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July 12, 2014
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Tastemaker: Katharine Brown; From hobbyist to flower professional

Perenniel peonies make for perenniel favorites this time of year, and they’re always pretty in pink.
TRR photo by Jane Bollinger


Katharine Brown has been gardening all her life, growing up in Colorado (with its short growing season); later, working in a nursery in New Hampshire; and then, after moving to Oregon Township, Wayne County, PA, turning her yard into a large and ever-expanding flower garden. Her personal passion for growing flowers now flourishes as a successful small business—selling cut flowers; making arrangements and bouquets for all occasions; and offering consulting on garden design, plus helping with installation and construction. It’s part of a larger business named Fox Hill Farm Experience, Inc. in which she and her husband, George Brown, raise beef cattle and occasionally welcome tourists to their farm. Katharine’s sense of design has made her talents much in demand.

Recently, we sat down with Katharine Brown to hear her story and to learn what we could about flowers.

An interview with JANE BOLLINGER

Personal story

Q: How did it come about that you turned your yard over to flowers?

A: Ten years ago George and I bought the farm from my father-in-law. It was a complete blank slate—three maple trees, a rundown shack, a garage and a house. That was it. Having gardened all my life—which sounds crazy because I’m from Colorado, where there’s a three-month growing season—I thought, now is the chance for me to garden. So, every season, I put in a new bed.

One weekend George was out of town, and I purchased a tractor because it was 0% APR financing. Also, I had a neighbor who had manure. For me, those were the key ingredients: a tractor and good manure.

After our two children were born, I took time off from teaching, but I couldn’t sit still, and I started doing bouquets from the garden. People started asking me to help with their gardens. Then, I started doing the farmers’ market. It just kept building.

Now, people call me for bouquets for birthdays and other special occasions. I’m doing more weddings—it’s really fun to be part of that couple’s happy day. Finally, I’m doing quite a bit of garden design.

Q: How did the business come about? Did you sit down and write a business plan?

A: I did. My husband, George, has a master’s degree in business, and he’s not one to let me just go off willy-nilly, although I try. We even incorporated—it’s Fox Hill Farm Experience, Incorporated now.

Q: When you first started your gardens, was there a design plan?

A: (Laughing) No. The truth is I would just look at an area and think, “What should I do there?” [At the beginning], I did some very shoddy rock wall jobs; any person who looks at them, they probably think, “Oh, boy. That’s a very unfortunate wall.” But it does hold the flower beds in place.

Q: In your garden, do you try to follow natural growing practices?

A: Yes. One thing that I’m trying to put in practice at the farm is permaculture, and as much as I can in other people’s gardens. I never force it on anyone. There’s a sense that we need to be thinking beyond just pretty.

Q: Do you dry flowers?

A: I do, but not too much. I dry straw flowers, which are fun, and I dry alliums—not for the color, but for the shape; I think they’re really cool.

Q: One thing that I heard about you is that you forage. What do you forage?

A: Well, I try not to do anything illegal (laughing), but I love to forage for winterberries. And ferns. I just cut them; I don’t dig them up. Wonderful barks that have fallen on the ground. Hemlocks are great, but now they have Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, so you have to watch out. I forage more in the fall and winter. I look around for weird things—not weird, but just different—like the Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, [a shrub] that has crazy, curlicue branches.

Advice to gardeners

Q: What advice do you have for somebody who’s planning a garden?

A: One thing I say is, “Sit in your house, or on your porch; look out your windows.” Where do you enjoy spending time? Those are the areas to develop. A lot of times, people build their gardens hugging the house, where you can’t see them if you’re sitting inside, and often, the shrubs then eat your house, literally and figuratively. We have six months of growing season here, but we have a long six months of sitting inside looking out. Gardens can be interesting through more than just one or two seasons.

Q: Do you choose a mix of annuals and perennials, do you include shrubs and trees, a little of everything?

A: A little of everything is the key. And try to think of things that wildlife would enjoy, too. Like winterberry, for example; it’s got a gorgeous berry, but the birds enjoy it, too, and you look at it in winter. That’s where I would have changed things; initially, I started out all perennials, and it’s gone from that to shrubs and trees that are more a four-season interest, and a lot less maintenance.

Q: What recommendations do you have for those who want to teach themselves?

A: Reading garden magazines is one way to start. Also, pay attention in someone else’s yard. What do you like? Take notes, or take a picture. A lot of times, people will go to Agway, or wherever, and buy [plants] in full bloom, and think, “Oh, this is so pretty.” Then, they plant it, and it’s never the same because it’s not the right space or…

So, really look at things and plan and ask before you put it into practice.

Q: Are there plants that are too hard for beginners? Like, “Don’t do roses because they’re very tricky,” or, “Don’t do dahlias because you have to dig them up and take them inside in the winter.”

A: I think my advice is to start container gardening. Do raised beds, whisky barrels, pots everywhere, and just start experimenting. You can do herbs and perennials and even shrubs in containers.

Yes, roses are a little bit more high maintenance; dahlias are a little bit more high maintenance. There are certain ground covers that people buy that look pretty, and you plant it, and it completely takes over. I’ve lost entire beds to goute weed. So, watch if it says “ground cover.”

But, really my advice is just go for it. And before you know it, you’re addicted, and you might have to figure out how to make a business out of it because you’re spending too much money on plants (laughs), and you realize this can’t be a hobby any more.

Cut flowers and DIY arrangements

Q: Let’s talk about cut flowers. What does bringing cut flowers indoors bring into a home?

A: The first thing is bringing color inside your home, and life. You’ve worked so hard, so now make it a conversation piece, or that extra at a dinner party, or even if it’s just for you. A gorgeous bouquet can be as simple as dandelions or daisies. You can put a bouquet in any container; it doesn’t have to be a vase. It can be teapot; it can be a bowl with a frog at the bottom. Use what you have. That makes it kind of an artwork.

Q: Are there some fundamental rules for making a more attractive flower arrangement?

A:
One rule I try to follow, although not always, is to make the height of the arrangement one and a half times the height of the container, to make it really full. Having said that, sometimes you want to do something different. And it looks better to have odd numbers of flowers in a bouquet. Also, I like asymmetrical bouquets. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people like that [balanced look].

Q:
So, the highest point isn’t in the middle?

A: Exactly! The highest point doesn’t have to be in the middle. And let the plants that you’re using help dictate that. If you’re using peonies, for example, you could do more of a uniform shape, but if you’ve got delphiniums and peonies and tulips, let them naturally drape; look at the way they are in nature and kind of follow that.

Final advice

Q: Do you have favorite flowers?

A:
Wow, that’s a hard one.

Q: You just love them all, right?

A: (Laughing) It’s true. But there are some that, en masse, just make more of a statement. And that’s another piece of advice; something like a Marguerite Daisy, for example, looks so much better when there’s a mass of it—a billowing cloud of it. So, instead of one plant, plant five, so there will be plenty to cut to bring inside.

Recently, there’s one plant that I really fell in love with. It’s called Rudbeckia maximillian, and it gets to be seven feet tall. It’s this spire jutting out of the garden. So, amongst this drift of daisies and Russian sage and Echinacea, you have this [really tall plant]. It’s like you’ve created this bouquet right there in your garden.

Q:
Is the planting zone [here] different?

A: When I first moved here, it was zone four, and now we can get away with zone five almost, thanks to global warming, not!

Q: How do you keep the critters out?

A: A dog helps. We’re always outside, so that also scares them away. And I have been known to shoot a woodchuck. We’ve never had much of a problem with rabbits, but I have a cat now that’s becoming a good hunter. You can still have a pretty garden. You just have to do deer resistance. There’s nothing totally deer-proof [though] as everyone who lives around here knows. It’s a nightmare for everybody.