Further Confessions of a Middle-Aged Beginner Flower Farmer
Updated: Jan 29, 2022
It’s Season 3 here at Bleeding Heart Flower Farm, and I’m officially declaring it the end of the beginning.
I wrote about how all of this got started in my last blog post. "How it's going" can be inferred from how long it took me to write another one: a relentless, joyful, exhausting whirlwind of work, accomplishment and learning.
Cliff Notes update: I survived. And Mr. Flower Farmer stuck by me. Thank you, Hubaloo.
We built a field, a design studio, a walk-in cooler, a professional irrigation system, a website, an online store, a deer fence, an a la carte and DIY bucket weddings program, and a five-location flower CSA. Thank you, Flower Friends.
Like flower farming ninjas, we executed my stealth scheme to sneak a dahlia field in over at my parents' place right underneath their noses (thank you, Mom & Dad) and cranked out some late but beautiful stems down there. I take back all the uncomplimentary things I called you, dahlias.
We sold to our first florist (thank you, Flower Happy), our first restaurants (thank you, Mission Bistro and The Wild Mare), our first luxury resort (thank you, Triple Creek Ranch), and more other "firsts" than I can remember or name.
And I got a girl—a girl!—named Cheyenna. She’s the best helper, planter, rememberer, harvester, encourager, organizer, designer, idea-bouncer-offer and fellow flower geek ever, and I probably don’t deserve her. Thank you, Cheyenna.
Building this business and bringing my great big little dream to life has been a blur of research and learning, wild stabs and guesses, figuring out a rhythm, and flying fast to make it all work.
The main thing I have learned is this: when overwhelm looms and nothing seems clear... plant a staggering amount of seeds, and they will grow.
In Year 3, crop planning moved from our big dining room table to the studio (after the fam-damily objected to “You nice people can eat on your laps for the next several weeks”) but it still consists of gigantic paper grids with color-coded sticky notes in a complex system distinguishing between hardy and tender, flower or foliage, single-cut (like stock and cress) or cut-and-come again (like zinnia and strawflower), direct-sown or transplant, annual or perennial, tall or short, math formulas for total plant counts per variety, hot or cool color palette, and on and on and on, oh my!
Mr. Flower Farmer rolls his eyes. I ignore him. My system is complicated, detailed, elegant, and perfect. “Like me!” I exclaim. He laughs and laughs.
Flabbergasting failure to stick to the perfect plan generally follows.
The allure of seeds is not to be underestimated, friends. Seeds represent an infinite universe of possibility. You can never have too many.
Flower seeds summon you with beckoning fingers from professionally-photographed websites, whisper in your ear from colorful catalog pages. Seeds are the huckster in the alley opening his plaid polyester sportcoat to show you his shiny watches, the carnival barker on the boardwalk tempting you to step right up, little lady, and ring that bell.
Who can resist that? Really. Who. I want to meet them.
Add that most terrible affliction, comparing oneself to other flower farmers, and I confess to serial spiraling down some expensive late night seed-stalking black holes, way off my perfect plan.
Once while seed-scrolling “just for fun” (wink wink), I was seized by the Spirit of Shiso. I didn’t know shiso. Never heard of it, never saw it, never grew it. But hoo-boy, did I ever need a big packet of it. Right then, I needed shiso like oxygen.
Once shiso landed in my shopping cart with a promising ding, it was joined by an avalanche of additional seed packets listed exactly nowhere on my perfect plan. Because: seeds! And a free shipping minimum!
Overwhelmed? Buy seeds. Farm website is stupid and uncooperative? Buy seeds. Gained weight? Buy seeds. Psycho menopause insomnia? Seeds, seeds, seeds. More effective than therapy, just as expensive. (They ought to put that right on the packet, like a Surgeon General’s warning.)
And so it goes, many more times than is sensible.
Shocker alert (brace yourselves): when you order a lot of seeds, they arrive. And arrive and arrive and arrive.
I’ve come to believe on a day with no seed deliveries, the UPS man might stop by anyway, just to check on me.
Stuffing seed packages under my coat while guiltily slinking past my husband, Mr. Flower Farmer frequently regards me as though I’m smuggling a kilo of cocaine into our house rather than a few innocent packets of rudbeckia and some, um, shiso.
My seed hoarding is perhaps a wee bit of a problem. But here, take my hand and embrace my seed denial with me.
Hi, my name is Cindy and my 12-step program begins with germination.
Also: Would you get a load of this beautiful shiso!? This shiso (far left) was stunning. Can you even believe those two-toned, pinking-shear-edged leaves?! Shiso, shiso, shiso. The best.
See? I knew I was doing it right.
Before farming, I once had high standards. But those have pretty much taken a beating.
Consider our domestic affairs. Previously, I aspired to gracious and well-organized living. Now, dusting consists of a fly-by with my sleeve and the most persistent and vexing farm problem is dinner. By the first killing frost, our place could be condemned. Please don’t call the County man.
Our adult daughter (the same person whose teenage bedroom once caused roaring fights between us) got me a cleaning lady. 'Nuff said.
Personal hygiene and style also took a hit. I am anxious in the company of clean people. My hands are a scandal. Ann Taylor suits, hose and heels hit the bin, making room for Carhartts and Muck boots. I’ve climbed right down off my high horse.
Not real life:
My body hurts. Hands-and-knees crawling to plant tens of thousands of transplants, my knees rebel, reducing me to a pathetic but efficient butt-scooting, crab-crawling maneuver that gets the job done. My eyes are all wrinkly from seed-squinting myopia. Full days of repetitive bending, leaning and cutting, followed by nights on my feet designing, make me whimper in the morning until I work out all the kinks in my get-along. There's a good-sized hard little knobby protruding from the wrist of my cutting hand. I call it My Little Friend.
And our landscape and yard! Back when I was a gardener, it was meticulously manicured, all tidy borders and weeded beds and timely dead-heading. Now that I'm a flower farmer, our yard has devolved into a low-down, dirty-rotten, crying shame.
We have compost piles, mulch piles, weed piles, brush piles, tarp piles, piles of piles. I fuzzy up my eyes and pretend I don’t see.
When Squalor Shame gets really bad, I look at old photos and time travel. "Look at our greenhouse. Look how pretty it was. Look at it." When that doesn't work, I climb into a dark closet to rock back and forth and hum.
Essentially a “live-and-let-live” pacifist, back before farming, I coexisted with all Mother Nature’s living things. But in farming, I have located my latent inner killer instinct.
Hose-blasting aphids, I mutter, “Die, you stupid little sap-sucking b#@%&*s, DIE!” Earwigs are no match for my bare-fingered squishing. And a Dexter-like rush of adrenaline bathes my brain with happy satisfaction juice as I decapitate grasshoppers with my snips, hollering, “Take THAT, you miserable little vector of plant disease with your miserable little moving mandible mouthparts!”
All to say: even though it is the end of the beginning, I am still a crazy person talking to myself in a field. Hot Mess Express, 100 percent.
But on the inside, where it counts, my spirit is smiling and humming a happy tune. Flower therapy and joy salve can fix just about anything.
When my arms are loaded down with flowers or arrangements I grew from seeds and designed with my own two hands, people always seem happy to see me coming. And my flowers and I get to be part of some pretty important life moments.
During these years of isolation and pandemic, I flowered a beautiful 85-year-old Stevensville lady whose California daughter wanted to share love but couldn't be here on her birthday.
When a friend’s dad died, we shared a moment of grief, a great talk about life, and farm-style flowers in bright happy colors to celebrate Grandpa Paul at the gathering of friends and family.
On my own parents’ 60th anniversary, I hand-tied a bouquet for Dad to present Mom with a ta-da and a big kiss for flourish. (Thank you, Tiffany Photography for capturing this moment and so many others for us, and anyone who doesn't think my parents Les and Hazel are freaking adorable, I do not know what is wrong with you.)
When Ashlee and Jay (the young organic produce farmers behind Fern Co. in Stevensville) hiked a Bitterroot peak to exchange wedding vows, I tucked some Sweet Annie they grew at their farm into her bridal bouquet for luck.
Since we started, eleven couples have said their "I do's" with our Farm's blooms singing backup. Don't care if it's corny: that feels deeply meaningful to me.
And after delivering a beautiful load of Echo Blue Lisianthus in our weekly donated flower buckets to The Living Centre, my phone chimed with a thank-you text from Kristen, the Activities Director: “Whispers among residents, ‘The flower fairy came again.’ ”
You guys. Of all the things I have been or could ever be, at this moment in my life, I am a Flower Fairy. What is better than that?
Flowers mark moments. They provide everyday beauty. They carry solace, happiness, love and friendship. They spark joy. They engage our senses and remind us to dwell in this moment, instead of rushing to the next. They connect us to nature, and beauty, and each other. People need this connection, now more than ever.
Reflecting on this season in my life, I can honestly say flower farming has stretched, challenged and enlarged every part of me.
My mind, as I assimilate horticultural research, apply scientific method, and soak up tips and wisdom from generous fellow growers. (Thank you, my beautiful farmer-florist friends. So damn much.)
My body, as I push through fatigue and pain from physical labor and remember to stretch and breathe.
My creative spirit, as I arrange stems, become a better designer and learn to let the flowers speak.
My entrepreneurial spirit, as I hustle and step out of my comfort zone to “sell” and price and do awkward-and-hard-but-necessary things to grow my small business, do better than break even, and disprove anyone’s mistaken impression that this flower farm is "just my jobby."
(See what I did there? Gah.) Continuing:
My soul, as I make new friends, become more connected to my community, and find a new way to try to earn a living while reinventing my entire life.
And my marriage, because just in case it's not obvious, none of this, not one little bit, could exist without Mr. Flower Farmer. Thank you, Greg Putnam. I love you so much.
Right now, nature rests. But spring is coming. Seeds will push up and through, stretching toward the light.
I will be right here with them. No longer a beginner. But still growing.
Cindy Smith-Putnam is a Montana native, University of Montana graduate, reformed hospital executive, former Idaho Woman of the Year, wife, mom, sister, daughter. In 2019, she launched a farming business, Bleeding Heart Flower Farm, northeast of Stevensville with the support of her grumpy-but-hardworking husband Greg, a local remodeling contractor. You can find Greg, Cindy, Bo the Strong Silent Border Collie and Buddy the Dramatic Emotional Chiweenie, and their specialty-cut flowers at their flower farm north of Stevensville, on Instagram, Facebook, or online. Deep gratitude and mad props to Tiffany Photography of Stevensville for her talents. All the professional, beautiful ones are hers. The janky ones are all ours.