When we established Tree Gate Farm, Dean and I unknowingly stepped into a family tradition stretching back three generations in which food and flowers grapple for space, time, and attention. Mom filches compost for her blooms from dad's vegetable garden and in late fall, sneaks delicate potted perennials behind the garden fence for added deer protection. He grumbles, then winks. Grandma shared sunny yellow primroses with neighbors far and wide while Grandpa tended vegetables; the only bickering between them that family members ever recall was due to the clandestine transplantation of certain landscaping elements.
In 2008, Dean's mom delivered a wedding gift -- delayed several years by our search for land -- of divisions from her own perennial flower garden, many of which had been gifts from relatives and neighbors decades ago. Mom's vision and the legacy of relationships it represented created a garden that brightens the entrance to the orchard from last frost until the snow flies. That same spring, we rototilled a spot in view of the kitchen window and planted a plot of sunflowers. In 2009, family friends shared a handful of dahlia tubers that lend their exuberant forms and colors to the mix.
As the farm grew into its own as a business, I began selling cut flowers -- including salmony phlox from mom's garden and those dahlias -- to Business is Blooming. Under the tutelage of a talented neighbor, I learned to craft pleasing bouquets as gifts for friends, family, and favorite farm customers. This summer, when TGF angels Amelia and Leah invited us to set up a Friday afternoon mini market at Felicia's Atomic Lounge, where they feature our fruit and horseradish in their specialty cocktails. As a thank you for their hospitality, we crafted a weekly bouquet for the bar; as our summer vegetable inventory diminished, we started including cut flowers to round out the offerings. At our final market, the bouquets sold out.
Like every farm enterprise, flowers demand a rigor the hobbyist can forego -- planting on a staggered schedule, pest management, detailed recordkeeping, proper care throughout the season to optimize yields, thoughtful process to streamline the harvest for maximum efficiency. Ambivalent about the tension between function and fancy, I've been haphazard in my attentions to the blooms. This past spring I divided and planted several hundred feet of dahlia tubers, sunflowers, and a few other random ornamentals, all scattered across several acres, wherever I could find space amidst the higher priority vegetables. Then I abandoned them to the weeds as food crops -- potatoes, leeks, onions, plums, berries, chickens, and pigs -- clamored for attention. Amidst July's drought, the flowers languished, but with the deluges of late August and early September, they bounced back, setting buds and rejuvenating my enthusiasm. A week ago, having determined that even admidst such distracted management, the flowers might have something to contribute to the bottom line, we decided it's time to put the flower question on the table for our winter planning sessions: In 2012, will we devote a portion of our attention to their cultivation and marketing, or relegate them to the sidelines?
Forecasters are calling for a killing frost tonight and while the red sedums will retain their grace and the calendula blooms will weather the chill, the dahlias won't take it well. By morning, their distinctive forms and flashy colors will be reduced to a universal black slime. The cheery yellow petals of the sunchokes will likewise blacken and send sugars hurtling down to the tubers that already hold the promise of next summer's blooms. Since unlike the sunchokes, dahlias generally don't survive the winter in our climate, the tubers must be dug, labeled, and stored in a root cellar, then planted out late next spring.
Each fall, they present a choice: check that each plant is labeled and prepare to dig them for storage, or abandon the enterprise. Yesterday, I checked the labels. I a few weeks left to decide whether -- and how many -- to dig. This year, we'll take the decision seriously -- on a farm founded with a dedication to supporting the local food movement and preparing for energy descent, what place do cut flowers have in the mix? The neighborhood pollinators will have plenty to eat here, even if we never tend another cut flower. But there's something to be said for the joy of an extravagant bouquet, the visual appeal of shape and structure, the creative outlet of crafting an arrangement. Perhaps, like Dean's parents and their parents before them, we're destined to struggle with these questions not just this fall, but every fall. . . .