Meeting my match
I blame Erin Benzakien.
For those who haven’t been sucked into her sprays of water-colored flower photos on Instagram, Benzakien is the founder of the adored Floret Flower Farm in Washington’s Skagit Valley.
Think peach and coral and fuchsia-faced dahlias, some six-inches or more across, rolling out for an acre before your eyes. Dozens of sun gold and electric orange zinnias waiting to be gathered into a happy bouquet. Black buckets bursting with sherbert-colored blossoms, packed together in the flatbed of an old pickup truck on the way to a farmer’s market.
Benzakien says she got her start with just a few rows of sweet peas in a small home garden, planted in memory of her grandmother. One season of abundance there led to a word-of-mouth local following.
She tells a story about her first home delivery, an order received from a complete stranger. When she knocked on the door and handed the sweet peas to her new customer, the older woman took in one whiff and grew teary-eyed, telling Benzakein how the scent bought her back to happy childhood memories in her own grandmother’s garden. From there, the Floret Flower business took off.
Though Benzakien and her husband (also her photographer) launched their company in 2008, they didn’t come into my life until two years ago, right when my own gardening bug had started creeping back.
One Instagram photo was all it took. I bought the Floret Flower book, “Cut Flower Garden.” I subscribed to the newsletter. And I dove deep into all the resources on the company’s website, which the Benzakiens have devoted to fostering a community of gardeners committed to sustainable, local flower growth.
I had all things Floret Farm on my mind when I set out to find the landing for my gardening comeback. If I was going to go for it, I had to set aside the dream of yet another house, with a porch and a backyard of my own. I started thinking about joining a community garden – a commitment that would test my professed love of planting and sowing beyond the footprint of my own living space. I explored neighborhoods and asked questions and learned, above all, that there was a shortage of available space but no lack of gardeners-in-waiting.
I missed out on openings that first growing season and started to suspect the same result this year. Then I woke up one morning in early April to an email from the director of the Oakeside Community Garden, a few towns over in Bloomfield, N.J., saying that two spots had just opened up. I’d have to act fast for one of two spots. Look at the attached map and pick one, she said.
I hadn’t visited this garden and couldn’t find many photos on the group’s Facebook page, so I asked just a few questions and, site unseen, chose plot 24 – near an outside corner, away from the tool shed but in full sun. In my mind I envisioned that plot, neatly-framed, richly tilled and primed for perfectly-spaced seedlings.
An orientation get-together rolled around on a crisp and clear mid-April Saturday morning, with a preseason sun already warming up the air and hinting at new growth. I arrived with plenty of questions: what tools would I need to bring, what could I plant, when could I be there.
I learned after a round of introductions that most of the gardeners were long-time group members, lived nearby and intended to stick with their vegetable gardens. Lots of folks growing kale, apparently. Rules about using only organic materials, cleaning tools, piling up weeds followed, and then we newcomers set out to find our spots.
In its youth, the space served as the kitchen garden to the adjacent historical mansion, now the Oakside Bloomfield Cultural Center. The garden is home to 36 in-ground plots, each roughly eight by eleven feet, plus perennial borders maintained by volunteers.
It didn’t take long to realize as we walked that, even this early in the season, growth was not going to be a problem. Daffodils out in full, tulips and hyacinths already on the verge of blooming, peonies pushing through the dirt, blossoms ripening on the trees. Also dandelions - already - and verdant growth everywhere. Flowers? Herbs? Weeds?
After a lap around the perimeter, the director pointed me toward the nearby corner.
There it is, she said, Plot 24. Right next to Garland’s; he likes to use those bed boxes.
I looked for something that resembled a rectangle, but instead saw leaves and creeping greens sprawling across what looked like several plots.
Floret Farms it was not.
“How can I tell where it begins and ends?” I asked.
On the side next to Garland’s I could at least see some remnants of a wood chip path dividing our plots. But on the other side, nothing but leaves, dandelions, weeds and plenty of unrecognizable green growth over what might have been three or four plots.
My heart sank a little.
Okay, I thought. So this is going to be a challenge.