A Canadian teacher grew her love for seed-starting into a thriving cut flower farm
Jen Feddema-Gerryts was a high school teacher with a passion for starting seeds. Every season, she germinated hundreds of seeds on a sunny windowsill and planted them in her yard in Niagara, Ontario.
After her father-in-law died in 1999, Feddema-Gerryts and her husband, Bob Gerryts, moved to the family dairy farm.
“My little addiction to growing things just had all sorts of room to explode.” she recalls. “When you get a seed packet, it comes with a lot of seeds so you end up with way more plants than you need.”
As perennials took over more and more of their land, Bob suggested selling them. Jen set up a roadside stand and Wendalane Farms was born. There was just one problem: Perennials were not perennial bestsellers.
“The problem with perennials is that people buy them once and then don’t need them again because they already have them in their gardens,” she explains.
With more plants than customers, Feddema-Gerryts started going to the farmers’ market in 2004. She cut several stems of peonies from her garden and took a few bouquets to the market on a whim; the bouquets sold out and when she realized that the perishable petals would bring repeat customers, she switched her focus from perennials to cut flowers.
“It was great for seedlings in March and April when it was full of seedlings but, for the other 10 months of the year, it was stressful. We used to have a lot of power outages and the blower would go off…and I decided that monitoring a greenhouse was not something I wanted to do.” she recalls. “I sometimes dream about having a high tunnel to extend the season but I talk myself out of it because it would be a stress and I’ve already developed a farm that works for me.”
A Short but Profitable Season
Feddema-Gerryts prefers limiting her season, selling from June to October and using the off season to clean the farm and prepare for the next season. Instead of starting early with tulips and other bulbs, which provide minimal return on investment for her farm, Jen chose peonies and ranunculus as her first crops of the season. She takes them to farmers’ markets starting in May.
“I feel like as long as I have peonies and ranunculus for the first three or four weeks of the season, people are thrilled.” she says.
Over the last 16 years, Wendalane Farms has built a loyal customer base who appreciate Jen’s commitment to tried and true varieties. Her staple crops include zinnias, sunflowers, peonies, dahlias, and lisianthus. Lisianthus is one of her favorites.
“I can’t get enough lisianthus,” she says. “[In February], my basement is full of little lisianthus; I seed 300 to 600 every day; I don’t think I can ever have enough of it. It can handle cool weather in the fall, it [goes into the cooler] well and it blooms right through [Canadian] Thanksgiving…I can’t talk enough about lisianthus.”
Lisianthus also grows well in the clay soil that is prominent on Wendalane Farms. Jen has stopped fighting it.
“I just realized some things don’t grow well here [because of the clay soil] and I’m okay with it.” she says. “Some of my flowers might not be as tall or lush as flowers that grow on a farm with better soil, but wedding designers don’t care about stem length…and they love short, tiny bouquets at the farmers’ market so I found a sales channel and try to grow the flowers that thrive in my environment. It works for me.”
Turning Off Social Media
Just as Feddema-Gerryts is uninterested in fighting with her soil to expand the varieties of cut flowers she can grow, she also refuses to spend time curating the perfect Instagram feed.
“It’s changed so much since I got started; flower farms are popping up everywhere and growers have such big dreams,” she says. “It’s hard not to get caught up in it. I just try to find a way to stop looking at what other people are doing and focus on my own goals.”
Not getting caught up in comparisons with other flower farmers frees up Feddema-Gerryts to focus on her goals for Wendalane Farms. She adds new 50-by 100-foot beds every year and continues expanding shrubs such as ninebark, forsythia, muhly grasses, and weigela for greenery.
In the midst of the frenzy of growing and expanding, Jen always makes time to appreciate the beautiful surroundings.
“My favorite time of the week is when I load the van for market because I get a little bit of the feel that our customers have at market; it’s the feeling of, ‘Wow, we grew all of this and it’s gorgeous,’” she says. “The rest of the week is a lot of work but seeing a van squished full of flowers is so fun.”
Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer in North Carolina. Contact her at [email protected]