Marion Baker, Duchess of Gloucester Flowers Gloucester, Virginia

Marion Baker and her business, Duchess of Gloucester Flowers, are at a crossroads. Since starting the business is 2005, Marion has sold the majority of her flowers through the Williamsburg Farmers Market. This year, when she received the application for the farmers market, she decided it was time to shift her focus. Instead, she intends to spend 2012 on growing her relationship with area florists. She hopes to increase the number of weddings she provides flowers for as well, since this is a market area she particularly enjoys.

Marion started her professional career in social work, but was drawn to ornamental horticulture in the mid-1980s. She completed a certificate program in Georgia and became a Master Gardener in Maine, where she also worked full-time as a grower in the production range at an independent garden center. When she moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, she continued her horticultural pursuits through various jobs, including a stint at Busch Gardens. Ultimately though, she had a “nagging desire to be a business woman” and decided to start a cut flower business on farmland she had purchased in Gloucester.

She completed a workshop, “Growing Cut Flowers,” offered by Virginia State University and took a small business development course before jumping in. Her first ASCFG conference was in Pennsylvania and she attended many Mid-Atlantic Regional Meetings over the years, which she found to be particularly insightful. Though she started the business with a partner who shared her love of gardening, after a year they realized they had different visions and Marion bought her partner’s share of the business.

The farm property is 5 acres, but only a half-acre is currently in production. Since starting seven years ago, Marion has doubled the bed space and hopes to see continued growth. She also has a small greenhouse and a 17×48’ hoophouse. The strength of the business and Marion’s spirit was tested last year when a tornado destroyed her hoophouse only months after it was erected. But she rebuilt and is looking forward to her first full season with it.

While the tornado was an extreme weather event, Marion, like so many others, concedes that Mother Nature provides the greatest challenges to growing. She says, “Every day I have a greater respect for weather and pests.” While she battles the common pest problems of aphids in the greenhouse and thrips in the field, a more unusual pest that thwarts her growing efforts are voles. She’s tried lots of vole control options, most recently finding some success with a “Vibrasonic” repellant. The voles are a particular nuisance for her perennials, a production area she’d like to be increasing.

In addition to perennials, she grows annuals, bulbs and woodies. Peonies, tuberose, gladiolus, lavender and daffodils occupy the greatest percentage of bed space. Other field crops include zinnias, cosmos, larkspur, agrostemma, dianthus, red broom corn, yarrow and foxtail lily. In early spring the greenhouse is fragrant with freesia, ranunculus and anemones before transitioning to crate-grown Oriental lilies. The  hoophouse starts the season with sweet peas and snapdragons, but Marion is looking forward to planting a sizable crop of flowering kale for late summer and fall. Her florists love the kale and she’s found that it’s a good end-of-season crop.

In addition to specialty cuts, she has two niche markets: edible flowers and colonial-style evergreen decorations (dried flowers on boxwood and juniper, for example). Her foray into edible flowers began when a mushroom grower at the Williamsburg Farmers Market asked her about the availability of lavender for culinary uses. The mushroom guy is also a food distribution broker and knew chefs who were looking for lavender. She started researching what other flowers were edible and began growing violas, nasturtium, bachelor button, snapdragon, and sunflowers (for the petals), to name a few. She sells an 8 oz. clamshell for $3 and the broker increases the price that the chefs actually pay, but she’s glad to let the broker do the selling.

She’s created an off-season profit center by offering workshops through the winter months. Folks pay a fee for a workshop plus lunch to hear about topics such as edible flowers and flower arranging. The chef from the local bed and breakfast prepares lunch and chats with the participants about how he uses the flowers in his cuisine.

Marion does it all at the Duchess of Gloucester—growing, marketing, book-keeping and advertising. When the task list gets too long, she hires contract labor. While growing is her first love, she has come to recognize the importance of talking to the florists she serves. She calls weekly to let them know her availability and has found that it’s a teaching moment to help the florists realize what’s locally available. She doesn’t feel like she gets a premium for her locally-grown flowers, typically relying on the USDA price report to set her prices. As she works with the florists more this year, she hopes to help them better appreciate the value and quality product she has to offer and move her prices accordingly.

Megan Bame

Megan Bame is a freelance writer in Salisbury, North Carolina. Contact her at [email protected]