Researching, Planting, Crop Rotation and Care: Behind the Blooms of Martha's Vineyard
by Remy Tumin
Watching Krishana Collins and her farm crew assemble bouquets is like looking through a kaleidoscope. Colors swirl from one side of her booth at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market, people dash in and out, pointing to flowers they want. Others just watch in awe.
It appears effortless, which is just the impression Krishana hopes comes across.
Each year, Tea Lane Farm owner Krishana
and her team choose a new adjective
to strive for.
“Breathtaking” was last year’s, and this year the flowers will appear “effortless.”
“Everything—from ordering, planning, choosing the right implements and having the most beautiful flowers we can—will make it all seem effortless,” she says. “But it’s actually a lot of time and hard work.”
“If we can do all that, and still make it look as though it’s effortless, that’s real beauty.”
Krishana is one of a handful of flower farmers on Martha’s Vineyard. From the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market to honesty boxes, perennials, annuals, biannuals, and even edible flowers, an extra splash of brilliance is brought to the table or dish, courtesy of these Island farmers.
Any farmer will attest that a lot of research and planning goes into growing flowers. Take the story of how Krishana got her dahlia tubers this year.
Krishana started her research in January and February, which included sending a member of her farm crew to Michigan to visit a third-generation dahlia farmer and purchase 1,000 dahlia tubers.
The potato-looking bulbs are the starters from which the large colorful heads stem. Krishana had mail-ordered from this farm before, but nobody from her farm had made the trip out there.
Farm hand Ellie Wetherbee later picked them up in large flats and returned home to Martha’s Vineyard to divide them by hand on Krishana’s farm.
The road trip was well worth it because, as Krishana says, these tubers are the real deal.
“A good tuber depends on how they’ve been stored [over the winter]; these cut flower varieties have already been tested tried and true,” she says.
“This farm has been growing cut flowers for three generations so they know what it takes. The tubers are absolutely perfect.”
It was beneficial to learn from another growing operation beyond Vineyard shores.
And who knows? “Somebody might have a dahlia obsession that’s getting out of hand.”
At Tea Lane Farm, all seeding begins in March and requires particular attention depending on the flower. It’s here that the contrast between growing vegetables and flowers becomes stark, Krishana says.
“For vegetables, you can throw seed in the ground and they grow . . . but every single flower, besides the most common like zinnias or sunflowers, has special requirements,” she says.
Whether it’s light needed to germinate, covering, alternative temperatures, watering techniques, it takes “years and years and years” to develop a system for each individual plant’s needs.
While the fields at Tea Lane Farm are still being prepared, Krishana grows at other locations in West Tisbury and Chilmark.
Planting can be challenging because most of her flowers are planted in the ground at the same time, whereas vegetables are done in multiple successions.
This year Krishana planted 12,000 lilies, 12,000 zinnias and 4,000 dahlias, as well as other kinds of flowers. She’s also starting 160 peonies for next season, which will go in the ground in the fall.
Everything is trial and error, but over the years Krishana has perfected a technique for growing and harvesting lilies. Large yellow, orange, white and pink blooms, some which smell like vanilla and so-called double lilies, are her specialty.
“I came up with a system of growing them that was beneficial and saw that there was a market for them,” she says. Her system enables her to grow large quantities while maintaining the perfect stem.
It helps that lilies are one of the earlier flowers to bloom in the summer and create a sense of bulk in the bouquet.
Krishana will be picking until the last frost and start digging up her dahlia tubers for winter storage around Christmas.
But for now, during the summer, she’s enjoying the challenge of growing and creating beautiful bouquets for market goers and budding brides.
“I’m constantly looking at what’s around and what we have to make [the bouquets] unique and make them look like the Island,” she says. “I look to my customers for inspiration.”
Down Island, at Black Cat Flower Farm in Oak Bluffs, 22-year-old Molly Flam talks about flowers with enthusiasm similar to Krishana’s.
Molly is one of the younger farmers on the Island, but her love for flowers has made her determined to make her farm a business.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 15. It’s almost like a personal relationship,” she says of farming flowers. And although Black Cat Flower Farm is in Oak Bluffs, her flowers are sold all around the Island. She sells her bouquets at Mermaid Farm and Dairy in Chilmark, the Scottish Bakehouse in Vineyard Haven, and Fiddlehead Farm in West Tisbury.
“Flowers are the perfect form of natural beauty,” says Molly. “They’re like this special treat, a present we were all given.”
Seeds were started in February and planted in May. Sweetpeas, roses, yarrow, snapdragons, dahlias, celosia, zinnias, and cosmos grow tall in her half-acre plot at Featherstone Center for the Arts.
Flowers feed your soul in the same way that food feeds your body, she says.
“Just as there is value in nourishing your body with local and sustainable food, it’s important to feed your soul with locally sourced and sustainably grown flowers.”
Up in Chilmark, Rebecca Miller, who owns North Tabor Farm with her husband, Matthew Dix, knows something about growing flowers and vegetables sustainably. The couple and their family have grown food and flowers at their farm for nearly 20 years.
But Rebecca’s love for farming started with flowers. She knows there’s a lot of work and preparation that goes into growing them, but the end result is always worth it.
“I like the more exotic ones—they’re very funky looking,” Rebecca says looking at her favorite flower, nigella, the deep blue star-shaped flower that, over its development, produces one new interesting shape after the next.
And enthusiasm isn’t all they share with the other flower farmers.
Rebecca and Matthew, who also grow salad greens, a variety of vegetables, and mushrooms on their farm, know well the amount of research and planning involved in the science of growing flowers.
Like crops, some flower varieties are grown in succession to last throughout the summer and rotated from one location to another, season to season.
Sunflowers now grow where Rebecca’s raspberries were located last year. Beets were popping up amongst the lilies.
“I don’t know if it confuses the pests, but changing the flowers and interspersing them with food crops is like integrated pest management,” she says.
Rebecca grows flowers for Cronig’s Market and sells some bunches at the farmers’ market, including zinnias, dahlias, calendula, celosia, lilacs, peonies, hydrangea and lilies.
Each flower gets a different post-harvest care, a different “pick, strip and dip” routine: picking the flower, stripping its leaves, and dipping it in an organic solution if necessary to preserve freshness. North Tabor grows only flowers that last
at least five days.
On North Tabor, flowers must be cut at 18 inches. In order to measure the correct length, new farm employees receive a temporary tattoo, a Sharpie line on their arms. Once the flowers are cut along the rows, runners come along to collect the stems.
“Sometimes we have smaller kids run the flowers,” she says. “Runners will gather them, and they are not allowed to return to the stripping tent without a full bundle of flowers.”
Flowers are then stripped of leaves and arranged in color-coordinated buckets. Then comes bunching in the barn, where music plays to drown out any other thoughts.
Creating the perfect bouquet requires simplicity, Rebecca says, you can’t think too much about what you’re doing.
She enjoys watching the color palette change over the course of the season, and with it, customers’ preferences.
“Nature starts with pastel colors in bloom, and as it gets hotter through the season, the colors get hotter,” she says. “A lot of people won’t get the hot colors until later in the season because they feel it’s rushing for them. They don’t want certain flowers until September because they know it’s the end of summer.”
Back at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market, Rebecca’s bouquets are brilliantly presented.
Individual flower stands, pink tin cans and large buckets are overflowing with the latest harvest. Large stems of gladiolas and sunflowers peek out to say hello.
A few feet down, at Tea Lane Farm’s stall, a beautiful and elegant woman dressed in a white linen caftan, white linen pants, white espadrilles, and a straw fedora stands out amongst the tall pink, yellow, and orange lily stems.
She orders as many white lilies as possible for a “very white environment” and returns in 10 minutes for the perfect bouquet.
Caked with pollen on her neck, Krishana turns over the 34 stems of effortless white lilies.
“Perfect,” the customer says. “See you next week.”