If you bury your nose in a bunch of Erin Benzakein’s blossoms, you’ll catch a whiff of nostalgia. The self-taught organic farmer has a special talent for flowers, including many with a colorful past.
“Our specialty is old-fashioned charmers like peonies, sweet peas, rambling roses, lilacs, snapdragons and dahlias,” she says from Floret Flower Farm, the scenic acreage she cultivates with husband Chris and their children in Washington’s Skagit Valley. “We put a ton of effort into our soil and really baby our plants.” In turn, they produce huge, healthy blooms with vibrant colors, long-lasting beauty and a fragrance that smells like heaven on earth.
A Seattle-born city girl, she’d wanted her own plot of land as long as she can remember. In her early 20s, she indulged her dream, starting a landscaping business with a friend. But helping others nurture their lawns and gardens made her green thumb itch even more.
“After our daughter, Elora, was born, the urge to have my own land was so strong, we moved to the country,” Erin says from their homestead outside Mount Vernon. “We put in berry bushes, fruit trees and a vegetable garden. But the most memorable crop turned out to be a double row of sweet peas I planted in remembrance of my great-grandmother. A friend ordered a bundle of them as gifts. I’ll never forget my first delivery. When I handed the woman her flowers, she took one sniff and tears welled up. She was transported to childhood summers in her grandmother’s garden.
“Seeing such a simple thing have such a profound impact, I knew I’d found something worth doing. The following summer, I tore out the vegetables and planted every flower I could get my hands on!”
Seven years later, Erin skillfully tends 2 acres of eco-friendly field flowers and 10 greenhouses abloom March through October with hundreds of seasonal varieties. Customers for their fresh-cut bounty include specialty grocery stores, local wholesalers and small flower shops, plus couples with their hearts set on a green wedding.
“I have a lot of fun tucking unusual elements into wedding arrangements, everything from chili peppers to carrots and peas on the vine,” Erin says. “Nature also inspires my designs. I love bouquets that look like they’ve just been scooped up from a meadow.”
A passion for flowers has grown on the rest of the Benzakein family, too. “Chris oversees our soil work, composting, irrigation, greenhouse building and deliveries,” she says. “Elora, now 13, helps me make bouquets and is a master flower packer. And Jasper, who’s 10, does tractor work, fills flower buckets at harvest and labels our flower sleeves.”
Her children are the main motivation for her organic practices. “Our home is in the center of our little farm, and our children live outdoors among the flowers during the growing season,” she says. “They build forts and make doll picnics out of bits from the garden. I’m aware that anything I use on our crop will be in direct contact with Jasper and Elora.”
To have a steady supply of materials all season long, “we’re constantly planting, seeding, watering, and weeding,” Erin says, describing workdays that stretch from dawn to well after sunset. “But there’s something magical about wading through waist-high flowers and sharing the view with butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees.
“It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, but it’s also the most rewarding. And as much as I love flowers, I love sharing them even more.”
Read more about Erin and her farm in her new book, Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden: Grow, Harvest, and Arrange Stunning Seasonal Blooms. She shares her best tips and expert advice for planting a cutting garden of your own, including how-tos for arrangements, like bouquets, garlands, and wreaths. The book is divided by season, so you’ll be able to jump right to the section you need. Plus, the photos inside are absolutely stunning. You’ll want to keep this one on your coffee table to show it off! Purchase a copy online at your favorite bookseller, like barnesandnoble.com.
This story originally appeared in Country Woman Magazine in June/July 2014. Check out their Facebook page for more woman-centric stories!
Grow Your Own Bouquet with Tips from Erin!
- Situate your cutting garden in full sun (at least six to eight hours a day) in a spot protected from cold winds. Make sure the soil drains freely to prevent standing water and root rot. Use a balanced organic fertilizer. During the growing season, feed your plants by applying either compost tea or fish emulsion directly to the leaves every two to three weeks.
- Support your plants with garden trellis netting or bamboo canes to keep stems straight and prevent them from toppling in spring rains. Set stakes and netting when plants are still small.
- Water your flowers deeply. If you have a large garden, drip irrigation, taking water to the root zone, is ideal. Give plants a soaking once a week for four to six hours.
- Deadhead often. The more you cut, the more flowers you’ll get. If you stop snipping, the plants will slow down and eventually go to seed.