Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a new monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.
We all have dreams. At least, we’ve all had them before. I’ve been working on letting myself dream again, like I did when I was a kid. What I want to see, what I want to become, what I want to leave behind. I truly believe that by dreaming something, you begin to set it into motion. I’m inspired to do this constantly by the people around me who dreamt up a life for themselves and then followed the path to get there, whether they were fully conscious of it or not at the time.
Meet Tom and Deni Peterson of Blue Door Garden. If you’ve ever been to the Abingdon Farmer’s Market, you’ll know them as the flower folks. With the most gorgeous bouquets I’ve ever seen, they manage to bring light into any room with the breathtaking plants they nurture and arrange. I wasn’t someone who bought flowers for myself until I met them. Maybe it’s the way you feel like you’ve known them for years when you meet them? Maybe it’s the way that each bouquet is unique, with detailed touches unseen at commercial stores or vendors. Every piece of art tells a story and gives off a vibe to its audience, floral arrangements included. And I know this sounds a little crazy, but these flowers actually change my mood when they’re in my room. For real. It’s wild.
From New England to Chicago to Virginia, these two have created a life of purpose, growing their own vegetables and bringing up two children with a connection to hard work and Mother Nature. Walking around their property, we stumbled upon apple trees surrounding a bonfire circle for celebrating summer nights and the beginning of seasons. I was immediately taken back to my childhood where my Dad would build bonfires and read poetry every summer and fall solstice. A place of peace is what they’ve created.
Through experimentation, patience, and positivity, Deni and Tom now offer a vast array of flowers and foliage for weddings, dinner events, bouquets, and everything in between! You can find them at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market every Tuesday and Saturday or find them on Facebook. Enjoy my Monday afternoon stroll and conversation below!
Sarah: So, how long have you guys lived here?
Deni: We moved to Abingdon in ’01, and then we moved in here (farmhouse) in ’03.
S: Where did you live before?
D: We were outside of Chicago.
S: Oh, nice! Did you both grow up there?
D: No, we’re from New England. I’m from Connecticut, Tom’s from Pittsburgh.
S: Oh, my gosh! I went to college there.
D: Nice. Yeah, we met in Rhode Island and then we moved to Vermont. That’s where our first kind of farming opportunity started, in Vermont. And then we just couldn’t make ends meet and we found a farming job outside of Chicago in an intentional community that was just being established. So, we took the farming position and created a farm. We had a hundred-member CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), we did three farmer’s markets and five restaurants inside of Chicago. We had fifteen acres of organic production going on.
S: Oh, my gosh. That’s amazing.
D: And that’s how I got into flower production, because I inherited a flower farm. It wasn’t all flowers—a small piece was the CSA, with flowers. But, I started doing designs for all the model homes that they were selling in this community. Floral design. So, I got to go in and do all the spec houses.
S: That’s not just arrangements, but flower art.
D: We used to sell at the Evanston Farmer’s Market, which is a huge market in Chicago, and right across from our booth was the flower lady. So, you know, as I’m selling vegetables all day I was just watching her. I thought, someday, I want to be you. When I came to Abingdon, that was kind of the goal.
S: And now you are!
D: Really, we weren’t intending to continue farming when we came here. We came here with the intention of downscaling, because farming is exhausting, and we had these two babies who were born in Chicago. We weren’t able to give them all our time, so we came here with the intention of downscaling, which we did—it’s only two acres now instead of fifteen. But then, through our work with ASD (Appalachian Sustainable Development), Virginia State University was looking for a flower trial when hoop houses were just starting to be built and it came with a grant. We had built our hoop house when we first came here…we took a loan out and built our first hoop. Then flower houses came as part of a grant, and so it was all flowers in those two hoops. We had to do that for a year and then we could do whatever we wanted with the hoops, but we decided to continue with flowers because they were more profitable than vegetables.
S: How did you learn about all the different kinds of flowers? Just experimentation?
D: That and—when I first started we didn’t have internet, you know, so everything was done through books. So, a lot of books and then trial and error, definitely. I mean moving to a totally new region, we had all new bugs, we had a new season cycle, we had different soils. You learn from other flower farmers who are around you. I met up with Linda Doan, who’s the owner of Aunt Willie’s Wildflowers, and she’s in Blountville. We met probably about ten years ago, and we’ve been sharing information and camaraderie of flower farming forever. She’s the person who really pushed me to “quit your day job”, you know, become a flower farmer and do weddings.
S: Hey Tom! How you doing?
S: Depending on the year, do you plant different flowers depending on what the weather is like that year? Or do you usually try to make the same ones work every year?
D: I mean, every year I try new flowers. I’m constantly trialing. This year we’re members of the Specialty Cut Flower Growing Association. So, I’m part of their trial team. I’m trialing a bunch of things for them, which is new. I think I have thirteen different varieties that I’m trialing. They give you the seeds and it’s like, see how they do! Take pictures of them, and tell us how they are. And some things worked great, yes, I’d plant them again, but some things failed miserably. But that’s what they want to know. So, our season starts in the hoop houses and outside with the spring bulbs. We plant lots of daffodils and tulips in the hoop houses, and it kind of just rolls through the seasons. The hoop houses kind of slow down and now we’re mostly out in the field. But planting’s already happening in the hoops again so that in the fall, when the frost comes, we’re still in production.
S: Of course, because flowers are wanted all year round.
D: But flowers have different seasons too. Daffodils and tulips are spring flowers, and your ranunculus. You know, the lisianthus starts coming in and it kind of goes out and then it comes back in. Sunflowers, we plant them every ten days on a cycle all summer long. I just seeded the last cycle! Some things take all season long to bloom. For instance, the flowers that you see out here. The purple leaves, that’s hibiscus, and that’s one of my trial flowers. Not really harvesting the flowers, I’m harvesting the leaves for foliage, but it takes until now even though I planted it back in May to be able to use it. Everything has its own kind of timing. There are also perennials and there are annuals. Then there are bi-annuals, so it takes two years before you get something from ‘em. But we try to trick things. So, we plant them now in order to get a flower next season. So, we try to trick them into thinking, oh I’ve been growing for two years, but not really. They’ve been growing for, what, six months.
S: How do you do that?
D: You start growing them now, so they’ve been seeded and we put them into the hoop houses and then they grow up until that frost period. So, they think they’re big guys, but really they’re little guys. Then they go through their winter period, fertilization and the light, and they come back…
T: A lot of guys before us have figured this out.
S: But it’s funny because I didn’t think you could trick a plant!
D: Yes, you can! For instance, the ranunculus and the anemones that we grow in here, we trick them into thinking they’re in Holland. Just because we put them in the hoop house and we coerce them to come in February and March. So, they’re like, oh yeah we’re in Holland, we’re gonna bloom. Our ranunculus and anemones, that season is done by May. It’s just way too hot. We went to Scotland in June and theirs were just starting because Scotland is so cold and cloudy.
S: How did you guys meet up in New England?
D: We met on a staircase.
S: Oh! Is this, like, at a museum?
D: It was an environmental education center.
S: That’s perfect.
T: We were teaching kids and I was hired on as a tour guide, leading kids on adventure trips. “Adventure” in Rhode Island.
D: The wilds of Rhode Island!
T: Deni was my boss, actually. We met the first, second night we were there.
D: Oh, definitely the first night.
T: Had a pretty quick connection.
S: That’s awesome. How old were you guys, if you don’t mind me asking?
T: Twenty five-ish.
D: Twenty-four, I guess I was twenty-four.
S: This is the question I always ask people, but is there something about the Abingdon community, specifically, that is different from other communities you’ve been in or that you really enjoy?
D: I mean, there’s a feel to Abingdon. When we first came here, we were interviewing for ASD and we walked down Main Street and we went to the Creeper Trail and it just had a really cool feel. You could feel the history there, the cobblestone streets. I felt like I was back in New England. I felt like I was, you know, on the coast of Massachusetts. It just felt very homey and very welcoming. I was like, I could definitely live here. And then the trees and the rivers. If you want to get away from it all, it’s a twenty-minute drive and you’re in the middle of nowhere. And the climate here is fantastic for a farmer. Nice short winters, but you still get the snow. You get all four seasons, but the spring is really long. The fall is really long. Summer’s aren’t too bad. It’s just a perfect little place for me.
T: It’s a laid back community. It’s very easy to do things here. Our kids grew up here, it was fun, they were able to walk all over the place. It felt safe.
S: Where are they now?
D: One’s at Tech and one’s at Radford.
S: Nice. So, is this the busiest time of year?
T: It’s a busy time. All times are busy. You’d think that it slows down in the winter time but there always seems to be something to do. Just less pressure then. Less you do in the winter, the more you have to do in the spring.
S: What do you think is most important when you’re building a piece?
D: It’s definitely color, shape, texture, size, the smell of things, how long things last. I love going to market and people come by and are like, hey build me something pretty! And I can kind of look at them and go, okay, this is what I think you’ll like.
T: She’s usually right.
D: It’s really fun when someone will look at their bouquet and be like, wow, that’s exactly what I wanted!
S: What’s your favorite part of doing this?
D: This is the first season that I’ve been a full-time flower farmer. I quit ASD at the end of October last year, so I’m still going through the first year of, gee, this is my job now! And I love not having to get in a car and drive to work. I walk outside and I’m here, I’m at work. Or I’m in my house and I’m at work. I like that. I’ve never been a big, hey, let’s drive around kind of person. I’ve always been like, let’s walk somewhere! So, I love that part. Keeps me at home and that’s what I wanted.
T: Being our own bosses, that’s nice. There’s a lot of stuff to get done and we know what needs to get done and we do it on our own schedule. Nobody to answer to. But with that comes the pressure to make sure that you’re doing enough to bring in enough income to keep the bills being paid. It’s a balance for sure, but the freedom of being able to be your own boss is really nice and we’ve always enjoyed that when we farmed other places. We like sharing, we like teaching too, and we get little bits of that in. I just love being outside. When our kids come home we talk about them having this running regiment and they go to the gym. I’m like, I don’t need any of that! I do that out here! It’s healthy, we’re outside.
D: We’re growing our own food, so we know what’s going into our bodies.
T: We’ve been here awhile. We’ve got customers who are really loyal, we get a lot of positive feedback from them. It’s nice to feel like you’re an appreciated part of the community. If we were to go someplace else, it’d be like starting all over. Which we’ve done plenty of times, but it’s nice to be some place where people know who you are and they appreciate that, too, that you’re there and that you’re doing stuff and creating things that impact their lives. Food, flowers, the connection is great.