The Garden That Keeps on Growing
A Washington State flower farmer embodies the adage “Bloom Where You’re Planted.”
Growing up in a family of gardeners helped Janet Foss develop a love of growing things. For her eighth birthday she asked for her own garden plot, where she planted her first flowers—purple petunias.
Foss carried her childhood love of gardening into adulthood. Her husband, Jim, called it “an expensive hobby,” when the couple married in 1981, so Foss decided to start selling the flowers she grew on their two-acre property in Everett, Washington, to prove that her hobby could generate a good return on investment.
Jim, a teacher, went to City Hall during a school break to get her a business license—a move Foss, a self-described procrastinator, admits she might never have made on her own. She started selling at the local farmers’ market the following week.
The cut flower bouquets proved popular and, once Foss started generating revenue from her fledgling flower farm, things happened fast. It wasn’t long before Foss and her husband moved to a 20-acre property in Lake Stephens, Washington, where she set to work expanding the farm.
Truly a Specialty Cut Flower Grower
In addition to growing tried-and-true cut flowers like dahlias, tulips, poppies, sweet peas, and roses, Foss admits, “I like to have unusual plants to offer people; that has always been my niche,” and dedicated significant space to experimenting with varieties like greater burnet saxifrage, astrantia, and clematis. As the selection of cut flowers continued growing, so did J. Foss Garden Flowers.
Foss rented a stand at the iconic Pike Place Market in Seattle (where she was a vendor for 16 years) and established wholesale accounts. The farm grew from a small operation to a major undertaking. Foss raced to keep up with the demands.
“I was [at Pike Place Market] from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” she recalls. “I’d drive home, pick more flowers, load the van and do it all over again. It was a lot of work.”
Foss wanted to switch from retail sales to wholesale. Her grandmother, also a cut flower grower, mused that wholesalers would never have worked with small growers in the “olden days” but it didn’t take long for Foss to land an account.
Wholesale proved to be a better option. Foss partnered with a wholesaler who purchased all of her flowers, allowing her to make a few quick trips into Seattle each week, unload the van, and make it home before lunch, allowing her to devote more time to the farm.
Multitasking Before it Was Cool
Just when Foss got into a good groove, things changed again. The wholesaler went out of business and Foss lost the account; after almost two decades in Lake Forest, Foss and her husband purchased a farm in Chehalis and, not long after their move, Jim suffered a stroke. Foss stepped in as caregiver, putting the flower farm on autopilot.
“I thought about not doing cut flowers at all,” she recalls. “We still had the old farm and things were still growing there so I did some mass sales to wholesalers but I was not focused on it.”
As Jim grew stronger, Foss recommitted to the farm but moving from a wetland site to a drier climate created a steep learning curve; flowers that grew well in Lake Stephens failed to thrive in Chehalis. Where she once grew calla lilies with thick, five-foot stems, the flowers she grew on the new site were smaller and less impressive.
“Things we could grow and make a ton of money on [at the old farm] wouldn’t grow here,” she recalls.
Moving the calla lilies into the greenhouses proved to be a turning point; the flowers grown in the controlled environments are bigger and more beautiful than ever.
Having a greenhouse was new for Foss. Though she’d longed for greenhouses on her previous farm, the location in a floodplain meant the structures would have been underwater for months. On the 40-acre site in Chehalis, there was enough dry land to accommodate several structures.
Foss also embraced the features of the site: In addition to seven acres of annuals and perennials, she harvests moss and twigs from the 15-acre forest to add to bouquets, and cuts log rounds to sell as décor pieces; pussy willows, spirea, and birch trees thrive in the 15-acre wetland.
Although she has been growing flowers for almost four decades, Foss is still experimenting and still learning. The veteran flower farmer has witnessed significant changes in the field: She remembers taking phone orders (from a landline) and promoting her business without the internet and social media.
The demand for certain flowers has changed, too: Foss recalls a time when wholesalers had no interest in sunflowers; she was the first grower in the Seattle area to grow pollen-free sunflowers and sold upwards of 500 bunches per week. Now, the colorful blooms are staples on flower farms. The biggest change, she believes, is the interest in growing flowers.
“When I started out, no one was publishing books on how to make $100,000 on two acres,” she recalls. “Now, information [about starting a flower farm] is all over the place. People get into it without knowing how much work it will be.”
Despite the hard work, Foss retains her childhood passion for growing flowers. She appreciates the opportunities to experiment with new flowers and decide on the rhythm to her days, explaining, “I like being outside and walking to the beat of my own drum.”