HOTHOUSE  Episode 005: Amaranth to Zinnias with Farmer-Florist Gretchen O’Neil

© Leah Churner, 2018

Transcript 6/15/18

Gretchen: I have often told people that you can go to Vegas with all of your money and gamble or you can be a farmer. It really is crapshoot.


Gretchen: I guess what it comes down to is when things go well, you celebrate it really hard. You just really celebrate it and you relish in that because inevitably there's going to be something that goes wrong. It's just the nature of farming.

Leah: This is Hothouse, a podcast about design, ecology, and the way we garden now. I’m Leah Churner, a landscape designer in Austin, Texas. My guest is farmer- florist-entrepreneur, Gretchen O’Neil. 

Gretchen: It’s flowers all day, every day. In my universe. 

Leah: She started her floral design studio, Petals, Ink. in Austin in 2009, 

Gretchen: P-E T-A-L-S-,- I-N-K-.  

Leah: And more recently she moved out to Manor, Texas and began growing her own flowers at a homestead she named Grassdale. 

Gretchen: In 2015, I purchased seven acres in Manor, which is about 18 miles Northeast of Austin. We literally dug in, and started our flower farm. We supply to local wholesalers around town and local florists, we sell mixed bouquets at various locations. And yeah, it’s just flowers. Flowers all the time. 

[end music]

Leah: I found out about Gretchen last year at the BossbabesATX CraftHer Market, where the Petals, Ink flower truck was making its debut.   

Gretchen: The whole idea of the truck was, when we started the farm, we knew that we wanted to grow as many flowers as humanly possible, and then of course we needed to find a home for them. You know, the wholesale houses in town, the florists in town, everybody’s been so supportive and we’re so grateful for that, but we STILL have more flowers!  We thought, "We're in Austin. This is a fun, hip city. Look at all the food trucks. How fun would it be to have a flower truck that was slinging flowers instead of tacos?"  

Leah: This summer the truck is parked at the Tasty Spoon, a gelato place at South 1st and Elizabeth Street.  

Gretchen: Thursday, Friday, Saturday from 4:00 to 9:00 PM. So, it's kind of like a date night hours more so than farmer market hours. 

Leah: On this episode, we’re going to hear about the how Gretchen and her all- woman team are building a community around the flower farm. We’ll get some ideas for growing cut flowers at home, and we’ll stop by the farm. 

[birds chirping, outdoor noises. Lyda giving volunteers planting instructions] 

Leah: I’m someone who used to not buy flowers at all, and if I did, I’d buy them from the grocery store. But then I became a big Amy Stewart fan and read her 2007 book Flower Confidential. This books explores the “global floral-industrial complex” and some of the “seedier” aspects of the flower industry, particularly the exploitative and dangerous labor conditions that have been created in central and South America as a result of the American demand for cheap flowers. 

Stewart writes, 

“Do I really want that cheap bouquet of roses if I know it’s been sprayed with pesticides that are illegal in the United States and that were applied by a minimum-wage earning Ecuadorian worker in an ill-fitting gas mask?  At the grocery store, I can buy organic wine, fair-trade chocolate, and hormone free milk from a local creamery. But the flowers in the buckets by the cash register are unlabeled, unmarked, entirely undifferentiated. There’s no basis on which to compare and choose, except for price.”

And think about the carbon footprint for a box of roses from a farm in rural Ecuador. The flower is cut, then it travels to the airport in Quito, then it’s flown to Miami, where it is fumigated to pass customs inspection, then driven to a Miami distribution center, then does it get trucked across the country to a wholesaler or another distribution center, and only then does it reach a retail location, which is, for most of us, the grocery store.  

So…should we not buy flowers at the grocery store? 

Gretchen: I would encourage people to go to their local grocery store and put up a big stink that the grocery store is not carrying local product. I mean, and some do. Central Market and Whole Foods and also Wheatsville. You can get local flowers in those places. Perhaps a few others. I mean, it's like with anything else. You can go to Taco Bell or you can go to Torchy's Tacos. You know, you can go to Home Depot to get your plants or you can go out to the Natural Gardener. 

I think that Austin in particular has such a strong community and is so supportive of small businesses. If I were still in Vermont, I would not have this floral-preneur thing going on I don't think. Part of it is because we are in Austin and Austin embraces entrepreneurship and is really into new ideas and cool things. So, supporting us at this point in the game it's like it's not just me. I employ four people. I want to be the best employer that I can. In order to do that I need high sales so that I can give people paid vacation and health insurance and all of these things that are really important to good quality of life.

So, when people are buying our flowers or other small farmers, it really does matter. It super, duper matters and flowers ... The cost of our bouquet, our small mixed bouquet off the truck is $15. And it's like you gotta sell a lot of those bouquets intend it to make a living at it. You know? We do it because we love it, but it is hard work. It is super hard work. We love all the joy that it brings. We just hope that we can get our flowers to as many people as possible. 

I do think for sure, our flowers and other local flowers definitely last longer. I guess I'm not even entirely sure what a ten stem mixed bouquet from ... I don't know. I probably shouldn't call out a specific grocery store in town. But from your giant local chain. I don't know how much it costs, but-

Leah: Might be all the way from Ecuador or-

Gretchen: Right. It comes so far. There are for sure pesticides and all kinds of chemicals that are illegal in the US, but are not illegal in other countries that are being used on the flowers. So, if you are someone that values organic food and locally grown food and that kind of thing, I mean, we are your flower people for sure. I definitely think that there's value in the environmental aspect and the sustainability aspect and then of course just the value of the product itself. Even if you are paying two or three dollars more for our bouquet, our bouquet is gonna give you longer enjoyment. It's gonna last longer. It's gonna be more unique. It's gonna be changing with the seasons and really reflect Texas too. 

Leah: The road to Grassdale farm was a bit of a winding route for Gretchen. 

Gretchen: I was a late bloomer. 

Leah: After college she joined the AmeriCorps and Triple C Program.

Gretchen: Oh, it was so great! I was based out of Denver, CO., and every two months I was sent on a new service project. It was anything form trail work down in Big Bend National Park, I believe that was the first time I had ever been to Texas, back in 2001. We helped eradicate invasive species in Montana, I worked in inner-city Detroit tutoring kids with reading disabilities…What I liked about it was, we were in a new place geographically every two months and working with a new set of folks and we were meeting so many great interesting people. I was traveling to Iowa and all over the place. Places you’d never go on your own, really. So I got to see a lot of middle America  and I made friend that I am still friends with to this day. 

Leah: She worked at a flower farm in Vermont, she moved to Austin, she became a mom, she worked in Montessouri schools, and eventually, she decided to train as a florist in Portland at the Floral Design Institute. But growing flowers in Texas involved a major learning curve. 

Gretchen: For me, moving down here from New England it was literally like learning a new language. I had encountered sweet peas for the first time in Vermont. They were grown in the very early spring and bloomed through summer. You would never ever plant sweet pea seeds in the fall in Vermont. I think when I moved down here and started doing a little research and tons of trial and error, I realized that you can grow quite a lot here. It's just learning when and learning how to manage it. 

As far as the design aspect goes and doing wedding and doing events, dealing with a live product is so stressful. We definitely still import flowers for those events because as you know we can't grow fabulous peonies or lilac or forsythia or different things here in Texas. So, all the brides would like the peonies and the garden roses and the things that we can't grow. So, we do incorporate imported flowers and you know, typically we like to use our flowers because they're unique varieties and the vase life is great and we don't have to worry about them dying before the event. It's not always the case with imported flowers and some flowers are just naturally more delicate than others. 

Gretchen: So, you spend the whole week talking to them and primping them and grooming them. Sometimes stuff arrives and it's damaged or it arrives and it's the wrong color or it doesn't arrive at all. You know? There's all kinds of complications and challenges. We'll say challenges that arise when you're dealing with a live product. 

Leah: Which is kind of a funny argument for starting a farm — that it’s somehow less stressful to grow your own produce rather than buy it from somewhere else, but if you think about it in terms of the local-food movement, it makes sense. 

In the past decade or so, there has a parallel movement of farmer-florists across the United States. It’s this dream of vertical integration that a lot of people — and particularly women — seem to be making work. The most famous farmer- florist in the country is probably Erin Benzakein of Florette Farms in Washington state. Floret actually started a seed company to sell small batches of cut-flower varieties  to home gardeners, and these are seeds that were previously only available in huge quantities to commercial growers in the floral industry.  

Gretchen attended an early Floret workshop with Benzakein at Floret farms. Now she she’s teaching workshops of her own. I went to Gretchen’s “field-to-vase” workshop last October. It was a small group, everybody got to go out into the field and harvest flowers, and then we learned how to arrange the flowers and put together a table centerpiece that we got to take home. 

Seeing the operation at Flor-ette was inspired her to start her own cutting garden at her house in south Austin. Now, at Grassdale, she teaches workshops of her own. And I’ve done some cut-flower gardening, so I kind of thought I knew what I was doing until l got there and saw the farm and was like, Whoa. Turns out I knew hardly anything about cut flowers. So I’ve been back a few times to volunteer and learn more. 

I went out the the farm last Saturday, 

[Car sounds]

Leah: On a google map this area outside Manor is labeled New Sw eden, Texas, a farming community established in the 1870s, which is unincorporated.

[Radio announcer in car: “We head toward a high of 100 today. Last month was the hottest May on record in Austin history…”]

[Farm sounds] 

Leah: The farmhouse at Grassdale, a folk Victorian with a spindlewood ornamentation, dates back to the 1890s.  

In the house, Gretchen is putting the finishing touches on bouquets and centerpieces for two separate weddings she’s designing today. Every countertop and most of the floor space is jammed with flowers — scabiosa, lisianthus, eucalyptus, flowers I don’t know the name of…   

Gretchen: We’re still—the farm component especially—is still so new. It will be three years mid June this year that we've even been out there. In that time, we have put up two greenhouses. I think we're at about a quarter of an acre of production, which really is a small amount. I mean lots of small growers cultivate on two acres and I can't even imagine. I can't even imagine. We have a quarter of an acre in production and we have so many flowers. It's so much to manage and maintain and keep healthy and keep alive and all of that. 

Leah: Petals, Ink has an all women-staff. When I came out, Lyda, the farm manager, was in one of the outdoor fields instructing some volunteers on planting marigold seeds. 

Leah: [Talking to Lyda] And what’s this variety called?

Lyda: This is Tessie Gold. They’re cute, they’re like little button blooms. 

Gretchen: I’m so thankful and grateful and happy for all of the woman that have magically materialized in my life to help me and be my support team. I definitely could not be doing this by myself.  

Leah: Occasionally they open the farm on Saturdays to volunteers, who also tend to be mostly women. 

Gretchen: Folks come out and the weed and they help plant things or harvest things. All kinds of tasks and so much gets done. It's always just so fun to have so many people together that are super into plants and asking questions and learning different things and swapping information. That's my favorite. It feels like we’re on the verge of building a lot of community type stuff, so that feels good. 

[Footsteps…outdoor sounds…Sound of wind whipping greenhouse plastic] 

Leah: In a greenhouse I find another woman who works on the farm, Sam Eberhardt, who is currently in the process of starting her own fruit tree and flower farm, Cassiopea, with her husband, 45 minutes south of Grassdale. 

Leah: [To Sam] It’s nice being in a place — it must be nice working in a place that’s all women. 

Sam: There’s great energy here. And this is typically such a male- dominated field. It’s manual labor. I’m moving compost. I’m shoveling, I’m raking. It’s really physically tiring, but we’re all women and we’re getting it done, and I love it. It’s very empowering. 

[Outdoor sounds]

Gretchen: We trial a lot of new varieties every year and because our ultimate goal is passing the flowers on to another person to enjoy or providing them for a wedding or event or something like that, we have basically criteria that the plant has to reach in order for us to say, "Yes, you're a keeper." It's essentially can it handle the climate, whether that's cold or heat.

So, one new crop that we trialled this year were bells of Ireland. They were planted in the fall and they're blooming now and they're amazing. They were champs in the cold. They did not bat an eye at ... I mean, there were times we were like, "Oops, forgot to cover the bells of Ireland," and it was like 28 degrees and they didn't bat an eye and they're huge and they're fluffy and they're also different than what you see in the store.

Yeah, they're kind of funky looking. Usually when you get them from the wholesale house, it's just a tall flower head and there really aren't any leaves on it, but ours, they're like leafy and they're bushier. So, they're kind of different than what you get at the market. They have a scent, that's another huge component that we like. A lot of varieties that we grow have scent. Things you see in the market like ranunculus for example, did you know that they smell because they do. The ones that you get at the store, they don't. So, when things are super fresh there are different qualities and characteristics about them that are super desirable in floral design that you don't get with the imported flowers. 

If something is pretty and it's gorgeous, but it only lasts two days then it doesn't really have a value for us. We typically like to send things out into the world that at least have a five or six day vase life. When we find something for example like the bells of Ireland, we've been trialing vase life in those and they look great for ten days. That's a super long time and that's a great value for a customer. Folks go to a grocery store, wherever, and pick up a bunch of flowers and a lot of the times unless you're purchasing something like baby's breath or carnations which have long vase life, the flowers don't last long. So, for us when we find something that does well in our climate and has a long vase life, bonus points if it's super productive.

So, when things are really, really productive that's also of course we love that because then you can get more stems and send them out into the world and use them and give them to neighbors. If you can find a flower that behaves like a zucchini, folks tend to leave zucchini on each other's doorsteps in the summer. If we can find a flower variety which produces like zucchini then we're very happy.  

Leah: What would produce like a zucchini for the home gardener? 

Gretchen: So, the easiest flowers that don't require covering or a greenhouse or anything like that are of course, zinnias and there are several different varieties that you can grow so that even if you're only growing zinnias in your garden, you can grow several that have a different look or a different size or a different color. The largest headed zinnia is called a Benary Giant zinnia. Those produce pretty big blooms. They come in all kinds of colors. Then there's a series called the Oklahoma series and those, we like to call those button zinnias. They've got a much smaller head, but they're adorable. They're very prolific and those also come in a bunch of different colors. 

Then there's some kind of novelty varieties, which as a cut flower farm, we've tried them and they're ... I don't know. They just either not productive enough or just not reliable in their stem length and that kind of thing, but in your cut flower garden would be fun. There are cactus varieties, which kind of have spiky petals, kind of like little shaggy heads on them, I guess. Those are fun. There's the Persian carpet zinnias which are kind of like a bushier, shorter zinnia, but they have really fantastic colors and patterns on them that are really unique, especially in fall. What else? 

There's one called, I believe it's like Macarena and it's like a hot pink with some splashes of white on the tips. There's another one called Zowie zinnia, which is like a bright orange within a darker orange on the tips. So, anyway, the world of zinnias is like endless. They do really well here. They love the heat. They're a flower that benefit from being cut a lot and cut pretty hard meaning if your flowers come up, don't be shy about cutting deep into the plant to give yourself a long stem. You'll want to cut it deep and cut it kind of at a notch. Once you cut it there, it will start to put out new growth and give you more blooms. So, the zinnias are an example of a cut and come again variety. So, they love to be cut. The more you cut them, the more they'll give you. So, that's nice. 

Leah: That's a good example of one thing I didn't know until I started gardening. I didn't know there are certain flowers that actually, or certain plants that actually benefit from deadheading or being cut. Because some people think, "If I buy a cut flower, it's a dead flower or I've killed that plant." Actually, no. It's gonna force it to produce more the more you cut.

Gretchen: Here's the thing about plants in general and flowers especially. The plant's whole mission in life is to put out a seed. So, if you are cutting the blooms, the plant is gonna say, "Oh, there goes my opportunity to procreate. I better put out another flower." So, the more you cut them, the more they are going to crank out flowers because once you cut it, it signals to the plant that it has not achieved its goal of putting out a seed. So, if you're not cutting your flowers, it works the opposite way as well. If you're not cutting your flowers and it goes to seed, the plant's gonna say, "Well, my job here is done." So, it's not gonna put out any more blooms for you. So, in most cases, you want to be cutting. If you're growing varieties for a cutting garden, they absolutely benefit from being cut. So does you kitchen table.

Leah: It’s the same logic behind vegetable gardening. You want to keep harvesting your basil or whatever to keep it from going to seed so it will keep growing.

Gretchen: Yeah.

Leah: Otherwise, it will bolt and it will go to seed and then you'll have to wait until next year.

Gretchen: Yeah, it's funny. We were joking this week. It's like, "Oh man. We have been working so hard." We're like, "But damn, the plants, the plants have been working harder," because we've been cutting, cutting, cutting and they just keep cranking out the blooms. 

Leah: Looking at Erin Benzakein’s book, Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden, here’s what she says about growing zinnias: 

“The secret to growing long-stemmed zinnias is pinching. When plants are about 18 inches tall, snip out the center flower bud. This will encourage plants to develop branches low on the plant and ultimately produce larger stems. If you are not regularly harvesting your zinnias, be sure to deadhead any spent blooms (just, snip off the old flowers)  to help direct the plant’s energy into producing new flowers.”

Gretchen: I would say, if folks are interested in doing a cut garden here, you can get some super basic drip irrigation from Home Depot. Mulch is awesome and does wonders, especially in the summer, and if you’re growing on as small scale. Other varieties that love the heat would be amaranthus, which is basically like a weed here, and also celosia. There’s so many types of celosia. Some people know coxcomb, some people know if as the velvet brain-flower, there’s just so many different types and colors. It loves the heat, it has epic vase life, and it can also be dried. So it has many uses. Gomphrena is another one, super prolific and loves the heat, and doesn’t need a lot of water. And sunflowers, of course. There are a million different varieties that you can grow. There’s all kinds of versions of yellow and then there’s also a lot of great chocolate ones, and burgundy…many different looks to the sunflowers. 

We have a very thick clay soil at our farm. It's Texas blackland prairie and it's a blessing and a curse. In the spring if we get lots and lots of rain, a lot of the plants are not happy because they don't like to have their feet wet. But in the summer when it's a million degrees and we use drip irrigation. So, everything is being watered right at its roots. The clay soil holds on to the moisture. So, in the summer, our zinnias and marigolds, and celosia, amaranths, everything is thrilled because they love the heat, but they're still able to get the hydration that they need to. We love it because it's just more sustainable and environmentally friendly because we're not having to use as much water because of the clay soil.

Leah: It occurs to me that one of the differences between a farmer and a gardener is that for the most part, gardeners are overwhelmingly concerned with perennials, while farmers are all about the annuals. And as a result, our “seasons” are different. Perennial gardeners in Texas — so really people dealing with ornamental, or landscape plants in general — tend to settle in for a period of dormancy all summer. You may go out and water a lot but you can’t really plant perennials because it’s just too hot for them to get established. But there is no such respite on the farm. You can keep growing annuals in our heat.  Because annuals life fast and die young. 

Gretchen: We tell folks that our growing season typically runs from mid-February until mid- November. Most of the plants that we grow will produce for four to six weeks, eight weeks if we're really lucky. So, it's always special. Whatever is blooming we're like, "This is the most special thing," because we only have it for a short period of time. 

Our main goal overall is not to have any kind of gap in production. So even though we have loads of blooms right now, we also have tons of stuff in the field that’s green and growing and will be blooming in a month or so. 

Leah: One of the tricks to make sure you get continual production is through succession planting. 

Gretchen: There are certain flowers that have just kind of a smaller window of bloom time. You can succession plant it, meaning you can do several plantings throughout a season and get a continuous supply of really fresh, beautiful blooms. 

[Outdoor sounds]

Leah: [To Lyda] What else would be good to plant from seed now?  

Lyda: Right now? Ok, so what we’re planting right now: you could be planting zinnias, marigolds, sunflowers, celosia, amaranthus, gomphrena…

Leah: I just planted some sunflowers and zinnias this week and I didn’t know if it was too late.  

Lyda: Oh, no. Zinnias you can keep planting. We’ll be succession planting those for the next two months even. 

Leah: And then do you stop planting at some point? 

Lyda: I would say August. For example … I’m trying to remember… we planted them later in the summer, like July August and they flowered for us but you could tell once the fall light started changing, they were a little more petit and the necks were a little more fragile. We had zinnias all the way until almost Thanksgiving. But their peak, obviously is if you plant them up through mid July. They come on really fast. 

Katie: They can stand the heat, too. I’ve noticed they can stand the heat better than other flowers. 

Lyda: Yeah. Ours are in full sun, no shade ever, and they kick butt. They require a little more water that way but not very much. We’re just doing this drip irrigation directly on the source. 

Leah: Are there other flowers you grow, like bulbs, that are not grown from seed? 

Gretchen: Yes. As far as bulbs, we grow a lot of narcissus. So, daffodil family type florals. We love them. There are so many different kinds. We're definitely still learning what will perennialize here. We grew a lot of new varieties last year and kind of only one of them really came back. The most tried and true is Erlicheer for us. That's something that will perennialize in Texas and it will come back year after year and give you gorgeous fragrant blooms. 

We tried tulips this year. It was a horribly failed experiment. There were a lot of complications that went into the project. Our order got lost and then they arrived and there was some damage on the bulbs and they arrived late and then maybe we didn't plant them deep enough. All these things. Anyway. The tulips were a disaster, but we may try again next year. 

So, we do bulbs. We do corms. We do seeds and then the third type of plantings that we do are plugs, which basically means we purchase baby plants from a nursery. They get shipped to us from all over. I had kind of resisted that route for a really long time. I think part of me was like, "I'm not a real farmer if I'm not starting my own seeds and doing all this." But what it came down to was, I had attempted to germinate Icelandic poppies for myself literally for years. I would get out sell packs and seed hundreds and end up with three plants because they're notorious for having terrible germination. 

So, finally I was like, "I'm gonna buy plugs. I'm gonna see what that's all about." So, lo and behold on our doorstep arrives trays of perfectly uniform, perfectly green, beautiful, healthy ready to put in the ground plants. So, we did that and didn't look back. We were like, "What else can we do in plugs?" Because it was amazing. For us too, we're such a tiny farm and we're still developing all of the infrastructure at Grassdale and we don't have a propagation house. We have a folding table set up under a tree that we put all of our seeds on. We're also a very tiny team. 

So, when you look into the time that it takes to seed something and then care for it and make sure it doesn't die for like eight weeks before you can put it in the ground, sometimes it just makes more sense for us to purchase plugs. So, we do that for ... What did we do this year? We did foxglove, poppies, snapdragons, the bells of Ireland were plugs. Maybe that's about it for plugs. But yeah, we love it now. We're like, "Plugs. Plugs all day." 

Leah: Yeah, because it's labor intensive to grow stuff from seed that doesn't like to be direct sown. 

Gretchen: Right. Yeah. Even with the direct sow, that's one great thing about the clay soil in the summer is because it holds the moisture, it will keep the soil moist. In the summer, we can get zinnias to germinate literally overnight or in two days. It's super quick. But when you direct seed it's like you're competing with the weeds. So, depending on ... Zinnias are usually pretty okay and we do direct seed them because they grow so quickly they'll out compete the weeds. 

We have a very thick clay soil at our farm. It's Texas blackland prairie and it's a blessing and a curse. In the spring if we get lots and lots of rain, a lot of the plants are not happy because they don't like to have their feet wet. But in the summer when it's a million degrees and we use drip irrigation. So, everything is being watered right at its roots. The clay soil holds on to the moisture. So, in the summer, our zinnias and marigolds, and celosia, amaranths, everything is thrilled because they love the heat, but they're still able to get the hydration that they need to. We love it because it's just more sustainable and environmentally friendly because we're not having to use as much water because of the clay soil.

As far as pests go, this year has, knock on wood, been pretty good. We got on a regular schedule with using a combination of fertilizers and neem oil. So, we'll do seafood and fish emulsion and neem oil and we are spraying that. We are aiming for once a week, but sometimes it was twice a week and we'll spray that on the anemones and the ranunculus and those kinds of things. We have seen a dramatic drop in our aphid population this year. So, I think that's because of the neem oil. 

Our other biggest pest is called a thrip. We have still not figured out the magic to conquering the thrips. Last year we tried everything from beneficial nematodes to predatory mites to Jack's Dead Bug spray, all kinds of things. We still have them. So, we're still trying to figure that out.

Yeah. And we grow things ... Like our spacing is pretty tight. So, we do kind of like an intensive farming approach. So, we try and utilize every square inch of space so that we can get as many blooms as possible. A lot of the plants that we grow benefit from being close together. It kind of helps them with their stem length and makes them more productive. But at the same time, there's less airflow. So, I guess it's sort of finding that balance between the productivity and the health of the plant.

Leah: Back in the greenhouse with Sam… 

Leah: [To Sam] What are you guys doing here? 

Sam: We are planting gomphrena. The variety is “audrey white” seedlings. Are you familiar with gomphrena? 

Leah: Yeah, I have planted it from seed, the “mardi gras” one. It’s one you find in nurseries — but you know ,the varieties for landscape flowers are all different than the varieties for cut flowers. So I’m learning this whole new plant palate just by being out here. It’s cool. 

Sam: Something I have discovered since being out here is, What do I call the plant? I know them by their common name, I know them by their scientific name, which is typically the genus, and then I know plants by their floral industry name. And so sometimes I don’t know what to call a plant. 

Leah: So what is the floral industry name? Because that’s the one I don’t know. 

Sam: This just goes by gomphrena

Leah: It turns out in this case, the latin name and the floral industry name is the same: gomphrena. But the common name is sometimes “globe amaranth,” which is very confusing because it’s not an amaranth. And, there is another flower called an amaranth, which they are growing at Grassdale. 

Leah: [To Sam] And you guys are planting amaranth too. So is that like the big, droopy amaranth, or a different one? 

Sam: Yes. We’re planting two different kinds. Some are more plume-like, and have a spike of color, and some the long strands of seeds that you might see in some of our more native amaranths. Like the pesky pigweed you see around town, that’s an amaranth. That’s kind of the problem with common names though. What I call pigweed may not be what others call pigweed. Or vice-versa. 

Leah: [To Gretchen] We’ve talked a little bit about our climate, but I’m wondering, how does climate change affect your thinking? 

Gretchen: I have often told people that you can go to Vegas with all of your money and gamble or you can be a farmer. It really is crapshoot. It really is. Every year between weather and pests and plant performance and everything. Luckily, it seems to be that on years when certain crops aren't doing well, there are others that are completely shining. 

But with the weather, It's just a roller coaster in Texas even day to day. I mean, you know in the summer it's just gonna be hot as hell. Fall and spring are definitely less predictable as far as rain and another weather component we deal with out in the prairie is wind. We get crazy wind. We use netting on certain crops to kind of help keep them upright. 

Managing the greenhouse whether you're rolling up or rolling down the sidewalls sometimes feels like a full-time job. Yeah. We have wind. 

But for us I would say the trickiest part is the rain and when we have tons and tons of rain. Having less rain for us is less of a problem because we can control that. We've got clay soil. We've got drip irrigation and we feel good about being able to manage that. If we have too much rain, the greenhouses can still be managed because they are covered, but things in the field are just at the mercy of the weather. 

But the very first year, our very first year we lost a lot of ranunculus and anemones in the greenhouse even. There was so much rain that the water was being, you know, the soil was just sucking it in from the sides. So, the soil was so saturated and then we got a couple of 90 degree days and it just fried the plants. They were not happy. So, it's hard. It's a gamble. It is a gamble. You try to ... I guess what it comes down to is when things go well, you celebrate it really hard. You just really celebrate it and you relish in that because inevitably there's going to be something that goes wrong. It's just the nature of farming.

[Birds, Lyda talking to volunteers]

Leah: [To Lyda] How do you decide what to plant in the greenhouse during the warm months? Like what goes in the field versus the greenhouse? 

Lyda: Hah! Definitely it’s an experiment. For sure. We’re trying zinnias in the greenhouse for the first time, and they’re going pretty well. We’re trying sunflowers in the greenhouse. Last year they got beat up by the wind, so we’re going to see how they do in the greenhouse. But really, things that can take a ton of heat, we’re going to try it out. So, celosia, the lisianthus, stuff like that. Last year we didn’t have a lot of space in the greenhouse because we only had the one, and now we have two, so we’re definitely trying some things that we haven’t done before. So…we’ll see how it goes! 

I use Instagram as my memory thing. I go back and I’m like, “What was I growing?” I’m just really bad at that. Farmers should be like, [old man farmer voice] “I know the weather, and I know…” and it’s just not great. [laughs.] And you know, honestly, the flowers, this is a new thing for me. I come from a more native plants background, so I’m learning. Even Gretchen, she’s been doing this a long time and we’re always learning. This is never a set thing. Because nature changes the game on you, too. 

[Wind in the grasses]

Gretchen: In the front pasture there's about three acres which is all native wildflowers. We mow a huge circle in the center and then from the circle we mow pathways five or six feet wide out in all directions so that you can walk in it and you know. We have red ants. We could have snakes. We're in Texas. There's all kinds of nature that's not so great. So, we do a little bit of landscape stuff like that so you can experience the nature, but safely.

Leah: When I came out and visited to take your workshop, I could really tell that this was a healthy ecosystem because there were so many butterflies and there were so many monarchs and it was such a treat to see.

Gretchen: Yeah, think that's one of the things that I love the most about it and I always have to ... I mean, honestly. I have to remind myself sometimes because I love what I do and I'm surrounded by so much beauty, but it is on some days just like any other job and I am stressed out and I am running around and I am behind on my to do list and I am drowning in all the things that have to happen and I literally have to stop myself and look around because I am surrounded by beauty all the time. I am not in a cubicle. I'm not in some factory. I might be hustling like I'm in a factory sometimes cranking out bouquets. But I am in such a beautiful place. 

I think one of the most valuable things for me personally since being at the farm is the sense of seasons. So, coming from New England, I grew up primarily in Connecticut and spent lots of time on Cape Cod and Vermont and I went to college in New Hampshire, all of these places that have very distinct seasons. When we moved to Texas that you don't have that. There is no foliage in the fall. There is no snow in the winter. There's not like stark contrasts. 

When I noticed when we moved out to the farm, it very much felt like there were seasons. Definitely within what we were growing, but also in the natural landscape. So, for example in the spring there's fruit trees on the farm. So, we have peaches and we have asparagus. Then rolling into summer ... We have all the flowering trees. We have a fringe tree, which I had never seen before which was there when I got there and it's amazing. The redbuds and the rose bushes and all of the wildflowers in the spring. There are just so many things that mark that season and then moving into the summer we have fig trees. 

So, we have figs. Then there is of course, all of our summer flowers and there's also in summer it's basically where we are it's primarily corn and hay fields. So, in the summer we're surrounded by all this corn and then we're surrounded by hay fields. Then at the end of the summer, the farmers cut the hay and bale the hay and it's like haying season is happening. Then the fall rolls around and we do have some trees that show a little bit of color. Then of course, we have all of our fall flowers. The corn is all cut and that all comes down.

So, there are just a lot natural cues and things around us that make me feel like I live somewhere where there are seasons which feels pretty magical because I'm still in Texas. I'm still in the same place, but I feel like I live on this little microcosm of seasonality.

Leah: It is and once you start really relying on the garden and relying on the farm or the land, you do really start to connect to the seasons in a different way.

Gretchen: Honestly too, I always tell people that the light on the prairie is a fifth season. It is. I don't know if it's because there's so much open space and there's not a lot to break the light, but everyday if it's clear we have an amazing sunset, an amazing sunrise. It's just the most beautiful golden light. It's its own character on the farm.


Leah: Thanks for listening to Hothouse. This is the fifth episode and I’m trying some new things and learning some new recording and editing tricks, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I play around with the format. And feel free to shoot me an email if you have any feedback or questions  

Please sign up for the Hothouse Newsletter by going to and clicking “email list.” I am trying to communicate via the newsletter instead of Facebook because I’m sick and tired of Facebook. But I am still on Instagram @hothousepodcast and @deltadawngardens 

What about getting in touch with Petals Ink? Gretchen’s instagram is amazing - @grassdaleatx is the website where you can learn more about the truck, the studio, and workshops. And if you’d like to volunteer, send an email to Lyda

Our music comes from Austin’s own Moonsicles. That’s

Our engineer is Mike Moody at Permanent RCRD.

Next time on Hothouse, LaJuan Tucker, a park ranger with Austin Parks and Wildlife. We are going to talk about natural history and the politics of place. 

LaJuan: Natural history is often thought of as separate from human history. But but because it’s our gaze that we’re looking at natural history from, I don’t think that is ever really possible, from our perspective. 

Leah: LaJuan’s going to tell us about what she does all day as a park ranger and we’ll get into butterflies, birds, and gardening for wildlife. 

LaJuan: Through the work of citizens, through partners like the National Wildlife Federation, the idea of gardening for wildlife came on the tongues and on the minds of everybody. Like, “What a minute, the way I treat a lawn is important to the bigger whole?” And I think that’s an example of how natural history, human history, and psychology all mix together. 

Leah: You don’t want to miss it!