by Sally Colby
Sometimes it’s time for a change, and that’s what initiated a major lifestyle and location shift for the Burrello family.
“I had a great desire to not raise my kids in an urban environment,” said Kristin Burrello, explaining the family’s choice to move from Chicago to rural Ashford, CT. “I wanted to get them out and close to nature, someplace beautiful, and pursue a simpler lifestyle. I also wanted to stay busy and work, and this was an opportunity to create a business from the ground up.”
Kristin has always loved flowers, and when she lived in an apartment, she did what she could to landscape the outdoor area. After working in theater as an artistic director, she switched gears and studied landscape and garden design. “I found out about Angelic Organics in Caledonia, Illinois,” she said. “They had a course on how to write a business plan. It was a two-year commitment, and at the end of it, I knew exactly what my market was and I knew I was moving to Connecticut.”
The Burellos knew much of Connecticut was heavily wooded, but they found a property that was already cleared. With full sun exposure in her favor, Kristin started planting immediately and created Muddy Feet Flower Farm. The Burellos planted what they could the first year and starting selling at the Westport Farmers Market. The first several years were mostly trial and error as she learned what would grow and what customers were willing to purchase.
She applied for an NRCS grant for a hoop house, then added a second hoop house and started experimenting with season extension. “I went to the wholesale flower markets to see what they had, and what might grow here,” she said. “I’m a member of the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers and found lots of information from sponsored events. Bloggers gave instructions on what to grow, and every season I added more plants.”
As she gained customers, Kristin learned it was essential to keep up with trends and be aware of what was popular. “Every year we planted more,” she said. “Now we’re up to 500 peony bushes and numerous landscape perennials like japonica.”
Kristin brought her love of bulbs from Chicago, where she had planted bulbs on every square inch of her tiny lot. “We grow the specialty varieties,” she said. “Bulbs are expensive and it’s hard to make money on tulips, but they’re the psychology of spring. Daffodils are seeing a resurgence, and people are becoming more aware of the different types of daffodils.”
Through a combination of ongoing education and experience, Kristin learned which flowers to cut when, and how to handle each species to make them last as long as possible. Most flowers are cut in the morning, between 6:30 and noon, or after sundown, depending on the time of year. “When you cut flowers at their peak, they’re really hardy,” she said. “Flowers that aren’t harvested at quite the right time won’t make it.”
After cutting hydrangeas in the early morning, Kristin carefully dips the fresh-cut stems in boiling water. Poppy stems are flamed then placed in water. Most other flowers are cut into water and placed in a cooler. “The cooler is key,” said Kristin, adding that she maintains the temperature at around 38º. “For anyone just starting out, it’s worth saving for a good cooler.”
Some of the easiest flowers to grow are also the most popular. “Zinnias and sunflowers are so cheerful,” said Kristin. “They’re ubiquitous and everybody loves them.” However, as with other species, timing is key – while sunflowers don’t sell well in June, Kristin can’t grow enough for late summer. To keep sunflower heads small and more suitable for bouquets, Kristin plants rows close together.
During dahlia season, she cuts thousands of stems of this top seller. Each autumn, she pulls all the dahlias and stores them until the next season. Four years ago, despite acting quickly, she lost her entire dahlia collection to an October freeze. “I got them out of the ground and put them in the hoop house,” she said. “I thought they’d be fine for one night, but they all froze.”
Last season, the Westport Farmers Market offered contact-free pick-up, which helped keep farmers solvent and customers happy. Customers who arrived during the first few hours could shop contact-free, then the market opened for direct sales. Kristin said some customers continued shopping contact-free through November but many shopped in person.
Kristin and some fellow flower growers started a co-op to connect local specialty cut flower growers. “It’s a single market and we sell to designers and florists,” she explained. “They pre-order online in the beginning of the week and pick flowers up at one location on Wednesday morning. They can shop the open market or shop online.”
One benefit of the co-op has been showing florists that they don’t have to ship flowers in. “Local flowers in season are so much better than what they can bring in,” said Kristin. “There are some things we can’t grow, like wax flowers, but florists can get almost everything they need from local growers.”
Kristin recently received a state grant to rebuild her barn studio, which will allow her to a construct a drying room and classroom space for on-farm workshops. “I also want to add on to a greenhouse so I can start my own seedlings here,” she said. “Right now I use a local greenhouse – I purchase the seed, plant everything there and they transplant into retail six-packs.”
Part of Kristin’s plan for 2021 includes marketing wedding and event flowers under “Farm Couture Flowers.” Brides have several choices for flowers, including purchasing a bucket of flowers to create their own bouquet. Kristin said DIY was highly popular about five years ago but is now trending out. “There’s also an option to get only flowers from the farm,” she said. “Whatever is growing that week is what their flowers will be.”
The Muddy Feet growing season starts in mid-February in the hoop houses and under row covers, and by May 1, spring flowers are ready for market. Kristin plans to establish more late-blooming spring bulbs to maintain a steady supply of fresh flowers while waiting for other species to flower. While she isn’t certified organic, Kristin uses almost no chemical inputs and relies on compost to build the soil.
Kristin is known for her unique bouquets, and markets many through White Flower Farm via mail order. She receives orders twice a week, creates and boxes the bouquets and ships them overnight. “Even if they were stressed during shipping,” she said, “once they cool off and are in water, they pick up again.”
Visit Muddy Feet Flower Farm online at MuddyFeetFarm.com.