ONE GARDENER IS BLESSED WITH NOT ONE, BUT TWO, GREEN THUMBS. One is pursuing a childhood dream of growing flowers. Another turned to flowers after beekeeping.
“Flowers bring so much joy to us humans,” says Jessica Broyles, owner of Starry Fields Farm in Rockfield, who took up the mission to enrich the community through the beauty of flowers. “They are excellent communicators, helping us to celebrate, grieve and create.”
According to the Kentucky Horticulture Council, specialty cut flower production is growing by leaps and bounds in the Bluegrass State. Meet several Kentucky farmer-florists who are sowing seeds of joy.
It’s all in the thumbs
While many gardeners boast one green thumb, Teresa Biagi feels she has been blessed with two. Biagi, whose family owns Hazelfield Farm in Wheatley, has spent a lifetime practicing and perfecting her skills as a gardener and floral designer, beginning with childhood forays into the garden in the shadow of her grandfather.
“My grandfather loved trees and I followed him around as a child so much that his nickname for me was Bird Dog,” says Biagi. “He planted lots of trees!”
Always an outdoor enthusiast, Biagi tapped into her love of plants at an early age.
“Whereas some of my sisters remember things about our house inside growing up, I can still note where the peony and iris grew and the locations of all of the trees and shrubs,” she says.
Relatives on Biagi’s grandmother’s side had the first greenhouse in her hometown of Shelbyville, and her family tree includes an early 1900s florist. You could say flowers are in Biagi’s blood—or thumbs, in this case.
Hazelfield devotes about 10 acres of farmland to cut flowers, including perennials and annuals as well as shrubs and trees. The farm, served by Owen Electric Cooperative, specializes in peonies but raises many other varieties, including arum, allium, camassia, hellebore, serviceberry, lavender, ranunculus, gladiola, dahlia, scabiosa, zinnia, celosia, milkweed, buttonbush, sunflower, mint, hibiscus, curly willow and more.
Besides Biagi, Hazelfield Farm family member-owners include Biagi’s husband, Raphe Ellis, who specializes in heirloom tomatoes, tends a small herd of cattle and puts his carpenter skills to work maintaining the farm. The couple’s older daughter, Esmee McKee, and her husband, Todd Elliott, grow produce and grains, raise pork and beef and organize and maintain the gourmet CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. Also involved is younger daughter, Sayward McKee, who helps with marketing, event planning, the farm’s online store and more.
Experimenting with and incorporating unusual and unique flowers and other items from nature in her artistic arrangements is a Biagi trademark.
“Some of the things we grow that I get to use that a normal florist might not are buttonbush, vitex, apple blossoms, quince, asclepias, pearl vine and milkweeds,” she says.
From busywork to business
The seeds for Whitney Hamblin’s cut flower business were planted in childhood with a secret garden built of scrap wood and latticework. Each spring, Hamblin would grow flowers in the garden and then pluck the blossoms for bouquets she would create and give to her mom and neighbors.
Hamblin’s interest in growing flowers waned during her teen and college years but returned full bloom with an invitation from her mom, Alma, to create wedding floral arrangements.
“I was hooked,” says Hamblin. “Together, we started and ran Flowers By Alma out of our garage for almost six years.”
In spring 2021, Hamblin, a Jackson Energy consumer-member, established a micro-flower farm in Irvine. She named the small-scale Estill County production farm Holler Home and began growing both annuals and perennials. Cut-stem flowers include peonies, daffodils, ranunculus, rudbeckias, celosia, amaranths, zinnias, snapdragons, asters, scabiosas, sunflowers and more.
Hamblin tries to incorporate as many sustainable gardening practices as her experience allows.
“Farming is a learned practice, and we are still very much in our infancy,” she says. “We grow flowers to sell, but we also grow to replenish our seed supply for the upcoming season. This creates a closed circuit for production, and we save money by not having to purchase the same seeds year to year.”
This season, Holler Home added a high tunnel—a type of greenhouse—that will extend growing time and expand the varieties of flowers the farm can grow. Also new is an irrigation system from Grow Appalachia, a nonprofit that gives resources to new farmers in eastern Kentucky. The system will feed from the farm’s well house to eliminate dependency on city water.
“What began as a backyard activity to keep me busy as a kid has grown into the beginning of what I hope to be a lifelong career,” Hamblin says.
Insta flower farm fame
Photographers, tourists and garden variety visitors flock to family-owned Honey Hill Farms, a U-pick farm in Mayfield served by West Kentucky RECC. Their goal? Snapping pics of an Eden that Jennifer Beck Walker, executive director at Mayfield-Graves County Tourism, calls “one of the most Instagrammable places in west Kentucky.”
“It’s the sheer volume of the flower fields, the expansive property and attention to creative detail,” says Jared Phelps, who assists with the growing and maintenance of the fields, among his many jobs at Honey Hill. “We’re trying to cultivate an experience that’s totally out of the norm and fully immersive so visitors can capture those unforgettable, almost ethereal, moments.”
Twenty varieties of zinnias and sunflowers, three varieties of cosmos, two daisy cultivars and other flowers grace the farm’s acreage. In 2021, the farm planted its largest cut flower display, which bloomed across nearly 4 acres.
“We’ve normally got about 2 acres split over 3 to 4 acres, so pickers, photographers and picnickers have space to themselves,” says Phelps.
Adding allure—and a photo op stop— to the flower fields are vintage trucks, including a 1976 Ford hand-painted with piano key borders and a rainbow grill.
Says Phelps: “Once you step inside the restored vintage cab with flowers in hand, it’s easy to look like you’re on the road to Woodstock.”
For almost 30 years the Phelps family has lived on Honey Hill, originally a beekeeping operation. When harsh winters, colony collapse and other factors led to its end, the farm transitioned to concessions.
“We started Polar Ice, serving cotton candy, snow cones and lemon shakeups all over western Kentucky festivals, craft shows and birthday parties,” Phelps says.
The cut-stem flower business began in 2011 when Jared and his sister Jordan advertised a field of wildflowers and got an overwhelming response. The next year the siblings planted a small field of sunflowers and zinnias and added a dose of country charm with an old bus seat and tent.
The Polar Ice is still available, now served at the Hive, a concession also offering fresh-squeezed lemonade, Hawaiian shaved ice and homemade kettle corn as well as pumpkin cream cold brews, caramel apple nachos and apple cider shaved ice in the fall. The on-site gift shop features items by local artisans and small businesses as well as the farm’s signature beeswax candles.
Cut flower month celebrated in summer
Every July, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and the Kentucky Horticulture Council (KHC) celebrate Kentucky Grown Cut Flower Month.
According to the agriculture department, about 80% of cut flowers are imported for U.S. markets from countries such as Colombia, Ecuador and the Netherlands—but Kentucky farm conditions are well-suited for high-quality commercial production of cut flowers.
The KHC currently lists 128 commercial cut flower operations in its database, but estimates there probably are many other operations.
The number of farmer-florists continues to increase each year, with a 20% increase since last year. The current market value for Kentucky’s cut flower operations is nearly $700,000 annually.
To follow July’s cut flower month promotional activities, visit the KHC’s Facebook page. To find Kentucky cut flower operations, click into this map. NOTE: The map is not exhaustive and the KHC welcomes any operations to submit their information to be included in the list.
State’s Horticulture Council director shares top tips for growing cut flowers
Cindy Finneseth, executive director at the Kentucky Horticulture Council, shares her top 10 tips for growing cut flowers.
- Pick a sunny spot, since most commonly grown cut flowers thrive in full sun.
- Make sure the planting area is convenient to a water source and so the area can be easily tended for weeding, fertilizing, scouting for insect pests and diseases, and harvesting.
- Test the soil before planting to better understand nutrient availability and amendment options.
- Start small to be sure the planted area is manageable.
- Select a mix of flowering annuals and perennials as well as plants for foliage, choosing species and varieties for characteristics like color, texture, bloom time and disease resistance.
- Map out the planting area to maximize productivity. For example, be sure taller plants don’t shade smaller plants and plan ahead for trellising or staking of tall, potentially top-heavy blooms.
- Use a succession planting strategy to ensure blooms and filler over the longest season possible.
- Harvest early in the day using sharp, clean tools, pruning and shaping as you remove stems.
- Practice sanitation management, regularly removing debris and any diseased plants from the growing area.
- Consider precautions against deer and other wildlife that may browse or damage plants.
Resources for cut flower DIYers
Find guidance for cut flower gardening through the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment Cooperative Extension Service.
“The horticulture agents work closely with homeowners and can provide resources and help with basics like soil testing, species and variety selection, disease diagnostics and pest ID,” says Cindy Finneseth, executive director of the Kentucky Horticulture Council.
DIYers can find their county extension office here.
Jessica Broyles, owner of Starry Fields Flowers in Rockfield, recommends the book, Cut Flower Garden, by Erin Benzakein.
“I knew I wanted to use our land to grow something, and I read Erin Benzakein’s book, and it inspired me to grow flowers.” says Broyles.