After leaving Longwood Gardens, I headed south into ice-free roads, but still a snow-covered landscape. The next morning I realized I had a damaged tire from that deep NJ pothole, and gave into a few hours of waiting while spending $400 to get what I later realized was a doubtful pair of new tires and a questionable alignment. Nonetheless, it was better than a blowout, so I headed into the "wilds" of Maryland to find Leon Carrier and his humble homestead.
I found Leon in his greenhouse out behind the small, typically suburban house with an atypical yard full of mulch piles, a 20 x 20 greenhouse, a delivery van, and various and sundry items needed to run a small nursery-type operation--not to mention the rows of woody perennials lined up and packed into various areas of his own and his neighbors' properties. While Leon and Carol own only about 2 acres, they have five under cultivation: neighbors let them use their lots, and they grow winterberries in the ditches along town roads! Leon and Carol don't have to pay taxes on all that land, the neighbors get to mow less, and Leon and Carol give them a few flowers during the year. Such a deal!
Leon's unassuming manner belies his confident, grounded, matter-of-fact nature. Even though he admits to making it up as he goes along, he has found his niche, he knows it well, and he makes a decent living for one who works the land. Leon is one of the few, the proud, the cut flower growers. Such folk appear few and far between, and their production is dwarfed by global corporate industrial systems, but Leon was the first of several I met on this trip that have worked out how to dance around the dinosaur's feet and have fun doing it. The fact that he lives 30 miles from Washington, DC helps make that possible: Gaithersburg lies in one of the USA's richest counties, a place where people feel unafraid to pay for flowers, and don't seem to know much about what they buy besides the fact that they like their look. Leon is happy to cut from crabapples and dogwoods that the previous owners planted--he'll cut from anything that sells to make his living. But he also works hard, or plays hard: he loves working in the dirt and working with plants, despite the long hours.
Leon and his wife Carol began growing flowers 22 year ago on this property. Mostly clay soils and former cow pasture, the soil is pretty good and they've made it better over the years with lots of organic matter additions. Leon loves his mulch--he adds copious amounts (up to 5 inches of wood chips per year) to control weeds and limit drought, as well as to add nutrients to his land and crops. The woodies in particular don't need much besides that--perhaps a light top dressing of nitrogen on some species. The woodies also take much less work than his few herbaceous perennial flowers--no digging, dividing, less weeding and fertilizing. You harvest and harvest, and cut them back hard every year or every three to five years, and you mulch, and that's about it. A few weed patrols for pokeweed, bindweed, and some unknown grape-like vine, but that is about it.
They grow lots of different Hydrangeas, lilacs, pussy willows, winterberries (10 different varieties), dogwoods, viburnums, rose hips, Symphoricarpos, snowberries, plum, cherry, crabapples, flowering quince, magnolias, forsythia, and more. Some of these they harvest for their flowers, some for their ornamental berries, some as backing greens for arrangements. Some of these Leon took from cuttings from cut flowers he bought from others, or from plants he saw that he liked in various places. They sell mainly to farmer's markets, but also some to florists in the area. They make a solid and decent income, but don't live high off the hog. And it can't be cheap to live in Montgomery County, Maryland, either!
Leon with a row of Hydrangeas and two rows of Ilex verticillata (winterberries). The Hydrangeas (first row from left) have been cut back hard during the dormant season to allow new sprouts for flower stem cutting in the coming year. The snowy blank space behind the Hydrangeas contains Ilex that have been cut to the ground for coppice regrowth this year, but will not flower and make berries til the end of the second growing season. The shrubby row of Ilex behind were planted 13 years ago, and he's been harvesting form them ever since. He's now converting that system to a coppice system with a minimum three-year rotation.
One of the many Hydrangea cultivars, close up, showing the "technique" of cutting back after the harvest season. Leon uses a power hedge trimmer, and just "gives them a haircut". This is not "horticulture" per se. Attention is not paid to careful pruning for the best health of plants (clearly!). But it seems to work, and has for many years. There may be room for improvement in technique--but this is certainly an expedient approach for a small-time operator with limited labor and time.
This flowering quince shrub currently has 60-80 bunches of stems on it that are harvestable come the growing season, and that Leon can sell for $10 per bunch: $600-$800 per shrub. That kind of $ yield is VERY hard to beat with any other product. AND this species suckers and spreads on its own. Too bad it isn't the quince that gives quality edible fruit, too!
These two rows of Ilex show the transformation to a coppice rotation they are currently undertaking. The row in back are again abotu 13 years old, and have been harvested many times without cutting back to the ground. They were planted at a 6-foot spacing, but sucker to fill in the row. The row in front used to be like the one in back, but was cut to the ground last winter, and have one year's regrowth on them. These stems will flower and make berries this coming year. Leon hopes each single stem seen there will branch multiple times to make a nice sprig with numerous berries on them for fall harvest. Five multiple-branching stems in one bunch can sell in his area for $15--$3 per stem. That front bed is about six feet wide by fifty feet long, and easily contains hundreds of single stems. It is only one of many beds of Ilex Leon and Carol have.
This plant is called Magnolia grandiflora 'D. D. Blanchard'. It's dark brown underside is its main selling point, along with its size, texture, and long-lasting color. The bunch in Leon's hand would sell for about $6. He estimates that the tree behind him yielded about 125 bunches last year--and will yield the same in the coming year and every year thereafter. It just keeps regrowing. He has five of these trees. Is this coppicing, pollarding, shredding, or a combo, or none of the above? Does it matter? It works, that's what matters.