To protect those who would defend

I have struggled lately with focusing and a good case of cabin fever, waiting for winter to release its hold on the north. The last 2 months I started a bunch of seeds that I hoped to plant outside in early April.

One of the seed packs I mistakenly planted and have since regretted are my Echinops ritro, or Globe Thistle. It’s my first year growing them and somehow I got it into my head they should be planted early. They are the biggest of my seedlings, quickly establishing roots and outgrowing their cells.

I should have guessed something in the thistle family might be a little tenacious.

Every year at the farm, I’ve done battle with the Canada thistles. They love our heavy clay soil and because the farm is surrounded by uncut meadows, we have literal snow storms of them during the summer—their pretty down flies into our neat plots to poke us with their needles and challenge us with their tap roots.

Despite their trouble, I have to admit I love the thistles. There is just something about their stubbornness that I find admirable.

I got thinking about the thistle because a week from today, I’ll be heading into the Highlands of Scotland for a road trip around the UK with my husband. Scotland and I have unfinished business. I went when I was 20 and I was head over heals smitten with the place. It was wild. Open. Windy. Rainy. I saw 3 rainbows in 1 hour. Pure magic. I swore I’d come back to see the Highlands. Its taken 10 years, but I’m finally going back.

The thistle is the national symbol of Scotland. The legend is that invading Norse troops tried to sneak up upon sleeping clansmen. They took off their boots to be stealthier. One man stepped on a thistle, let out a cry, and alerted the Scots against the invasion. The thistle saved them.

The thistle was also used to establish the Order of the Thistle, an old chivalric order in Scotland, who’s motto is Nemo me impune lacessit, no one provokes me without impunity.

Try putting that on your office door.

The person who tries to wound a thistle is in turn wounded. It is a proud and stubborn plant. It is not a surprise to me I feel an affinity to it—simultaneously embracing and struggling with pride and stubbornness within me.

But there is a side to the thistle that is less known—its ability to shield and defend those that protect us in our farms and gardens. Lady bugs and all sorts of beneficial insects lay their eggs on thistle stems and leaves. As nymphs and adults. they seek food and shelter in its spiny escape.

Thistle therefore is not really a symbol of defensiveness, but of protection. Therefore, as a good farmer, I need to protect those who would defend.

I’ll leave you some facts on Globe Thistles and look for more flower stories to come:

-Sow in late winter, early spring, ¼” deep

-If grown as seedling, plant out after frosts in full sun

-They are large perennials and need 1-2’ per plant and can grow 4’ high

-Bloom July-September

-Drought tolerant and needs good drainage

-Can be used as fresh or dried flowers

-Beware, can spread. They come from a tenacious family.

Flowers: a social crop

I just finished truly a game-changing book for me:

The Third Plate by Dan Barber. I decided to order it when one of my farm mentors mentioned it was life changing for him--and he's farmed for 40 some odd years! I got it over the holidays and thought I would sit down and consume it in a matter of days. But somehow, like good food, I soon learned it was a book to be savored. About a month later I've finished it. I couldn't finish it in one gulp because every chapter, every page even filled me with so many thoughts and ideas, I had to slow down and contemplate it.

I won't do it the injustice of trying to summarize it. Instead I wanted to write about one of its more important points: about the culture of agriculture. Barber isn't the first to write about this. But something about his phrase "a social crop" is still ringing in my heads. He used it to describe wheat, but I was left thinking, are flowers a social crop?

I have a confession to make. I love my flowers, deeply so. But I have often felt uncomfortable growing and promoting something non-edible. I do grow veggies too, formerly with Fresh City Farms and for my own family, but I decided to focus in on flowers, to try something different and try to fill what I felt was a gaping hole.

I know that I state this often, but  70-80% of the flowers we purchase have been grown overseas. I think Ontario might be slightly better--we have a larger growing community in Niagara--but  it's strange to think about its lost presence on the landscape. This has a range of impacts. Less flowers grown mean less farmers growing them. This undermines the stability of rural communities. It gives less variety and fresh options to local buyers and designers. Its sort of odd, thinking how amazingly supportive the province is of local food, but at 99% of weddings--big traditional community events that literally create new families and connections--won't have local flowers. With so many people and organizations devoted to the local food movement and to good farming, somehow flowers are being left  out.

I also contemplate, while staring after acre upon acre of soy and corn in Ontario, how flowers are missing from our greater ecological community. I know many of the flowers I grow aren't native, but I do see how flowers can benefit pollinators. This is only anecdotal, but when I walked through my small plots in high summer, I can hear the hum. Flowers, in general, are also great for attracting beneficial insects. I have seen several types of spiders for instance--some as big as quarters. I like to think how my flowers could be benefiting the other farmers at Fresh City. This also reverberates through the food chain, the birds eating the insects, and so forth.

Going back to the community aspect, when people purchase my flowers at a market or use them in their wedding, I like to think of where they end up, how they might brighten people's days, and lend to the beauty of space or event. People bring flowers to dinner parties, flowers are given at birth--and at death, and they are sold at market that bring neighbors and friends together. Flowers brought my friend Aviva Coopersmith of Herb N' Meadow and I together to partner in our flower growing dreams this summer. It has introduced me to photographers, designers, and artists. I hope this year it will bring me together to share my knowledge of growing in workshops for people to grow in their own backyards. Flowers have brought me into the intimate lives of strangers helping them envision a extremely special and some would say sacred ritual: marriage.

Photo from Hush Hush Photography

Photo from Hush Hush Photography

Flowers have also opened the door for me to a community of people who love flowers best: flower farmers. Mainly through social media I've connected to flower farmers all around the world who share their triumphs, knowledge, struggles, and advice, freely and openly. It's a tremendous community. At Fresh City, I have found this community in miniature. We work, eat, laugh, and sometimes cry together as we test the waters of organic growing more seriously. We gently tend to each others fragile dreams of doing the seemingly impossible: becoming awesome organic farmers.

I know that flowers don't feed the body, but I do believe they feed the spirit. Their beauty has the power to relieve depression, decrease stress, recall memories, and ease pain.

Now, I believe that flowers can feed community too. Dan Barber's book has helped me see that.

I know in the future flowers will not be my only crop--I'm far too addicted to amazing tasting food to miss out on growing vegetables and grains. I also yearn to have a relationship with animals again--even if I just have a small herd of ducks some day. I do feel confident now saying that I believe flowers are not just for the elite or only to be considered a luxury or frivolous. I feel for certain they are an essential piece of a larger agricultural landscape and a brighter future.