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Ranunculus part I, and my roots as a farmer-florist

Updated: Jan 4, 2023

Welcome to our inaugural post! We will be using this platform to highlight specific flower varieties and share information from our farm and floral studio. In this first post, we will be talking about ranunculus, which happen to be very wrapped up in our farm origin story, so this will be more lengthy and personal than future posts will be. For more nuts and bolts information about ranunculus, skip the story and move on to part II!

Thank you for joining us here!

The story begins back in 2011. I was working at a small Italian restaurant on the capitol square in Madison, when a local farmer came in to deliver an order of flowers fresh from his field. I received the delivery and peeled back the kraft paper sleeve to see what he'd brought. In awe, I unwrapped the package to discover the most delicately beautiful, papery petals of a flower I'd never before seen: ranunculus. I was smitten!

I guess my infatuation was palpable to the rest of the staff, because the owner asked me to arrange the flowers in bud vases for the tables that night, which I did gladly and also with some surprising skill. After trimming the stems and designing little vignettes for each table, I buzzed happily around the restaurant placing each vase just so, quite forgetting we were getting ready for a busy night. I was excited, and hooked. From that day forward, I became the de facto flower person at the restaurant and something very like a dream took root that day.

You see, the ranunculus delivery that day kind of changed my life. First, I had no idea that flowers could be grown on small farms in the Midwest - kind of a duh moment, huh? But really, my experience with flowers before that moment had been entirely what was available through FTD floral delivery sites and at the grocery store. Long-stemmed red roses every year for Valentines Day. Carnations in every shade of the rainbow. Tulips year-round. Not a hint of seasonality nor a whimsically blemished or naturally curved stem on these trucked-in, heavily sprayed workhorse flowers, which I'd certainly never seen growing in Wisconsin or my native Illinois. So you could grow cut flowers in the Midwest, and they were so different but no less impressive than what grew elsewhere in the world. In fact, they were perhaps more beautiful.

Second, I discovered I kind of had a knack for designing with flowers! Throughout college and the rocky years that followed graduation, I had dabbled in so many things that just didn't take, and it was refreshing to find something that I not only was good at, but actually enjoyed doing. I thought, what if this could turn into a real career? It seemed like a pipe dream, especially because I became obsessed with the idea of growing my own flowers on top of being a designer. I wanted the best, freshest product available and I wanted unlimited flowers to play with as I taught myself how to design, so of course I had to start my own farm, right?

This was all shortly after my husband Dan and I started dating, and we were both heavily ensconced in the restaurant industry - he as a cook, me in service. Owning a home had not even been on our radar, not to mention owning a farm. On top of that, we'd both grown up in the suburbs and had, at that point, pretty minimal experience with growing things. In an effort to strike out and learn some new things, we moved kind of on a whim to Seattle where the local flower scene was gaining a lot of traction. There I learned of Erin Benzakein of Floret Farm in the Skagit River Valley; I reached out to local floral designers who agreed to let me work in their studio (for free!); I got a job in a floral wholesale warehouse where I learned the ins and outs of receiving, processing and arranging flowers for local grocery stores; I frequented the Seattle Public Market just to admire the myriad displays of locally grown flowers.

My first floral studio space at the Seattle flower wholesaler

Our short stint in the PNW was kind of fundamental to all that followed. I'd built on my very limited floral experience there, and brought it to my native Chicago where we moved afterwards, and where I continued volunteering my fledgling skill for some local designers and visiting flower shops where I'd pick up blooms to play with at home.

Over the next couple of years, we took very sensible jobs in Chicago that allowed us to start saving aggressively for this farm dream that had been planted in us both. Interestingly, at the same time my desire to grow cut flowers grew, my husband was becoming interested in growing our own food. He'd made the shift that many cooks do from purchasing local ingredients to wanting to grow them himself.

On the wooden fire escape of our red brick walk-up in the heart of Wicker Park, we started a garden to some surprising success, despite the fact that the space was probably much too shaded for our little plants! We fashioned a vertical garden out of a pallet and watched in amazement as tiny herbs and greens sprung from the soil. Dan began reading tome after tome about permaculture design and small-scale agriculture. We attended the Mother Earth News Fair and met Joel Salatin, whose many inventive farm techniques we were so anxious to one day try out on our own land. Through Dan's job on an organic garden building crew on the North Shore, we got experience with building farm structures like hoop houses and compost bins.

Our first humble garden

Then something most fortuitous happened in 2016: a month before we were to be married in Illinois, I applied for and got a job at an organic dairy cooperative in a magical region of Wisconsin that we'd only ever heard about, "the driftless". The region had been on our radars for a few years because while working in the restaurant industry in Madison, many of our products and ingredients came from there: Kickapoo coffee (now Wonderstate), Harmony Valley produce, Driftless Organics sunflower oil. Dan read a book called Restoration Agriculture by Viola native Mark Shepherd about perennial food forests and his mind was blown. Were people really living like this in this driftless region? Was this life really possible for us? It was both exhilarating and frightening accepting that job, but living in the heart of Chicago and having this dream of raising a family on a bucolic couple of acres packed with flowers - well something had to kick the dream into reality.

So two days after our wedding, we moved into a small apartment in the tiny town of Viroqua, WI so I could begin my job and our new life. It was less than a year later that we found our 1.75-acre farmstead, replete with a 150-year-old farmhouse, a small horse barn and a rolling, sloping pasture on which to build our dreams. Over the next four years, we planted hundreds of species of flora, ranging from annual and perennial flowers, herbs and produce to fruiting trees and nut shrubs, before incorporating pigs and chickens into our small farm system.

You can imagine my excitement the first year ranunculus bloomed on our farm. What a culmination of a years-long, winding journey! I fell in love with it all over again.

The first bud! I took far too many photos of it.
And the first couple of unfurled blooms

I finally had ranunculus of my own to play with in our little home floral studio that looked out over the gardens where we grew them. What an intense moment of joy and thankfulness for how God led us through those years to the full realization of a dream that seemed so insanely far from ever being able to actually ever happen.

Four years into our farming journey, we are still experimenting with different varieties and colors of our beloved ranunculus. This year, we added the 'Cafe' variety, which was more exquisite than I could have imagined. These orange blooms with their streaks of intense red and dark centers are almost other-worldly!

And so much fun to design arrangements with.

In the 2023 growing season, we are so excited to be offering a 4-week ranunculus bouquet option to our CSA menu. When the ranunculus start to bloom in Spring (likely June), we will be delivering a bouquet featuring these beauties and a few other supporting flowers from the farm to any member who signs up for this option.

We hope you will join us for this special bouquet option this year! We can't wait to share these flowers that are so near and dear to our hearts, and such a fundamental reason why we are flower farming!

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This has been so fun learning more about you and your journey Samantha! Like you I adore ranunculus:)

Jan 07, 2023
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Thank you! They really are stars of the spring garden. Love to hear about others' mutual adoration for them!

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