Diary of a Young Farmer

February 15, 2014: New Flowers for 2014!
Swiss Giants Mix strawflower seeds - Garden Seeds - Annual Flower Seeds.https://i1.wp.com/pics.davesgarden.com/pics/2007/12/06/Kell/09321f.jpg
Photo credits: en.paperblog.com, swallowtail garden seeds, dave’s garden
It’s that time of year again…. crop planning time. Seeds have been ordered, regional conferences attended (NOFA and ASCFG’s Northeast gathering – woot woot!), vacations were taken, and the time has come to harness all that knowledge born out of last season’s experiences and channel it into one bangin crop plan for 2014. Last year, we fell in love with Calendula again – an excellent choice for spring or fall as it tolerates cool nighttime temperatures, and it’s bright orange color brings a real punchiness and pizazz to bouquets. This year at the Youth Farm we’ll be growing Alpha, Princess Mix, and a new variety, “Greenheart Orange” (see photo, far right). So excited about the fun green, textured centers of these! Fun Fact: Calendula petals are edible and make a beautiful topping for any salad or soup. Calendula is has a variety of medicinal uses. Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) are a beautiful ornamental grass that will add some country elegance to our bouquets this year, and Strawflower (Xerochrysum bracteatum) will provide some bright color pop, and unusual shiny/papery texture to our floral palette this season. Strawflower make excellent dried flowers as well, as we hope to offer more fall wreaths to our restaurant clients at the close of the season. Who’s excited about Brooklyn-grown flowers this year?? We are!!

February 14, 2014: Local flowers on Valentine’s Day?
A woman harvests roses in a greenhouse at the ET Highland Flora flower farm, just outside Addis Ababa, Ethiopian, February 2008.
Photos courtesy of  Voice of America and Reuters/Guillermo Granja
A handful of writers, farmers, and local flower advocates in the US – from Amy Stewart (author of Flower Confidential) to the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers have detailed the rise and fall of the US Flower growing industry, and it’s exportation overseas to poorer countries with cheaper land prices and unfortunately, lower paid workers (mostly women). Here in the US, the infatuation with roses at Valentines Day has rarely raised an eyebrow over the lack of seasonal appropriateness (roses do not grow in February!) or the environmental or labor abuses associated with commercial cut flower farms. Above are a couple of pictures to illustrate the reality of your flower farmer: 90% of the flowers we purchase in our bodegas, supermarkets, and flower shops are coming from Ecuador, Colombia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, New Zealand, the Netherlands among other countries far afield. While I personally admire these majority women farmers immensely and honor the hard work they do to train, prune, cut, and package hundreds upon thousands of stems over long hours, it turns out their bosses rarely do. Prolific labor rights abuses include failure to pay for overtime, rampant sexual harassment and abuse, exposing workers to dangerous pesticides without proper training and disallowing workers to organize or form unions. More can be read in the International Labor Rights Forum’s “Fairness in Flowers” tool kit. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I wrote a blurb for my high school bestie’s socially-conscious lifestyle blog, Cadburys for Breakfast. Check out my post, “Slow Flowers for Valentines Day” here.  While we all work on building and supporting a vibrant domestic and local flower industry, we can become more conscious consumers, asking vendors if they know where the flowers they sell come from, and whether they know about the source’s labor practices.

January 10, 2013: Winter weddings and Winter Dormancy
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Christiana arch
Hey y’all! It’s getting cold… and snowy! I think we’re all breathing sighs of relief that this winter is turning out to be a true one. As a farmer, knowing the ground is frozen means there’s a possibility that pests won’t return with a vengeance in the summer. It means certain weeds won’t emerge before we’re at staffing capacity to manage them. It means more time for resting, planning, and making all kinds of key decisions about crops and programming that we don’t have time to in the hustle of the season. On the wedding front, we’re also slowing down. There are few flowers to source locally – save dried or preserved flowers, evergreens, or super hardy perennials. We’re managing though, and we love the brides and grooms who will happily take and appreciate the unique beauty of winter foliage. Above, a bouquet for a December bride featured pinecones, cotton, Dusty Miller, and roses from Long Island. On the right, a wedding arch featuring pine and cedar, Eucalyptus from California, Cutflower Kale from Long Island and Anemones from upstate New York.

September 15, 2013: Farm to Wedding and its Possibilities
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sara bouquet

Photo credits: Ren Yagolnitzer (top) and  Les Loups Pictures and Songs (bottom)
This year, Molly Oliver Flowers, the floral design company I co-founded with my fellow urban farmer comrade Deborah Greig, doubled the number of weddings from 2012. Now, no mean to brag here – we are talking 20 weddings. No small number for two full time farmer/educators, but also not huge in terms of what most full time floral design companies are taking on. However, it certainly feels like the interest in eating fresh local food and the desire to support hard-working, environmentally-conscious and socially-just businesses is spilling over into people’s general purchasing habits. Couples care about having local flowers at their weddings. Good thing, as we are in the midst of a busy fall wedding schedule, coinciding with the height of local flower availability. Connecting one of the highest grossing industries with struggling small flower farms could prove key for the growth of local flower farms. At Molly Oliver Flowers, we source locally first: from Brooklyn urban farms doing great farm and sustainability education work, then on to regional farms bringing their bounty to farmers markets in the city, and finally on to 28th Street, where local flowers exist, but do not reign — yet. It’s very exciting to imagine the possibilities of a thriving local flower industry again. We know flower farmers old and young, working hard to bring their blooms into the forefront of our American conscience, and to shed light on the ill effects free trade has had on communities abroad, where 80% of our flowers currently come from.

August 25, 2013: Height of the flower season
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Recently, we’ve been stunned by the prolific output of our “Double Click” Cosmos (pink flowers on the right). They are gorgeous, simpler antidotes to Dahlias or Roses, with their ruffled, layered petals. These beauties come in pink, white, magenta, mauve, and a white/pink mix. The Zinnias have also been plentiful, but we know their time on the farm is coming to a close – the Powdery Mildew has hit them (albeit later than last season, thankfully). We’ve enjoyed their color and pep. New flowers are coming in as well – stay tuned for photos of the alluring Hyacinth Bean flower, a purple/pink spiked flower reminiscent of orchids; Euphorbia, Gomphrena, Sunflowers, Marigolds (sneak peak in this photo) and more.

July 15, 2013: DIY weddings!
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I recently harvested flowers for a sweet couple in Brooklyn: They wanted to arrange their own ceremony and dinner table flowers with friends and were happy to use whatever was available on the farm. I delivered buckets of Rudbekia, Queen Anne’s Lace, Ageratum, Zinnias, Tansy, Statice, Matricaria, Scabiosa, Phlox, and Feverfew to their door and went home to make the bridal and bridesmaids’ bouquets… When I arrived the next morning to their apartment to pick up their arrangements I was greeted with simple and gorgeous mason jars bursting with color. DIY flower arranging can save you money and add a little extra fun to your wedding prep schedule. At the same time, you can support small urban or regional farms: in this case, 100% of the flowers came from my farm, the Youth Farm, in Brooklyn and Queens County Farm Museum.

June 25, 2013: Growing Community along with the Flowers
Van Horn June

It probably goes without saying, but the longer I stick to farming one piece of land – in this case, The Youth Farm, a 1-acre ground level farm at the High School for Public Service in Crown Heights, the more rooted I feel. I spent most of my twenties bopping from east coast to west coast to learn all I could about farming; from small community gardens in the South Bronx to large production farms in Watsonville, CA. I’ve Co-Managed the Youth Farm for going on 3 years now. This year marks our 3rd Flower CSA season; we have a handful of returning members and several new ones, and we are returning to Shambhala Yoga and Dance to distribute them (in addition to our on-farm pick up spot). 2013 also marks the third year delivering flowers to the same five loyal restaurants and cafes in Carroll Gardens, whose staff have all requested bulk flowers as opposed to pre-arranged bouquets so that they can get in on the fun of arranging seasonal flowers week to week. A couple of weeks ago, one such client, Jacob Van Horn (owner of Van Horn Sandwich Shop) asked me to arrange flowers for his own pre-wedding party at his restaurant; I was so happy to oblige… and while not surprised at all by his commitment to all things local, I was touched he reached out to us for this special occasion with his only guidance being “Fresh summer flowers…I’m sure you’ll make them perfect!” For sure, at least half the joy of what I do as a farmer-cum-floral designer is farming and training beginning farmers along the way. The other half is producing beautiful arrangements, the fruits (or should I say flowers?) of our labor for a community of wonderful people – CSA members, CSA pick up hosts, restaurant clientele, brides and grooms, who fall in love with these flowers, and whose enterprises we get to support in turn. We love you Brooklyn!

May 23, 2013: Here they come…
snaps and sweet william
Wow. Today was exhilarating… We hosted three 2nd grade classes on the farm, and dove into the exciting world of compost – literally. Having 25 city kids swarming around a compost bin, fighting to touch the soil and find a worm is quite literally an awesome sight to behold. In the backdrop were the 2012 Snapdragons I over-wintered at the Youth Farm. They were beckoning to me to be cut – and fast! (Rain was mildly promised — 70% chance — a mediocre chance, in my opinion). Behind the Snaps was a gorgeous stand of Dianthus, commonly known as Sweet William. These biennials do flower in their first year, though they are short-stemmed. They were planted roughly a year ago, and now they are really coming into their own. This mix, a popular one called “Hollandia,” features lovely two-toned petals in pinks, reds and whites. Once the kids left and after a staff meeting, I rushed out into the piddling rain to cut all the color I saw on the farm for Brucie, Van Horn and Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain. An hour later, I had these two beautiful buckets, plus a bunch of Bachelors Buttons, Hydrangea, Larkspur and ornamental grasses. Finally, after a long cool spring — which has not really ceased — the flowers we’ve worked so hard to nurture from seed are almost nearly all planted out across the farm, and their daily growth and eventual blooming feels within reach. We’re ready for them – hope you’re as excited as we are!

May 1, 2013: Early season inspiration
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This time of year on the farm, I am constantly inspired by the beauty that naturally appears in the form of overwintered vegetables that have gone to flower or seed – along with perennial crops like asparagus with their gorgeous purple and green stems. Cover crops like Winter Rye, herbs such as Parsley, Anise Hyssop, and Sage all offer unusual scents and textures. This past weekend I relished the opportunity to utilize the bevy of green and purple foliage for a wedding. While We are busy prepping beds, amending for soil fertility, and planting loads of annual flowers, there is still so much on offer along our perennial border and bed ends… If you are contemplating a wedding in early spring in New York, the Brooklyn microclimate still has plenty to offer!

October 22, 2012: October flowers before the storm
october flowers
I feel like climate change is a constant theme in my diary entries… Well, is it not surprising to find such a lucious bucket of local cut flowers as these? I often joke with my friends that New York is beginning to feel like California’s Bay Area.  With temps in the 50s and 60s for most of October (with of course the requisite mild October snowstorm), it really brings me back to my days on the Central Coast.  This photo was taken just a few days before Hurricane Sandy hit New York. I was holed up at home for three days before I could get to the farm to survey any damage. We were extremely lucky compared to the hardest hit urban farms. The storm ended our season abruptly, shortening our flower season by a few weeks. Wind was the chief cause of damage, causing burn marks on the leaves and sending our plants into permanent shock. Our hoop house suffered a little warping, nothing we can’t fix… it’ll settle in. The storm caused devastation for our colleagues over at Added Value in Red Hook – it is still unknown how the storm water flooding has affected their soil, and they may need to start from scratch – what would be an inconceivable effort if not for the huge volunteer support they’ve always had.

September 22, 2012: Fall is here

This time of year, the flowers coming in are bold, just saturated in color – lots of pink, purple, marigold yellow,orange…. The celosias are busting out of the beds, so much so that we need to reinforce their trellising once or twice more. I love the vibrance of Youth Farm flowers in September. I am also swelling with pride lately over how skilled our seven Adult Trainees are becoming at the Youth Farm. Their very first CSA bouquet making session produced total knock-out arrangements (see pic from blogpost July 2), so it really shouldn’t be much of a wonder to me. But when I think back on how much I struggled to make my first bouquets work, I am just stunned and so impressed with the ease and instinct they have in putting together the sweetest, loveliest combinations. While hard to tell, this photo is actually of 7 mini table arrangements for 61 Local, one of the Youth Farm’s most loyal restaurant customers. There’s something so pleasing and cheery about these arrangements – bravo!

September 1, 2012: Maine getaway

After a week away, spent with my family in central Maine, it’s always grounding to return to the Youth Farm. As you might imagine, a week spent amongst 70′ tall Hemlocks and White Pine, wide lakes and Acadian mountains can conjur a mild case of culture shock. Indeed, the noises and smells of the city were amazingly foreign to me after just seven days in Skowhegan. I returned to work on market day, arriving as early as I could muster to take in the many inevitable changes that can take place in a just one short week. As expected, there were many exciting developments to behold: the farm was looking lush – very much in its late August glory: corn and potatoes looking ready for harvest, many new beds prepped and planted, Okra climbing to 5 feet tall, Cosmos bursting along the perennial border… The many minute changes that happen on a daily basis are the wonder and sometimes the bane of farmers:  the privilege of getting to witness the beauty of growth in many small forms is, in and of itself, quite fulfilling. It is a mark of work accomplished, of laborious effort being rewarded. On the other hand, it also means pulling out the old to-do list and adding to it: stake the ever-growing Eggplant! Ripening tomatoes need extra trellis to support their weight! Deadhead the Calendula! Harvest Bitter melon! Weed the Chard!  Don’t forget to pick the Parsley in the hoop house! And on, and on. Our trainees and youth are becoming excellent observers (and list-makers) as they spend more time here on the farm. To stay on top of it all, we have an inexhaustable master lost of tasks that, somehow, all get checked off bit by bit, thanks to serious team work. If you’re ever interested in knowing just how the Youth Farm runs, ask us the next time you’re on the farm to take a peak at our Task log. And then, thank a trainee, or a Youth leader, or a market worker, for all that they do. Farmers, students, and consumers – together with the vegetables, flowers, bees and butterflies, we make a remarkable team.

August 7, 2012: height of summer CSA shares
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Love this photo of CSA shares this week – featuring Sedum, one of my favorite perennial filler flowers, Euphorbia “Mountain Snow,” Gomphrena, “Black Knight” Scabiosas, “Uproar Rose” Zinnias and Highlander Millet.

July 2, 2012: harvesting for CSA and restaurants

Every Monday and Wednesday (for the past two weeks) our Adult Farm Trainees (pictures above left), Bee, Martha and I dive into harvesting for our CSA members and for our restaurant accounts.We harvest both the freshest vegetables (currently kale, chard, lettuce, cucumbers, zucchini, kohlrabi, carrots, broccoli, herbs and more), AND our beautiful specialty cut flowers. We are having TOO much fun bringing in the bounty – every week brings at least one new flower into bear, while another passes on. Last week we pulled out the last of our first succession of Bells of Ireland and Pro Cut Peach sunflowers, while this week we were delighted at the arrival of Nigella (or “Love in a Mist” — pictured above right), as well as Limelight Spray millet, and Sweet William. To my excitement, the trainees are really enjoying making bouquets. They agree that working with flowers is a very peaceful, introspective activity, and also a fun challenge. bringing in a harvest of so many different flowers, and seeing how they can work together, is a great exercise. We are so thankful to have our 15 flower CSA members so that we can take on this artistic endeavor twice a week! We also enjoy cutting fresh flowers for our amazing restaurants – 61 Local, Brucie, and Seersucker. We are also very excited to now be delivering our specialty cut flowers to GRDN on Bond Street!

June 24, 2012: here come the flowers!
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Wow! Rudbekia, Sunflowers, Bachelor’s Buttons, Larkspur, Shasta Daisies, Sweet Peas, Buddleia, Liatris… we were stunned and amazed by our harvest at the Youth Farm this past week. Gorgeous stems of many colors and textures, from soft spring hues of pale pink, yellow and white to punchy summer hot pinks, purples and oranges. We’re super excited to be starting our 2012 Flower CSA this coming Monday, with 10 new members at Shambhala Yoga and Dance. For the past couple of months, we’ve been running flower deliveries to a number of outstanding Brooklyn restaurants: 61 Local, Brucie, Court Street Grocers, and now, Seersucker!

April 26, 2012: summer and then spring

Last week we had super hot weather for April — 86 degrees last Monday! Sweet peas, pictured above (with radishes and spinach planted on either side) were not having any of it. I thought I was so clever planting my sweet peas in our hoophouse back in February. Sweet peas are a cool season flower crop — they thrive in cool, moist conditions. They love it in Maine, where spring weather is usually reasonably spring-like. They also love the fogged-in central coast, in California. Here in NYC, growing sweet peas is tricky. Needless to say I decided to transplant the sweetpeas to a cooler, partly shaded bed last week. They did not appreciate the sudden move. They had been direct sown in the hoophouse, and their 6-8″ long, established root sytems were shocked by the upheaval. I am saying my prayers they revive themselves soon, in time for my good friends’ wedding Memorial Day weekend. Luckily, it’s been in the low to mid 60s this week and should remain cool into the middle of next week… the damp, cool air is a welcome change. It feels like an honest April, at least for now.

April 15, 2012: first flower harvest!

This past Friday I had a blast harvesting my first crop of tulips, daffodils and narcissus:) I only planted a small amount, but the sweet smell of the narcissus — reminding me of childhood easters at my Grandmother’s — was enough to convince me to plant triple the density for next year. Some overwintered Parsley, early Bachelor’s Buttons and Onion Flower made for great greenery. Delivered to 61 Local just in time for Farmy Drinks!

April 1, 2012:  the beauty of cover crops

Cover crops like the legume red crimson clover (pictured left) and hairy vetch and winter rye (both on the right) are carpeting the youth farm at the moment. We love cover crops, as do most organic farmers, not only because their lushness is amazing to behold in springtime, but because they protect the soil from eroding in winter, and replenish our soil with nutrients after a long season of vegetable and flower cropping. That said, we definitely have our work cut out for us in the coming weeks. With our hoophouse full of growing seedlings who will soon need a home in the fertile ground, we will need to turn in our acre of cover crop by hand. Luckily, we were able to borrow our school custodian’s weed whacker to mow much of it down this past week (pictured bottom)!

March 23, 2012: Trip to northern California

I managed to slip out of town last week for a last bit of respite before this year’s farming season kicks in to high gear. I was fortunate enough to take a road trip from Los Angeles to the Baja California peninsula, and then after flying up to San Jose, CA a second road trip from Pescadero to Mendocino County. While Magnolias were beginning to burst here, out on California’s central coast my farming friends were doing their best to keep up with an equally mild winter that allowed no time for vacation. An overwintered block at Fat Cabbage Farm was still pumping out a respectable amount of Dino and Red Russian Kale, Swiss Chard, Cabbage, Collards, Broccoli and Leeks. I was salivating and munching on it all, just to be so close to fresh produce was incredible. Now that I’m back in the city, we’re ramping up at the Youth Farm: our hoophouse is filling up with newly sown trays of early spring crops, and is still producing fresh Arugula and lettuce. A bunch of afterschool youth volunteers helped us shovel 4 cubic yards of composted manure onto newly dug beds yesterday… and to top it off, my co-farm manager, Bee and I delivered our first veggie and flower restaurant order: plum blossoms, Daffodils, Narcissus, Grape Hyacinth, and bunching onions. Farming season is here! (But when does it ever end, really?)

March 4, 2012: it’s crop planning time

It’s crop planning time! (Well, it’s a little late, really…) I have a love hate relationship with crop planning. What is crop planning, you ask? Crop planning involves taking all of the crops you want to grow in a given season and in essence, mapping them out using fancy Excel sheets or newfangled software so that you get a consistent and diverse harvest. It involves pulling out the pile of seed catalogs that have been arriving in your mailbox since November: Seeds of Change, Johnny’s, Seed Savers Exchange, Geo, Gloecker, High Mowing… it’s a hefty stack. It involves calculating x many stems your going to need from x many plants to ensure you can harvest x number of bouquets x number of days a week. In other words, it’s a big job. But while it can be incredibly tedious, it’s also kind of fun to nerd out and estimate days to maturity for lovely plants like Stock and Bells of Ireland in this unseasonably warm weather. It also means I can relax, kick back and concentrate on sowing seeds once it’s all planned out. Time to stop journaling, and pull out the calculator…

February 16, 2012: is this really february?

With signs of global warming present in every new Daffodill head I catch rearing its neck towards the sun, it’s hard to believe its actually winter. This time last year, we were buried in five feet of perpetual snow. Yet just last weekend, I passed purple crocuses in full bloom in Crown Heights. The urban heat island effect makes New York City a warm microclimate for the Northeast, but still… it’s early. The unfrozen ground and early bulb blooms have my mind on crop planning, seed sowing, and soil turning on the farm. It’s also a great time for planning spring weddings. If you’re looking for a floral designer, send me an inquiry!

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