In the spring of 2020, just as the world was starting to bloom, the COVID-19 outbreak forced us back indoors.
Weary from days working at a medical office, Kim Barnes of Flanders found peace in her mother’s garden. She’d snip stems from bearded irises, lupine, and pillowy peonies, bunching them together to make bouquets like she has since she was a kid.
At a time of such turmoil and uncertainty, Barnes thought she’d share the flowers with others, putting them out at a roadside stand along bustling Flanders Road.
“You always bring someone flowers, whether you want them to have a good day, if they’re not feeling happy,” Barnes said. “It always brightens their mood.”
She wasn’t necessarily looking to start a business or make a profit at that point.
“I was just like, the world sucks right now,” she recalled. “I want people to feel happy. Everyone needed that little bit to get them through.”
Fast forward two years and Barnes has jumped into Backyard Blooms at full force, offering fresh-cut bouquets from April to October, delving into wedding arrangements and she hopes to start a CSA program.
She grows flowers on a small scale but with high intensity, starting with early spring florals like tulips and ranunculus inside of a 16-by- 24-foot greenhouse as well as later blooms — snapdragons, zinnias, peonies — in outdoor beds.
The 27-year-old recently made the jump to full-time floral work. Previously, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to see her up at 6 a.m. to make the first cuts, or working in the evenings, sometimes still in scrubs, under a light strung up over her garden.
Ask Barnes what her favorite flower is and you may get a different answer depending on the season. “One of the most magical parts of being a flower farmer is getting to experience every season with different flowers,” she said.
In the late summer and early fall, Barnes is enamored by voluminous dahlias. It’s fitting, then, that she’s in the company of Keith Pierpont. He’s known by some in the industry as the ‘Dahlia Lama.’
Pierpont established the Pierpont Blossom Farm in Baiting Hollow more than two decades ago after a career working in floral design and events in Manhattan.
On his own farm, his acres are filled with French lilacs, peonies, lavender, hydrangea, hellebores, lilies, eucalyptus and his treasured dahlias.
It’s around the clock — and calendar — work, from rising early in spring and summer mornings to tend to plants, a pair of clippers in his pocket at all times. At the end of the season, Pierpont digs the dahlia tubers and stores the crates in refrigeration all winter to reuse in the spring.
There are nearly 30 varieties of dahlias growing at the farm, and he hopes to cross pollinate his own hybrid, which will be fittingly named the Pierpont.
“I do have a big crop of dahlias and they’re all different,” he said. “I love to see the flowers. They’re God’s genius.”
As a wholesale operator, Pierpont primarily supplies to florists and also sells bouquets at farmer’s markets from Riverhead to Montauk. He recently began operating a small retail space in the warehouse at the Riverhead Ciderhouse in addition to a flower stand across the street on Baywood Drive.
It’s a far cry from the cut flower industry he entered as a young man, when Long Island was an epicenter for the New York City markets. Its close proximity and large number of producers helped supply those markets with perishable flowers.
Today, approximately 80% of cut flowers sold in the United States are imported. Many are sourced from the Netherlands, considered to still be the global hub for cut flowers, but many are imported from South American countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.
There, the flower industry was fueled by the Andean Trade Preference Act of 1991, which eased tariffs to incentivize growing legitimate crops like flowers instead of coca to combat the illicit drug trade.
These geopolitical factors have helped these nations expand and strengthen legitimate industries, but it doesn’t come without consequences.
There’s the human cost of labor abuses and exposure to harsh chemicals and environmental impacts to transport the flowers north before they perish.
“A lot of people don’t realize that when you buy those dozen roses that flew in, they’re sprayed with hundreds of chemicals,” Barnes said. “You can smell it and feel it on your hands.”
Barnes said she’s concerned about those chemicals entering our local environment, soil and water.
By now, we’re all familiar with the concept of farm-to-table cuisine, but the hunter-gatherer approach has also fueled demand for locally grown flowers. And the hyperlocal bouquets you’ll see on the North Fork upend the neat and prim ones you may be used to seeing at a big box store.
They’re wilder, more dimensional, fluid displays that incorporate flowers, yes, but also herbs, grasses, grains, fruit blossoms or even twisting kiwi vines.
“A lot of our boutonnieres for weddings are done with rosemary and lisianthus,” explains Kevin Perry, a partner at the North Fork Flower Farm. “It’s my expectation that every time they sit down to a dinner of rosemary chicken, it’s a strong scent memory.”
On a mid-April morning, Prudence Heston at Salt Air Farm in Cutchogue was plucking flowering quince and weeping willow vines for a local designer to create a cascading display.
“I enjoy the challenge of growing and then turning it into something beautiful. To be successful with what e do, it is down to the minutiae.”Prudence Heston, Salt Air Farm
That means slipping blackberry stems into each napkin table setting for a wedding, or growing a specific flower in a specific color for a specific bride or groom. “I don’t grow gobs and gobs of tulips,” Heston said on a spring walk through the grounds, pointing out a small patch of blooms. “Next year, it’ll be somebody who’s going to want something different, and I’ll put in a new color.”
Heston is also well-versed in working with what’s available on the fly. “You’re trading stuff around all the time. You may have that one thing in your mind and then the weather does not cooperate,” she said.
Perry, along with his wife, Drianne Benner, and their business partners Karen Braziller, Charles Sherman and Al and Raquel Martinez-Fonts, recently relocated from their two-acre farm in Orient to more than 20 acres in Southold.
“Just like slow foods, you only eat what’s in season and grown within a 15-mile radius. The slow flower movement is an extension of that,” Sherman said.
He was first introduced to the concept several years ago after reading a book by Debra Prinzing, an advocate for American flower farming.
“It really inspired me,” Sherman said. “By virtue of having something local and small, you’re able to both have sustainable and fresh products,” he said. Another bonus, Sherman said, is the ability to grow uncommon varieties with brief but beautiful seasons that don’t make economic sense for large scale operations.
Ironically, Sherman worked as a matrimonial attorney for decades before retiring, moving to Orient and meeting neighbors turned business partners. “It was very stressful, combative kind of work,” he said, noting that he much prefers working with couples who are starting their marriages.
Even while practicing law, Sherman always had his nose in seed catalogs and took courses in agriculture at SUNY/Farmingdale. At the flower farm, he’s taken a particular interest in seeding and propagation.
“It’s endlessly fascinating to me how a little package of seeds can, in the space of one growing season, produce hundreds of flowers,” he said.
At the new Southold farm, the partners hope to expand their operations and grow more flowering shrubs and trees, offer workshops and DIY bouquets.
As agritourism has risen to prominence in the area, floral-driven attractions have also surged in popularity. Since 2002, Lavender by the Bay has attracted throngs of visitors to gaze at the majestic purple blooms in East Marion — so much so that in 2019, they opened a second location in Calverton, now covering both ends of the North Fork.
After years of noticing people pulling over to take photos in their sunflower fields, sisters Cheryl and Maureen Sidor introduced a sunflower maze in 2018, charging a nominal admission fee to walk amongst the flowers, take pictures and taste the North Fork Potato Chips made from their family’s potatoes and sunflower oil.
Earlier this year, Waterdrinker Farm in Manorville doubled the size of their Holland-esque tulip fields to feature 1 million blooms.
And in Riverhead, Claudette Gross is seeking to provide a unique U-pick experience at Horton’s Flower Farm, where you can grab a bucket and pair of scissors and pay per stem for your own bouquet.
By happenstance, she connected with the landowner while visiting a plant wholesaler in the area and joking that she was “running out of space” for her plants in her Mineola backyard.
Before she knew it, she was leasing three acres along rural Horton Avenue, where last year Gross planted seven rows of sunflowers, cosmos, zinnias, snapdragons, asters and others.
“At first I was like, I don’t know. How can I start a farm? But my husband said ‘You can’t let this opportunity pass,’ ” she recalled. “So it’s been a real learning experience.”
This is her second year running the U-pick operation at Horton’s Flower Farm, where she hopes to expand to plant 100 varieties in 18 to 20 rows, including wildflowers and even herbs like flowering basil. “It adds such a nice, fragrant smell to the bouquet,” she said.
Her 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old twin boys love showing visitors around the farm and how to cut the stems. “Watching their love for the flowers and nature is so special,” Gross said. “They get so excited.”
It’s her way of passing on a tradition that was instilled in her by her mother and grandmother.
Gross, a full-time photographer, also hopes to offer photo sessions as part of the experience at the farm. She’s planted the rows with those blooms and floral backdrops in mind and has been adding pastel-colored chairs and other vintage decor to the fields for visitors to get the perfect Instagrammable shot.
While perhaps not as obvious as the critical need for farmers that grow food, flower fields provide essential habitats for pollinators: butterflies, bees, wasps, hummingbirds. They mark milestones in life and death, grand romantic gestures or an act of self-care to brighten your own day. Next time you’re on the North Fork, don’t just stop and smell the roses, but discover what’s in season.
WARD OFF WILTING WITH THESE TIPS FOR KEEPING YOUR BOUQUETS FRESH
• Keep out of direct sunlight
• Give the stems some breathing room! Don’t squish them into a too-small vase.
• Remove leaves that would be submerged in a vase. “This eliminates extra bacteria in the water,” Gross said.
• Cut stems at a 45-degree angle and place in hot water. You can continue trimming the stems every other day to preserve the bloom.
• A florist pro-tip: store your flowers in the refrigerator overnight to slow water loss and keep the petals looking crisp.