At Jello Mold Farm near Mount Vernon in Washington state, Diane Szukovathy and Dennis Westphall are growing flowers organically, applying the same sort of local, green standards to their work as fruit and vegetable growers are to theirs. The result is row upon row of beautiful, bouquet-ready flowers — everything from lilacs and lupines to...
WHY IS LOCAL, organic and seasonal a concern with food but not flowers? It’s true we don’t eat stems and petals like we do strawberries and tomatoes. But we bring flowers into our homes, set a bunch on the dining-room table or next to where our kids eat breakfast. Many cut flowers, whether you buy them at a florist or the grocery store, have been doused in chemicals, heavily packaged and transported halfway around the world. It’s ironic that few items we buy are less green than flowers.
Which is where Jello Mold Farm comes in, with its organic flower farming. Diane Szukovathy and Dennis Westphall bought property near Mount Vernon eight years ago, lured north by a 1908 farmhouse. And what about the unlikely name? “We collect everything,” says Szukovathy, including dozens of old Jello molds that decorate the farmhouse and outbuildings.
The couple started planting an orchard with the goal of running a Community Supported Agriculture farm. But somewhere along the way, Szukovathy read “The Flower Farmer” by Lynn Byczynski, and the seed was planted. “Growing flowers is four times the work for the dollar as landscaping, but I say bring it on,” says Szukovathy. She and Westphall weed by hand, layer on compost, dig in fish scraps. “Our flowers are of phenomenal quality because we take care of the soil,” says Westphall simply.
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If you’ve raised children anywhere around Seattle in the past 30 years, you’d probably recognize Dennis Westphall, or you would if you heard him break into the chorus of “Vega Boogie” (We like our vegetables, yes we do). Westphall is singer and guitarist in the popular kids’ musical group Tickle Tune Typhoon. He still sings, and Szukovathy continues to run her landscaping business, because the joys of flower farming don’t include great profits.
But such considerations don’t deter these two, who are gleefully expanding. They’re already growing 300 feet of lilac hedge. The farm boasts hoop houses with row after row of ranunculus, lupines and sweet peas. They plan to extend their season by sowing flowers earlier and growing more under cover. The first plum and cherry trees are large enough to yield flowering branches for bouquets, but Szukovathy and Westphall aren’t finished planting trees. Some day, Jello Mold Farm will sell chestnuts as well as flowers; for now, the fields of young chestnut trees contribute branches for autumn bouquets.
The variety of flowers, pods, berries, leaves and even vegetables in farm bouquets is anything but expected. Szukovathy loves the look of edibles mixed with flowers, so she grows artichokes, vining cherry tomatoes, peppers and gourds. The dark ‘Karma Choc’ dahlia is always popular, as is the dramatic ‘Moulin Rouge’ sunflower, tall sedums, oriental lilies, bearded iris and gooseneck loosestrife.
Woody shrubs like viburnum, ninebark and Hydrangea paniculata add structure, flower and leaf. Hellebores, helenium, peonies, lupine, yarrow, echinops and foxtail lilies, as well as carrots gone to seed, emphasize seasonality. “We specialize in fragile plants like lilacs that you just can’t ship,” explains Szukovathy, who gets up to harvest at 7 on cloudy mornings and 5:30 a.m. when the sun is out.
Happily, Jello Mold Farm is part of a growing trend. Marigold and Mint just opened an organic, seasonal flower shop on Capitol Hill (www.marigoldandmint.com) supplied by their Carnation farm; Nisha Kelen at Fleurish has long bought local flowers, and Terra Bella Flowers in Greenwood offers “eco-roses” and USDA-certified organic flowers.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “The New Low-Maintenance Garden.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.