.”
At the time, Luu was living in Maine and working as a lab scientist — a job she describes as intense and incompatible with her personality. That was about the time that her housemate started farming flowers. “I wanted to support her, so I went out to her farm, saw her operation and said I wanted to buy some flowers for my aunt. It was mid-late spring and she had sunflowers, so I bought two bunches.”
When she presented her aunt with the flowers, her face lit up and Luu says she had an epiphany of sorts. “Food can make you happy and it’s sustaining, but the light in her face was a different kind of light. Spiritually, that’s when it clicked for me.”
Shortly thereafter, she moved to Rhode Island to be with her then-boyfriend and the two began growing lettuce and a single bed of zinnias and marigolds. “I did not know what I was doing,” she says. “I had thousands and thousands of lettuce heads.” Ultimately, she dropped the lettuce (and the boyfriend) but stuck with the flowers.
“Everyone said that after six years, if you’re still doing it, then you’re golden.” This is her seventh season.
Petals Farm, Luu’s baby, is nestled on an eleven-acre field in West Kingston that she shares with a vegetable farmer. Since those first years, through lots of practice, patience and perseverance, she’s cultivated a successful operation. She grows about an acre-and-half of flowers which, while small in comparison to the other two farms, makes sense considering hers is pretty much a solo operation. She sells to florists, designers and Compass Hardware in Charlestown. She does a handful of weddings every year (she’s fully booked for spring 2020) and a weekly farmers market in Narragansett. This year she is also selling wholesale to Carbone, a large floral distributor in Cranston. For now, it’s just the right amount of business, considering she also works full time as a conservationist for the National Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S.D.A.
What’s her secret to successful farming? First, she’s found niche crops, lisianthus being one, that she knows will sell and she focuses on those. Second, she’s learned not to fight Mother Nature.
“I used to get pretty frustrated when I lost a crop and I’d be out there during the storm,” Luu says. “But you gotta get to the point where you accept it. If you don’t accept it, don’t do it.
“Now, I let the storm do her thing, and when she calms down, then I go out there and clean up. I don’t have to clean up while she’s mad. That is one of the challenges, but once you accept that it is what it is, it’s no longer a challenge.”
Lastly, she believes a little bit of her energy goes into each living thing she grows, which is why she doesn’t plant or seed when she’s mad. “I firmly believe that those who buy my flowers, those who see them and smell them, that my energy is transferred to them. And that’s why I do it. It’s spiritual.”
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.