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    RESTORED BY NATURE

    Flower farmer finds success in environmentally-friendly growing methods

    By Nancy Dorman-Hickson

    Photography courtesy of Lisa Mason Ziegler

    Lisa Mason Ziegler cringes every time she sees flowers on a wedding cake. That’s because they most likely originated in South America, where some 80 percent of the cut-flower industry is based and where flowers are likely doused in herbicides and pesticides as they grow, then dipped in mildew-preventive chemicals before being boxed and shipped to U.S. shores. By contrast, Lisa, of The Gardener’s Workshop in Newport News, Va., uses no chemicals, mirroring the environmentally friendly practices of the farm-to-table movement.

    She is among today’s American farmers who grow for local customers. On a 3-acre urban farm surrounded by 200,000 residents, Lisa’s beautiful flowers bloom. “If you’re buying local, you can ask, ‘What did you use to grow these?’” she says. Like local produce, local flowers are also fresher. “Flowers that have gone through what I call the retail cycle are already a couple of weeks old when you get them,” she says. “Local flowers have fragrance, they last longer, and they are more beautiful.”

    When Lisa started her cut-flower farm 20 years ago, the idea of “organic” was rarely considered. Chemicals seemed a quick and easy fix for pests and weeds, so that’s what she used. As her business grew and she struggled to keep up, she feared she was “neglecting” her flowers when she didn’t keep them sprayed with chemicals. To her amazement, however, those unsprayed flowers were thriving. “Nature started to restore my garden,” she says.

    She stopped using chemicals, even those labeled “organic,” to avoid harming pollinators and what she calls “good guys” in the garden. “You start figuring out how you can help nature instead of interfering,” she explains. “Nature’s most powerful pest control and pollinators are all attracted to flowers.” That’s part of the message she shares at some 60 presentations yearly. She’s also written three how-to gardening books, including her latest, Vegetables Love Flowers, in which she shares her organic gardening practices and how to grow a cutting garden.

    “At first, I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, I need to have some super-duper secret thing to tell them,’” Lisa says about her readers and the hundreds of groups she’s addressed. “But people are just looking for the basics. Organic gardening is simple. You plant the right plant in the right place at the right time.” 

    BASICS ARE BEST

    One mistake people make is choosing flowers that are difficult to grow. “People think flower farmers spend a lot of time fussing over flowers,” she says. “We don’t have time.” She chuckles and adds, “If you are a struggling plant on this farm, we’ll mow you in a minute.” Instead, her farm focuses on growing basic garden flowers, ones not easily imported, from seed. Lisa’s top sellers are sunflowers, zinnias, cockscomb, lisianthus, and celosia plumes. She harvests 5,000 to 6,000 weekly stems from May through September, which are sold at farmers markets, florists, businesses, and to individuals who subscribe to a boutique drop-off service or to a members-only on-farm market club.

    Natural gardening is simpler, easier, and far less expensive than farming with chemicals, Lisa says. “Your garden is better with each passing season if you truly take care of the environment and get your soil healthier and full of life,” she says. “The plants just start to take care of themselves and grow more abundantly.” ★ 

    Nancy Dorman-Hickson is an Alabama writer.

    Lisa Mason Ziegler’s Garden Tips

    • Start small, perhaps with a 3x10 cutting garden. “People begin a big garden and get overwhelmed and quit.”
    • Observe the plant’s need for sun or shade. “Many people try to grow a flower that they want to grow in the spot that they have instead of finding what would grow best in that spot.”
    • Get your soil in shape. “If your garden is struggling, I can almost promise you, you are standing on the problem. The soil is the most important thing in the garden.”
    • Steer clear of needy plants. “Learn garden basics. Then you can try more difficult things.”
    • Mulch to prevent weeds. “Mulching right after you’ve disturbed the soil prevents weed seeds from getting the sunlight they need to sprout.”

    DIG DEEPER

    Get more information at thegardenersworkshop.com. To find a local grower, visit localflowers.org, sponsored by the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers.