Bouquets of lilies in pinks, whites and yellows, and a rainbow of tulips, are lovely offerings year-round at local supermarkets and Co-op stores. These beauties come from the work of Mark Lansburgh at Talking Well Farm in Post Mills, who for 36 years has been perfecting the art of cut flower production.
It is a labor of love using temperature, light, and water to coax flower bulbs into blooming perfection at all times of the year. And as if that’s not challenge enough, he does it all with organic, non-toxic methods, like Safer Soap spray and armies of ladybugs, tiny wasps, and parasitic midges. It’s an approach known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and it is almost unheard of for a year-round commercial greenhouse to survive on IPM alone.
As Mark explains, all his flowers start with Dutch-grown bulbs. About 93% of the world’s flower bulbs are grown in Holland. The Dutch have been in the bulb business for 400 years and are constantly breeding exciting new colors and flower shapes. It is a highly specialized, labor-intensive industry, and the quality and performance of Dutch bulbs is hard to equal. Mature bulbs are sampled to ensure they contain nascent flowers before shipping from Holland.
Bulbs, Mark says, are “nature’s best bio-computers” in that they are programmed to grow and flower only after going through a specific length of winter, after which they are constantly sensing their environment to “decide” when it is time to emerge. After bulbs are received in the fall, they are lulled into dormancy by controlled reductions in temperature over many weeks, then held below freezing for the correct “winter period.” After that they can be brought out according to demand and grown to flowering in greenhouse beds. Timing of the growth period is important since a lily takes anything from 10 to 16 weeks to flower, depending on the season, light, and temperature. At any one time Mark has several long beds of lilies at various stages of growth, with 1500 lilies per bed. At this time of year, lilies are sharing space with tulips, another mainstay of Talking Well Farm.
Mark has made an effort to heat the greenhouses with the least dependence on fossil fuels. There are two wood-fired boilers and a backup oil furnace. For many years wood provided over 80% of his heat. But in the last several years affordable wood has been diverted to biofuel power plants. About three-quarters of his heat must now come from fuel oil.
Other price hikes include a threefold increase in the cost of ladybugs, an essential ally against aphids and whitefly. One November Mark noticed something that every grower dreads — an outbreak of a new type of aphid — and there were no ladybugs to be had anywhere. It took two months of human effort to get the aphids under control. Plastic bulb pots have also soared in price, all the while becoming more flimsy in quality.
Balanced against rising expenses are Mark’s resourcefulness and energy. The soil from his original operation at Pompanoosuc in the 1980s is still in circulation through the pots of tulips. He procures compost from a facility that composts organic wastes from the Co-op chain of supermarkets, and he made about 800 wheelbarrow-loads of his own compost from truck loads of wood chips — a by-product of the repaving of Rt 113 some years ago. Bulbs do well in this organic matter that replicates the well-drained soils of Holland. Mark supplements it with mycorrhizal fungi that augment plant root functions, but no artificial fertilizer.
And it doesn’t stop with the growing. Stems at the right stage of bud are manually cut, trimmed to length, and swathed in protective sleeves for distribution. Much of this delicate handling is performed by Shannon Munger, Mark’s assistant and fiance. Mark goes on the road three days a week delivering flowers to outlets in Vermont and New Hampshire. He has seen a big change in retail over the years. Fifteen years ago he delivered to 90 different places, many of them “Mom and Pop” flower shops. Then came the 9/11 attacks and their repercussions in the world of business. It was the end of the line for small flower shops, partly because air freight for fresh flowers soared. Currently Mark delivers to slightly fewer than 30 retailers. The sale of cut flowers has been largely consolidated into supermarkets and mini-marts.
We’re still a society that “says it with flowers” and demand peaks around certain holidays. Valentine’s Day is big; Easter (the other “chocolate holiday”) is bigger, though not what it used to be. Biggest of all is Mother’s Day. However, there’s a caveat here. The climate is getting warmer, and it’s allowing farm stands to enter the Mother’s Day market with their potted flowers. So it is less of a major event for Talking Well Farm than it used to be.
Even so, Mark reports that business is at an all-time high right now. Thanks to COVID-19, local producers of cut flowers and blooming potted plants are sought after, partly because floral businesses were not deemed deserving of pandemic financial relief as “essential” business, and many relied on imported flowers. Those outfits often shut down. At the same time shoppers were, and still are, willing to spend on brightening their days with flowers. We cherish them dearly for bringing immediate joy and as expressions of emotion on occasions like weddings. To many, “life is not complete without flowers.”
Photo credit: Li Shen