From our 2009 archives.
It all started with a dog.
In 1992 I was a happy single girl employed as the office manager at the Denbigh Animal Hospital. Just loving my job and minding my own business. Then this guy walked in with his yellow Labrador Retriever—without an appointment. His grandfather had just passed away and left the dog, Major, in his care. The guy was Steve. It turned out Steve had a heart of gold, steel blue eyes, and suntanned arms that made something like an appointment seem totally unnecessary.
After this meeting, I saw Steve from time to time around town, but never socially. This didn’t stop me from trying. I learned he was a part of his family’s business, Ziegler Plumbing and Sewer. All of the sudden I was thrilled when my washing machine was slow to drain. I called, requesting Steve. Much to my dismay, Steve didn’t do service work; he did the construction jobs like replacing water and sewer lines—oh well. Someone else came to my rescue.
For a good while, we played a cat and mouse game, me the cat, him the mouse. A year passed with no real progress, just the occasional dog encounters with lengthy chit-chats. I could see that this guy loved his dog, his mother, and working with his family—all good signs. Was a relationship possible, or was I just dreaming? It was plain to see that some action had to be taken to get this ball rolling.
With Christmas coming, Denbigh Animal Hospital was going to host a fundraising photo-with-your-pet event for the local Golden Retriever Rescue group. I took a gamble that Steve would love a photo of Major to share with his family and mailed him a flyer. Sure enough, he called and made an appointment.
On the day of the photo, Steve and Major arrived right on time. Every employee of the animal hospital came to the front desk to stare.
I managed to check them in and get them back to the photographer without too much embarrassment. Steve and Major are very photogenic. We had a nice chat, both feeling awkward being stared at by at least 10 pairs of eyes! And off he went, no progress.
One of my long-time friends at the office suggested I ask him out; I can still hear Pauline’s words with her English accent. “Go ahead, ask him out to dinner, if he says no, he’s no good anyway is he?” So, I did just what she said. I asked and he said yes. Thank goodness the ball was now rolling.
Finally a Date
The first date was dinner. It was perfect. I kept waiting for the other boot to fall. This guy was just too good to be true. (I’m still waiting, girls!) He took me home, walked me to the door—what a gentleman!
On that first dinner date, it didn’t take long for our conversation to come around to gardening. I had just begun to dabble in gardening at my home. Living as I was under a deep canopy of oak trees, my little experience had been strictly in shade gardening. Turns out he is quite the vegetable gardener. So, after our second lunch date, we went by his house to see his bachelor pad and garden.
Eureka! His little spot of paradise was sitting right smack dab in full sun!! I mean— no shade in sight. To someone like me who had been searching for a ray of sunshine in her garden, this was incredible. His place was definitely a bachelor’s pad, but the garden, oh my goodness—paradise.
Most of the property was a beautiful vegetable garden with many plantings scattered around that his grandmother and other family members had started over the years. I just wanted to investigate to see what was going on. The most amazing part, Steve was as eager to share this paradise with me as I was to explore it!
Let me paint this picture for you; we live in a city of 200,000 residents, with little to no undeveloped open land. Steve’s home had belonged to his grandparents. This was one of the original homes built in the 1930’s in what is known as “The Colony” in the Mennonite community located in the Denbigh section of Newport News. The bungalow-type house sat on 1.25 acres adjoining his neighbor’s 40-acre horse boarding farm. The neighboring fields make this property feel as though you are in the country even though you are in the middle of the city.
When I came on the scene, Steve and his family had a large vegetable garden to feed the family in season and for freezing and canning for out-of-season. Grandma Ziegler had planted many hydrangeas, daffodils and camellias on the property. Grandpa Ziegler left his mark also with many fig and pecan trees, grapevines, and, most importantly, his years of adding leaf mold to the garden. I am now reaping the benefits of all that organic material.
Steve had been living in this place as a bachelor for many years before I came along. In addition to gardening, Steve had an interest in motorcycles. The house apparently was perfect for re-building a 1968 Harley Davidson Chopper in the living room! So glad I missed this part. The stories this house could tell: from the babies born to the Brunk family who built the home in the 1930’s to Harleys roaring up the front steps in the 1980’s—thank goodness walls can’t talk!
Popping the Question
Steve and I hadn’t been dating long when I popped the question: “May I do a little gardening at your place?” I just couldn’t resist all that sunshine. I could grow, well, I wasn’t even sure what I could grow yet, but I was ready to try. He happily replied yes.
So, I planted some flowers that I had never been able to grow before. At this point, I just fell in love with the whole gardening life and the one who introduced me to it.
Tying the Knot
Around here, the story goes that I married Steve for his gardening dowry. Of course, that isn’t true! I married Steve because the same things make his heart race as mine: God, family and the love of a garden. However, he did come with a couple of Troy-Bilt tillers, composted land, lots of old hydrangeas, and a dump truck to boot!
These days, our idea of a relaxing fun day is working in the garden all day getting hot and tired, dragging ourselves in for a shower and then sitting on the patio to gaze at our handiwork as we eat dinner. Paradise.
Steve and I married in 1995. We had two complete households and gardens. We would ultimately live in his home; however, his place as previously described was a bit of a biker cave, so renovations were in order.
We began by packing his house, so he could make the move into my house after the wedding. Next, his house was gutted. The question became: would it ever end? The house was taken down to studs and everything replaced. My brother Vance was the builder and he made the job as painless as possible for us. The icing on the cake was that my father custom made all the trim in the house to replicate what had been there. This was all pretty amazing. Eighteen months later we moved in.
I dug the entire shade garden of hellebores from my house and brought them with us.
My First Time with Flowers
The first year on the Ziegler homestead, I continued the tradition of large vegetable gardens filled with tomatoes, beans, sweet corn, peas, onions, potatoes, and all the classics for good eating and storing up. Steve loves growing sweet corn just like his grandfather. They loved sharing it with friends and neighbors as much as eating it. I was also busy with projects, putting my own touch on the landscape around our new home including planting my first 10-foot row of zinnias beside the vegetable garden.
During this time my grandmother suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed a good portion of her body. I was so proud of those zinnias, that I picked several and took them along on my weekly visit to see her. Little did I know what a fuss these garden flowers would cause. I entered the front doors of the nursing home carrying about 2 dozen zinnias and started down the hall. Folks that had never taken notice before now approached me saying “My mother grew those in her garden” or “Zinnias! I had those in my garden.” It was one of those warm fuzzy moments that makes your heart swell.
By the time I made it to my grandmother’s room all the way at the very end of the hall I had a pack of flower garden lovers following me. This began my weekly harvest of zinnias to take on my visit along with pint mason jars to fill and place on the dining tables for everyone to enjoy as they reminisced.
My experience that summer with harvesting that single row of flowers every week to take to the nursing home primed me for what was to come.
The Book that Changed it All
During the following winter, I saw an advertisement for a booklet: How You Can Earn $15,000 or More on ¼ Acre or Less Growing Cut Flowers. After reading it from cover to cover, I was intrigued enough to purchased the suggested book The Flower Farmer by Lynn Bycznski.
As I began reading this book, I knew I was realizing my dream. Everything seemed to be falling into place. I was finally in a position that I could explore another career now that I wasn’t a single girl responsible for putting the bacon on the table. I had that garden dowry of the necessary equipment, land, even many plants such as hydrangeas, lily of the valley and peonies that would complement what I would grow. This was getting pretty exciting.
It also didn’t take me long to figure out that flowers didn’t have to be canned or blanched for freezing! Don’t get me wrong, I love growing and eating vegetables and we still grow them. However, back then we grew lots and it could be a bit overwhelming at times. The thought that I might have buckets of flowers waiting to go to market for sale was a pleasant change from heaps of tomatoes around the kitchen waiting for scalding and canning.
Steve encouraged me to tackle this full force. He loved the idea that I might “work the land” as my career, so he was on board from the get-go. This was a priceless encouragement.
My First Commercial Garden
What amazed me in reading The Flower Farmer was just how much general gardening information I gathered, such as what season to plant certain variety plants, many that I had been told as a home gardener won’t grow in our region. I can’t go into that here, but fall planting of hardy annuals is one of the best-kept secrets in gardening (and the start of my book, Cool Flowers).
I must add that I also had to learn how to start seeds—the most frightening part of this endeavor! A book that was crucial in getting it right was The New Organic Grower, by Eliot Coleman. It gives detailed seed-starting information using the soil blocking method. This revolutionized my dreadful seed-starting past. Following his advice and equipment recommendations, I went from a no-success seed starter to an overnight champion success.
I planted my first commercial garden in the fall of 1998. It included snapdragons, sweet peas, sweet william, rudbeckia, and larkspur. All of these except the larkspur were started indoors and transplanted out in October. Larkspur seed was directly planted in the garden as it prefers. Planted in the garden, these plants wintered over, doing the job of building strong healthy roots without much top growth, just waiting till spring to jump into action.
Time to Sell Some of the Blooms
When the following March rolled around, I began to start more seeds of the warm season annuals recommended in The Flower Farmer like zinnias, cockscombs, and lemon basil to be transplanted out late April.
As the season began to warm, the fall-planted flowers began to bloom. The rudbeckias were first, followed by oodles of fragrant sweet peas. Then the larkspur and snapdragons started in along with the sweet william.
Steve was so excited for me, and asked every day, “Are you taking your flowers down to the florist today?” Not yet, I said. I was full of reasons. But really, I just had cold feet.
One of the planning points you have to decide in growing flowers is where you are going to sell them. This affects what you grow, how you package, and so much else. Back then there was a lack of Farmer’s Markets, but many florists. I had decided I would wholesale my flowers to florists. I had followed all the suggestions in the book as to varieties to grow and I had scoped out the most upscale high-volume florist in the area to approach with my flowers.
But now that my garden flowers were blooming, I began to wonder, would they really want them? I was becoming a big chicken! So, as the days passed and more and more flowers began to bloom and I didn’t make any move to market them, Steve gave me the loving nudge I needed.
The pep talk that he gave me to finally get me off the fence was so simple. “Take the flowers down there and offer them. If they don’t buy them, we just won’t ever shop there again!” Now I could do that! Something about knowing I wouldn’t have to face them again if they turned me down—my man is so smart!
My First Selling Experience
Steve’s strategy worked. I felt confident enough to fill the buckets with fragrant sweet pea blooms and mounds of hydrangea blossoms and I headed out. My plan, as suggested in the book, was to offer free flower samples to the customers to show that they are conditioned and of good quality. Well, that plan got blown out of the water soon after my arrival!
At this point in the game, I didn’t have a truck, so the flowers were in the back seat of my car. I headed down to the shop, hoping that the head designer, Eddie Sturgill, would be on hand. I walked in with my buckets and thank goodness, he was there. He was on the phone with his back to me when I walked in. That was perfect, really. It gave me a minute to collect myself and put my buckets up on the counter. I waited.
While still speaking to the phone customer, Eddie slowly turned to me, and his eyeballs got about the size of tea saucers. His next words were to his phone customer: “Hold just a moment, please” and then to me, “I’ll buy them all!”
Then he jumped right back on the phone with the customer. But… wait just a minute, I was thinking, I’m here to drop off samples, not sell them! Thank goodness he stayed on the phone for a couple of more minutes while I figured out plan B pronto!
Once off the phone, Eddie was thrilled with the flowers and the prospect that more were coming. He was willing to take me under his wing to help in any way. He showed me how to package, gave me tips and helped me when I had problems. Once I had more snapdragons than he could buy. He suggested I get on the phone to tell other florists I was having a snap blowout and they would grab them up. He was right!
I attribute my easy success in the beginning to choosing the right customer. Eddie was smart to help because he knew that my success meant his customers would benefit from local flowers. He also became a good friend.
More Customers and a New Job
My first season went so fast, selling pretty much just to Eddie. It became apparent during that first season that I absolutely loved growing masses of flowers. That winter as I planned my garden, it expanded. I knew I needed to also expand my customer base or I would have way more cut flowers than customers. So, I moved into nearby Williamsburg where there were several upscale florists and also Colonial Williamsburg. They all had an appreciation and a demand for locally grown quality flowers.
The welcome I experienced with Eddie was repeated everywhere I took my flowers in the coming years.
Up to this point I had been coming in the back door of florist shops, strictly wholesaling. The beginning of the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market in 2001 was a turning point in my career. As the cut-flower vendor, I was now coming face to face with the end user customer and they were delighted to see me week after week with 20-plus buckets of beautiful cut flowers. Customers loved knowing who grew the flowers on their table and that there were no chemicals applied.
During this time I also started what today is known as the Members-Only Flower Market and Subscription Drop-Off programs. These programs allowed me to market my flowers without having a brick-and-mortar shop.
At the Market, it wasn’t long before requests started coming in for me to give programs to local garden clubs, master gardeners and other groups. Folks were sure I had some super secret to bringing all those masses of cut flowers week after week. Two things became clear to me: folks were eager for my simplified gardening methods and I loved sharing them. This launched me into becoming a speaker.
The Garden Has Grown
As the garden grew in size over the next few years, and my success as a grower and speaker did as well, I felt the need to add another dimension. The retail supply portion of the business was born in 2005. During this time I also renamed the business from Ziegler Garden to The Gardener’s Workshop.
When I began teaching the how-to’s of gardening, folks then wanted the same tools and supplies that I used. That’s how the retail part of the business came into being. While I tackled this new retail endeavor in 2005-2007, I downsized my growing operation. We pulled out of the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market and stopped wholesaling. In 2008 as we grew the garden back to size, we returned to the farmers markets and began wholesaling again. Though I love making our products available, I’m definitely happier when gardens are involved, with gobs of flowers!
One thing has become overwhelmingly obvious to me over the past eleven years: I absolutely love the multi-tasking nature of this business I have created. I adore growing masses of flowers. It is not the same as landscaping and home gardening. My gardens are working cutting gardens full of flowers that are barely open when they are harvested, then I shuttle them off to make their way to your table where the vision of loveliness is finally realized.
I love sharing what I have learned in my simplified can-do terms. When things are truly simple and easy, anyone that wants to grow cut flowers, can.
Steve and I find our love and respect for each other growing with each passing year in this garden. We both feel so connected to and protective of what has been entrusted to us. We are thankful each day to be the caretakers of this place we call home, the Ziegler Homestead.
The Baby Bracelet
For both Steve and I, nothing brings more joy than sharing, whether it be the bounty of our garden, a plant, or just a helping hand. This story begins when we offered some starts of a hydrangea to a friend at Denbigh Animal Hospital. I had dug them from a shrub that was originally located next to what we now use as a garage. In the past, it was actually a cottage that was home to several of our extended families over the years.
But, before my friend could get the plants in the ground, she suffered the loss of a family member. The hydrangeas sat on her driveway without pots and waited to be planted. Time passed. Then the day came that she ventured out to plant the hydrangeas.
After getting them in the ground, she began to hose the pile of dirt left by the plants on the driveway. As the water washed the dirt away, something shiny caught her eye. It was a beaded baby bracelet, the type hospitals used to put on babies years ago.
My friend called and asked me if I knew anyone with the name ‘N. Fisher’. I thought for a moment—well, that would have been one of Steve’s cousins. The family had lived in the cottage where the hydrangea was growing. As it turns out, she had been brought home from the hospital as an infant to the cottage about fifty years earlier.
When my friend gave the tiny bracelet with its story to Steve’s cousin, the two shared tears along with their smiles. This bracelet was a ray of sunshine to them both. For my friend, who was overcoming a painful loss, and our cousin, who was reminded of her own loving mother, no longer living, it was a poignant moment.
Sharing treasures from the garden can extend the blessing in ways we could never imagine.