by Sally Colby
A recent rainy day found Michelle Elston between flower fields and her office on her Carlisle, PA farm. “We’re planting almost every day here,” said Michelle, explaining one of the busiest times of year.
Michelle, who holds a degree in plant science from Cornell University, talks about how she started in the business. “I was going to study taxonomy but I worked at a flower shop in college with a woman who was growing flowers, and that’s when I really got interested in cut flowers.”
Michelle and her husband Mike, also a Cornell graduate in plant science, moved to Massachusetts where they continued growing their passion. “We bought a garden center in western Massachusetts and stayed there for nine years,” said Michelle. “I learned so much about business from the garden center.”
But it was the birth of their son which made it clear to Michelle and Mike they would need family support in order to continue running a business. With renewed perspective, they returned to Pennsylvania and established Roots Cut Flower Farm.
Michelle knew it would be difficult to juggle a young family while being open to the public, so she focused on growing flowers for grocery store bouquets. At first, she grew on rented acreage then the Elstons had an opportunity to purchase a farm in the same area with nearly 10 acres of growing space and ample room for Mike’s landscaping business.
Most of the flowers grown at Roots today still go into bouquets for supermarkets, with some sold at a local farmers market. To track what she needs for bouquets throughout the year, Michelle keeps notes on what she has enough of, what there was too much of and where there were gaps. “It’s definitely tricky,” she said. “Our goal is to have flowers from April through December. It’s about ‘when are we short on flowers, when do we need more for supermarkets, when do we need more of a certain shape or form flower to fill out our mixed bouquets.’ We plant a lot of successions of annuals so we have interest and availability for those bouquets.”
Although some of the flowers are carefully cultivated in the farm’s greenhouse, many are sowed outdoors. “It’s amazing how quickly it’s filling up,” said Michelle, referring to the acreage. “When we moved here, I thought we’d never fill it.”
Michelle also grows flowers for weddings which she says can be challenging. “Right now, all the brides want white and blush,” she said. “If I have known that two years ago when I was planting perennials, that would have been great. There’s definitely a learning curve with that.” Michelle says wedding planning starts in January of the year of the wedding, and her calendar is already quite full.
This year, weather conditions are pushing growth earlier than most years, which means perennials such as peonies might be available earlier for some spring brides but not for later. Michelle has included a clause in her contract for such conditions, which states while Roots will strive to provide what the bride requested, seasonal weather conditions often dictate changes which can’t be predicted in advance. “We reserve the right to make flower substitutions as necessary,” said Michelle. “We’ve had an early spring, ahead of most other years, so that means we had peonies earlier than normal. It also means that our late June brides may not have peonies.”
Michelle says for the most part, the unpredictability factor is a fun challenge. “There are times when it’s stressful and we don’t have enough of the ‘right’ flowers for a certain weekend,” she said. “For our event work, we use only what we grow, which is different from most farmer-florists who buy in product to supplement what they grow. We feel very strongly that we only want to use what’s in season and what we grow right here on the farm. That limits what we have available, but we’re honest with our brides about that. It requires a lot of trust and flexibility on their part to not know exactly what their bouquets will contain.”
One of the most important aspects of supermarket sales is that flowers are fresh. “We harvest and ship the very next day. And the customer needs to get a minimum of five to seven days out of it after it’s been in the store for a few days,” said Michelle. “We need to focus on long-lasting flowers.”
Summer staples include Gomphrena, marigolds and Lisianthus, which Michelle refers to as their greenhouse gem. Advances in plant breeding have yielded brightly colored, long-stemmed marigolds, which are ideal for bouquets.
Sunflowers are popular and Michelle has been seeding new plantings every 10 days. “We ordered 100,000 sunflower seeds and I’ll have to reorder,” she said. “We only grow varieties without pollen. We like to include sunflowers in our supermarket bouquets, which are very bright, color-saturated ‘farm’ bouquets and sunflowers are the classic flower for that. We focus on varieties with a traditional dark center and orange/gold/yellow petals. We to have continuous harvest and pick sunflowers every day. They’re a big part of our production.”
Because so many supermarket flowers have lost fragrance, Michelle tries to add that factor to the bouquets she creates. Herbs such as lemon basil, dill, rosemary and eucalyptus add visual interest and scent to bouquets.
When it comes to pricing supermarket bouquets, Michelle knows she has to be competitive in an area where people may not be willing to pay. “Our quality is higher and there’s a somewhat accepted price point, so we have to be in line with that,” she said. “We work hard on education and talk about the real cost of production, that we live in the community and believe in hiring community members to work on our farm. It has to be worth it for the customer.”
Although Roots isn’t open as a retail store, Michelle and her crew host several pop-up shops throughout the year. Patrons could choose to create a rosemary topiary or a succulent wreath. Both classes were led by Michelle’s mother, Nina Poe, a patient and talented instructor who guided each participant through the steps to create a piece they were happy to take home.
Michelle says at the first pop-up shop she was the cashier, but quickly learned the volume of customers required a dedicated cashier team which would allow her to keep other portions of the business operating. The addition of Square POS during the pop-up shops has been a time-saver for busy employees who are striving to provide prompt and personal service for each customer as they check out.
“As this business grows, I’ve had to delegate,” said Michelle. “As an introvert, that’s a piece of this business that I like but it’s exhausting for me. I’ve had to look for people who love to talk, sell and communicate. That has made our business a lot stronger than when I was doing all of that myself. It’s been a great lesson for me to just let people do what they do well.”
Visit Roots Cut Flower Farm online at www.rootsflowerfarm.com .
Back to roots
by Sally Colby