Betsy Webster, Mount Ulla Gardens
I’ve been writing grower profiles for The Cut Flower Quarterly for nearly eight years now, I believe. In looking through the ASCFG membership listing I knew that there was a grower in Mt. Ulla, a tiny, unincorporated town about 10 to 15 minutes from where I live in greater Salisbury, North Carolina. But we had never met and, despite the neighborly distance, I didn’t know exactly where she was located.
A couple years ago I tried to reach this grower, Betsy Webster, but she was out of the country as my deadline loomed. This year, another deadline was fast approaching and I thought it might be easier to make a farm visit (most interviews take place on the phone or through email exchanges). I remembered Betsy, and after a phone message and a bounced email, we finally connected. What a pleasure it was to meet her and take the walking tour around her property on a late summer evening.
One of the first things Betsy showed me were two books, the Proceedings from the ASCFG Conferences in 1988 and 1989. She reminded me, “This was before the Internet.” She says she learned a lot by trial and error. She worked for a local florist and then a local greenhouse grower; she took Cooperative Extension Courses and communicated with Dr. Joe Love at N.C. State University; but ultimately she considers herself a “product of the ASCFG.”
Betsy is a retired special education teacher. She and her husband have a 40-acre farm, and while they tried many money-making farm ventures, including raising llamas, sheep, boxwood and Japanese maples, it was cut flowers that worked for them. That being said, her husband, Don, isn’t exactly a flower lover. He’s supportive and he loves to do the tractor work, but he leaves all the sales to Betsy.
Her customers value the freshness of local flowers and the more unusual stems she shows up with.
As we walked around the farm in mid-September, Betsy pointed out the cutting landscape she’s cultivated. From a boxwood-lined driveway to a windbreak of yellow-tipped Leyland cypress and a holly hedge serving as a screen from the adjacent railroad tracks, her cutting garden is her yard. Well, partly.
There is a bed of peony, a cluster of hydrangea, and this year’s exciting find—a bed of red hot pokers, maybe five, 20-foot rows that have been blooming since May. The flower garden proper is the more expected long rows of sunflowers, zinnia, ageratum, gumphrena, lambs’ ear and celosia. She uses millet and rye grain as a cover crop with the strategy that the seeds they drop will become her primary weeds, and a selective grass killer can be used for weed control.
Behind the cutting bed are a few rows of curly willow, viburnum, quince and eucalyptus. Betsy says that all together there are about two acres of annuals and 10 acres of woodies and perennials. She has a hoophouse for starting seedlings and a walk-in cooler for postharvest storage.
She has one seasonal part-time employee, who happens to be a retired florist. He helps with planting, picking and bunching. Together they used to do regular wedding work, but decided there was too much drama involved when she could more easily run a florist route. At peak, she visited around 15 local florists from Charlotte to Winston-Salem. Now, largely due to shops closing, her weekly runs hit only six to eight florists and she’s home by noon, “because the delivery van starts to get hot.” Her customers value the freshness of local flowers and the more unusual stems she shows up with. When the ASCFG declares a variety the next hot item, she wants to have it in the dirt the next year. This year she sold several large branches cut from mature crape myrtles to an event florist, who created a tree-lined aisle for a wedding, hanging dendrobium orchids from the branches.
Betsy doesn’t do much marketing. In the past 20 years, her customers have become her friends and they know what to expect from her. In fact, from a local grower standpoint, she says there is very little competition. Last Christmas her husband gave her an iPad and she has put it to use for the business. She doesn’t take preorders, but she does snap photos of what’s blooming each week, and sends those pictures to her customers so they can know what to expect. She says it’s quick, easy, and something they really appreciate.
Mostly her season runs from March to October with some winter items, like the holly and boxwood clippings by the bagful. But she’s not afraid to take time off, a luxury of retirement. She and her husband try to spend three months of the year in New Zealand, in a one-room house on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea. They’ve gone during the summer before. She says, “Florists are slow in the summer, anyways.” The abundance of perennials also lends itself to their occasional extended absence. Betsy reflects, “I grow mostly woodies so when I am 80 I can go out, pick and sell for some extra money without much effort.”