Taking a Bite Out of the Edible Flower Market
Gibby Knoebel, Gib’s Farm
Even though the flowers growing on Gib’s Farm look good enough to eat, customers are often surprised to see colorful pansies hiding in their mixed greens, garnishing a cake, whipped into butter or candied.
“It’s a conversation starter,” says Gibby Knoebel. “It delights people to discover that flowers are edible!”
In 2010, Knoebel and her husband, David, started growing vegetables and herbs on their 88-acre parcel of land in Catawissa, Pennsylvania. But Knoebel, a lifelong lover of cut flowers, was eager to add cut flower and edible blossoms to their vegetable patches.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love flowers,” she explains. “I love the colors, the textures, the shapes, the fragrance, the transformations from seed to finish, and edible flowers just fascinate me.”
In addition to traditional cut flowers like ageratum, calla lilies, sunflowers, peonies, coreopsis, cosmos, larkspur and roses, Knoebel grows blooms that are both beautiful and edible, including calendula, dianthus, garlic, chives, pansies and nasturtium.
Dahlias are among the most popular edibles; Knoebel has used the flowers in dahlia pancakes and added peeled, diced dahlia tubers to soups and stews.
As the market for edible blooms grows, restaurants are ordering flowers as garnish, colorful salad fixings and flavorful ingredients for whipped butter from Gib’s Farm.
In addition to selling to restaurants and creating bouquets for special events, Gib’s Farm operates two 20-week CSAs (one for vegetables and herbs, another for cut flowers) that run from April to October and participates in the Ferry Street Growers Market in Danville, Pennsylvania.
While Knoebel is eager to expand the farm—she’s been experimenting with hops, which she calls “beautiful and unusual cut flowers” that can be used in tea or beer and hopes to partner with local breweries to grow hops for craft beer production—there are challenges to growing edibles and cut flowers.
For starters, Gib’s Farm relies on a single cooler. Since flowers can’t be stored in the same space as fruits and vegetables (produce gives off ethylene gas as it ripens, killing blooms), the Knoebels store flowers in the cooler and transport produce from the farm to their home where it’s stored in the basement. The other challenge is familiar to all flower growers.
“Flower farming is all about washing buckets,” Knoebel says. “I would have never believed I’d be washing this many buckets in a day!”
Washing buckets and hauling produce between locations are small concessions for the pleasure of pursuing a passion for growing cut flowers.
“There is no greater joy than watching a flower grow or seeing a child holding a sunflower like it’s sacred,” she says.
While Knoebel’s goal is to grow beautiful blossoms, she insists that the process is as important as the product – and that starts with treating the land as sacred, too. With one acre in production, Knoebel uses organic and permaculture practices for intensive growing.
Although Gib’s Farm isn’t certi-fied organic, Knoebel, inspired by environmentalists like Rachel Carson, Eliot Coleman, and Alice Waters, follows organic practices, steering clear of pesticides and toxic fertilizers.
Alliances with other organic growers through memberships in the ASCFG and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture have also proven invaluable for helping Knoebel further her knowledge and dedication to organic agriculture and permaculture.
“I was a kid when my father gave me a copy of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring,” she recalls. “Pesticides and herbicides were bad news for as long as I can remember.”
Following organic practices, she believes, helps attract wildlife, including pollinators like bees, birds and butterflies, to the farm—beautiful and essential elements of the landscape. “We’ve noticed a lot more wildlife feasting on what we’re growing,” she says.
As part of their goal of incorporating a permaculture teaching lab on the farm, the couple hired Chyvonne Rhoads as their farm manager. Rhoads applies her passion for organic agriculture and permaculture to manage all aspects of the business from sowing seeds and irrigating the fields to harvesting and sales. She’s also encouraged to pursue her own farming interests. This season, Rhoads, inspired by Instagram, experimented with dried flowers.
“As I was growing up, my mom always had dried flowers around the house and I thought it was neat that the flowers lasted all winter when nothing else was growing,” Rhoads recalls. “Being on the farm rekindled my interest.”
Through trial and error—and with a lot of advice from her mom—she dried varieties like statice, gomphrena, lavender, and ornamental peppers and used them to make wreaths, bouquets and hair accessories. Rhoads posted pictures of her creations on Facebook and Instagram and customers snapped them up.
While dried flowers are a wonderful addition to the product line, especially during the winter months, Knoebel will always look forward to spring. “Watching the earliest ranunculus, daylilies and tulips come up is the best part of flower farming,” she says.
Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer in North Carolina. Contact her at [email protected]