North Coast Journal


A cutting garden

by Terry Kramer

WHEN BLUE LAKE GARDENER ELEANOR SWANSON retired from the neighborhood post office after 30 years of duty, she went to work in her own backyard growing masses of cut flowers. In a 60-by-100-foot plot behind the house, Swanson plants rows of Canterbury bells, larkspur, statice, zinnia, feverfew, rose, sunflowers, baby's breath, lavetera, strawflower, scabiosa, asters, gladiolus, ageratum, snapdragons, yarrow and more. Throughout the spring and summer she cuts them, makes stunning arrangements and sells her bouquets at the Farmers' Markets. For Swanson this business of growing and arranging cut flowers has helped to fill a void created by the death of her husband and the loss of a job.

"My husband liked (growing flowers) too, and we did it together and it was only two years after I retired he died. So this has really been a great thing for me because it has given me something to do. Actually, sometimes it is too much to do!"

Swanson has what is called a cutting garden. Instead of decorating the landscape, flowers are grown in long rows, much like vegetable crops on a farm. A row of flowers may be stripped of blooms after a cutting session. A pile of spent plants awaiting the compost heap may lie in the middle of a path. Rows of strapping young seedlings stand adjacent to mature, fully blooming flowers. It is a flower garden of transitions, of the new, the mature and the dying.

"A cutting garden," Swanson explains, "is to make bouquets from. You don't see all the flowers staying neat and compact. You always have something that is dying and something that is new and coming on," she says.

She points to a fat green row of plants setting buds. "You see the asters are just starting to come on while the Canterbury bells are nearly spent."

The flowers Swanson grows are healthy and robust. She credits her success to rototilling into the soil plenty of steer manure and redwood compost each spring. Soaker hoses stretched down the long straight rows do the watering. Plants are fed a diet of granular fertilizer and Miracle Gro.

Swanson's artistic talent is seen in her arranging of the fresh cut flowers. Her bouquets are full and colorful, reflecting a natural artistic lucidity that is never overdone. For instance, one bouquet may be composed of white lavetera combined with peach-colored godetia and baby's breath.

"I've always like to arrange flowers," she says. "I didn't know I had that kind of talent. But people would always ask me to make arrangements for them. I've done a few weddings, but I don't like to do them. I just don't feel I am qualified to do them."

Her arrangements quite often end up in weddings after all. On a recent Saturday at the Market a woman bought seven bouquets for a wedding, one for each of the bridesmaids, Swanson says.

She believes her gift for making arrangements is "a God-given talent. And my mother loved flowers, and maybe I got some of the talent from her. I think I have an eye for knowing how to put things together," Swanson says.

One of the hallmarks of Swanson's arrangements is the fact that the flowers will last up to three weeks. She picks and arranges the flowers the evening before she sells them.

"I try to give people good quality flowers that are fresh. And I tell my customers to change the water every day. I have found that the secret to making flowers last is to give them fresh water every day. That seems to work better than anything I've ever tried. Flowers don't like old water. "

During the winter, when fresh cut flowers are no longer available, Swanson makes dried arrangements and wreathes to sell at boutiques during the holidays. She also sells arrangements at Old Town Crafters market in Eureka. Materials used in dried arrangements include dried herbs, eucalyptus, larkspur, roses, baby's breath, yarrow, statice and strawflowers. Swanson dries her homegrown flowers in the sunroom where she does most of her arranging and crafting.

She has suggestions for choosing dried flowers for arranging. "With dried flowers use the colors in the mauves and blues for the best sellers. Yellows and oranges, forget it."

On Saturday mornings Swanson stands at the open back of a mini-van surrounded by her beautiful arrangements that she peddles on the Arcata Plaza. A petite woman wearing glasses and neatly styled grey hair, she says the market experience is as much fun as growing flowers.

"I really enjoy it. I have met so many nice people that I would have never met if I hadn't done this," she says.

Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer and the owner of Jacoby Creek Nursery.

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