Plumb Farms Flowers

Operating as a farmer-florist allows one Connecticut couple to pursue their passions for horticulture and design

Dave Rubino and Tom Wheeler met while pursuing degrees in horticulture at The Pennsylvania State University. After graduation, Wheeler put his talents to work as a floral designer while Rubino pursued a master of science degree and PhD in horticulture before going to work as a plant geneticist at the United States Department of Agriculture.

The couple was living in Washington, DC, when they were offered the opportunity to take over Plumb Farms, the farm in Prospect, Connecticut, where Wheeler grew up.

“We had free rein to take whatever direction we wanted,” Rubino recalls.

The original farm was established in 1790. Past generations used the 100-acre property as a dairy farm and a fruit and vegetable operation; in the 1970s, Wheeler’s mom grew a few cut flowers and sold them from a roadside farm stand. Rubino and Wheeler returned to the farm in 1993 to start Plumb Farms Flowers.

“It was bare bones at the beginning,” Rubino says. “We had a lot of ups and downs as we figured out what to grow and how to start a business.”

They transformed the four-car garage into a retail shop, constructed a 30 x 96 greenhouse, and started growing a half-acre of cut flowers.

Rubino supplemented their annual and perennial crops with lilacs and pussy willows growing wild on the property; they also purchased cut flowers from wholesalers to meet the demand for high-end floral designs for weddings and other special occasions.

Although Plumb Farms Flowers has changed a lot over the last 28 years, a few things have remained the same: Rubino still grows brightly-colored favorites like zinnias, snapdragons, sunflowers, and peonies, and Wheeler remains passionate about floral design.

The couple often talks about trends in the cut flower industry, including which colors and varieties retail customers are requesting but, Rubino admits, “He’s able to take whatever (cut flowers) I bring him and make them work, he has a great eye for color and creates beautiful designs using combinations I would never think of putting together.”

Growing Pains

Experience has taught Rubino that operating as a farmer-florist requires regular tweaks to deal with the realities of pest and disease pressure, changing trends, and increased competition.

Thanks to the viral disease aster yellows, Rubino grows only a limited number of flowers in the aster family; the farm could never keep up with the demand for roses in floral arrangements so Wheeler purchases them from wholesalers instead of growing them on the farm; and heavy deer pressure means that their entire cut flower field must be fenced—and expanding means installing additional fencing. Bright colors have been a mainstay for almost three decades.

Rubino has seen one significant positive development since he started Plumb Farms Flowers.

“When we were starting out, people expected cut flowers from a roadside stand to be cheap and we had to work hard to develop a customer base for local flowers,” he says.

As support for “grow local” and “know your farmer” movements has exploded, it’s been easier to convince customers of the value of purchasing locally-grown flowers—and the retail shop generates a lot of interest from those seeking out local blooms.

“I light up when people in their 20s are interested in horticulture and what we’re doing here,” Rubino says.

Sowing the Seeds for Success

Rubino admits that transitioning from a career in researching plant genetics to operating a flower farm required a learning curve—but a love of learning is one of the reasons growing cut flowers remains interesting. Rubino spends a lot of time reading about new varieties and plant genetics; he also attends annual ASCFG conferences and classes where he appreciates opportunities to learn from his peers.

“A lot of [the ASCFG members] have a lot more practical horticulture experience than me,” he says. “I’m always learning from people with farming backgrounds who know equipment and often have ideas for how to make things easier or farm more efficiently.”

The couple also learned that specializing was the key to sustainable business success. Their decision to focus on growing a selection of high quality cut flowers and creating high-end floral arrangements came after they dabbled in everything from growing bedding plants to producing (and baling) hay for local livestock farmers.

“Early on, we were trying to do too many things, working too many hours [and] it got very stressful,” Rubino says. “We had to get comfortable giving things up.”

One of the things they gave up was weddings.

Like many cut flower farms, Plumb Farms Flowers developed a thriving wedding business, growing cut flowers and designing floral arrangements for couples who were tying the knot. After years of earning rave reviews (and high revenues) from their wedding business, they decided to cut back to free up their weekends and lower their stress levels.

The decision was short lived. The 2008 recession hit not long after Plumb Farms Flowers stopped working on weddings and the economic realities led Rubino and Wheeler to get back into the business. In 2011, the couple provided flowers for 53 weddings in a single season and continued serving couples until 2018. Now, their focus is back on their twin passions for farming and floral designs.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that you have to stay positive and not let the little things get you down,” says Rubino. “We love what we do and we’ve stuck with it for the long haul to make it work.”

Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer in North Carolina. Contact her at [email protected]