Tuesday, August 31, 2021 9:43 AM
Driving the back roads of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom in late August is a delight for gardeners who revel in peeks at flourishing gardens where sunflowers nod over fattening cabbages, heavy-laden tomato plants stand above squash plants running amok into lawns, and yards are lush green, with late-summer blooms flanking porches and front steps. A visit to Ardelia Farm, a flower farm in Irasburg, Vermont, ratchets up the pleasure of garden-viewing a thousand percent. The surrounding area has many classic New England farmhouses and barns, many of them maintained in picture-perfect conditions of which Martha Stewart would approve. But seven years ago, when Bailey Hale and Thomas McCurdy were searching for an affordable farm where they could raise some animals and make a living from their combined skills as a horticulturist and floral designer (Bailey) and a professional pastry chef (Thomas), they found their present work-in-progress — a humble farmhouse with various rundown sheds and barns and nearly 50 acres of fields sporting a healthy crop of burdock weeds. A bequest from Hale’s grandmother Ardelia enabled them to buy the property and today the business bearing her name is run from a small home whose once-shabby siding has been replaced with clapboards stylishly painted gunmetal gray, set amidst a riotous garden of annuals and perennials.
The main purpose of our visit was to learn more about how Hale has become a successful purveyor of specialty sweet pea seeds, with four 30-by-160-foot greenhouses covering a half-acre of plants. The road leading to the greenhouses passes alongside the house, with a partially framed deck under construction, a greenhouse spilling over with a collection of carnivorous pitcher plants, a couple of happily rooting spotted pigs, some beef cattle, a thriving vegetable garden, a beautiful, lightly renovated barn where farm events are held, and huge cutting gardens of colorful annuals, including a striking variegated Solomon’s Seal, hedges of rosy and green sedums and a blazing display of heliopsis “Burning Hearts,” with dark purple stems and foliage, as well as woody perennials like hydrangeas, that furnish cut stems for some area florists. This is the downsized revision of a large cut-flower business Hale ran pre-COVID, when he sold stems to the New York wholesale market for event florists. Like the previous owners of Ardelia Farm, who probably kept a variety of income streams going to make ends meet — dairying, perhaps an egg business, selling some beef or pork, maple sugaring in early spring, cutting firewood in fall, raising a few Christmas trees or cutting balsam tips for wreath-makers — Hale and McCurdy have nimbly switch gears several times since arriving in Vermont. When his cut-stems business was going strong, Hale considered buying an additional property to house 10 or so seasonal workers, but news of a strange new virus made him hold back, which proved fortunate, as the market for event flowers completely collapsed during the pandemic. But while the market for cut sweet peas imploded, the market for Hale’s sweet pea seed increased.
Vermont’s climate is well-suited to sweet pea varieties and when Hale first observed that the 10 plants he was growing in a corner of a greenhouse were doing well, he increased their numbers to a thousand the following season and then to the current 15,000 plants. “They work here,” Hale says of the delicate blooms. Further, there is currently a worldwide shortage of sweet pea seeds. Anyone driving through the coastal valleys of Central California before about 1980 would have seen field upon field of colorful blooms at the peak of the sweet pea season. The fields, which were actively cultivated for almost a century, are now no longer. Fashions changed, and the cost of growing flowers in California became prohibitive. In addition, land values escalated rapidly in the face of development pressures. Climate change has also contributed to change in the sweet pea seed market as former growing regions like New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest become too hot. There have been four or five years of bad harvests, Hale says. Fortunately, for the genus as a whole, sweet pea seeds can remain viable for 40 years. Some growers have a stock of precious seed in freezers and can bring them out and still plant them successfully.
The 200 sweet pea varieties in Ardelia Farm’s greenhouses vary widely. Some are very ruffled Spencer types, others bi-colored or faintly striped. Their tones range from white and palest pastels to deep burgundy and royal blue. Hale has hybridized some varieties, and the description of the difficulty of pollinating sweet peas makes one marvel that there are thousands of varieties in the world. Sweet peas are self-pollinating: they pollinate before the blossoms even open. Thus, bees won’t cross-pollinate a variety and its seeds will breed true. So to hybridize, Hale has to open a flower up and pollinate by hand, then plant the second generation. It’s best, he says, if you have an an idea of what you’re breeding for — longs stems, a particular color, or ruffled bloom. It would be nice, he says, to breed for heat tolerance, but no existing variety has a heat-tolerant gene. Hale offered a stem of one of his yet-unnamed hybrids, a white ruffled bloom with fine, deep-purple streaks and a delicate outlining of the purple around the edge of each petal. Hale will be updating his inventory after the October harvest, and other new varieties of seed will be offered.
On the day of our visit it was hot and humid, although Hale did comment darkly about seeing frost in three weeks. Inside the greenhouses the pods of peas were drying and turning brown and mesh gathering bags hung at the end of the rows in anticipation of the harvest. There’s a lot of labor involved in the harvesting, all of it done by hand by Hale and two part-time employees. As bags fill, they are transferred to a drying room and later the pods are hand-cleaned and packed for shipping. In the seed section of the farm’s website, along with photographs of the individual sweet pea types, Hale has highly detailed instructions on how to successfully raise sweet peas from seed, and they may surprise you. People always want to treat sweet peas as if they’re tomatoes, Hale says, keeping them warm and cozy, but they like it cool, and full natural light is best.
Heading back through the farmyard we stopped to look in at the party barn, which until recently was shared with livestock. In the rustic, airy space with its long refectory-style tables, Hale and McCurdy currently host a monthly Brunch and Blooms event. McCurdy does the all-you-can-eat brunch buffet, using produce, eggs, and meat from their own and neighboring farms. To work off the food, guests are invited to take a self-guided tour around the farm before returning to the barn, where they can create their own floral arrangement to take home. Fabulous organic food and beautiful bouquets, found in the peaceful Vermont countryside — small wonder Brunch and Blooms is sold out for this season, but there’s next year to look forward to.
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