By Jessica Ballard
Innovative farming is all about perspective… Something I have learned during my years of working with the land is the need to look at things differently.
As farmers and gardeners we are often encouraged to keep our fields and garden beds clean and manicured and to do our best to properly maintain and care for our desired cultivated crop. There are clearly a great number of benefits to doing this including, reducing weed competition, insect and disease pressure. However, there is something to be said for acknowledging that everything in nature serves a purpose, has something special to contribute, is beautiful in some way.
I was originally trained in vegetable farming and spent years fighting the Queen Anne’s lace, the poke weed, the lambsquarters to save my precious squash, beans, tomatoes etc. Over the years I have learned a bit of herbal medicine, done some wild food foraging and have recently delved into the cut flower and floral design market. What I have found is that some of the plants I was fighting were often more nutritious, beneficial, and in some cases more beautiful than the cultivated plant. Lambsquarter’s are highly nutritious, poke is an EXCELLENT bouquet filler and queen anne’s lace in all stages is beautiful, medicinal and aromatic!
This season has probably seen the most remarkable change in my perspective as we have been developing our cut flower business.
Over the winter I purchased a copy of “Fresh from the Field Wedding Flowers” by Lynn Byczynski and Erin Benzakein from the “Growing for Market” website. This little book and the accompanying dvd totally transformed my perspective on floral design and texture. While our farm had been dabbling in the cut flower market a little bit over the past few years, we had been playing it safe with traditional, annual cut flowers including: zinnias, ageratum, gomphrena, celosia, and sunflowers. These were easy to grow and easy to work with for simple bouquets. This year we decided to take some risks with new flower choices such as delphinium, dahlias, larkspur and sweet William.
After reading this book I really began to see the landscape differently. We experimented with so many new wild plants and even “re-purposed” some cultivated plants for fillers and texture in our arrangements. This year, along with our traditional annual flowers, our bouquets were filled with sweet potato vines, poke weed, blackeyed peas, herbs, berries, honeysuckle, crabapples, golden rod, Queen Anne’s lace, cherry tomatoes and even Johnson Grass!!!
For the first time, we offered a flower CSA this year and provided weekly bouquets for pre-paid customers. Every week we tried something new in our arrangements from cover crops to weeds to herbs to food. The richness and texture of the bouquets have been amazing and we are only just beginning! I have to laugh at myself… as we are preparing for our final wedding flower and event sales of the season, I am almost as nervous that we won’t have enough poke weed for the bouquets as I am that we won’t have enough zinnias!
Not only has this new perspective given us an opportunity to make money off of “weeds” (while also keeping them trimmed back before they seed) but, more importantly, it has encouraged us to see the constant beauty in the ever changing landscape. It’s a real blessing to be able to see such beauty in Johnson Grass, Mulberry bushes, Honeysuckle and pokeweed when they have previously been such a source of frustration!
When I look at a weedy bed or a fence-row, I am thankful that I now first recognize the beauty and productivity of the wildness rather than the guilt of letting it go a little wild!