Marie Fowler at her home garden in Belchertown, Mass.
Marie Fowler has been part of the Amherst College registrar’s office for seven years. Like Clark Kent, however, her day job is just a guise for her real talent: gardening. What started as a hobby quickly turned into a gigantic enterprise that even her husband says is “pretty much out of control now.” Marjan Hajibandeh ‘09E learned how it all started and even got a few tips for green-thumb hopefuls.
MH: What do you do when you’re not in the registrar’s office?
MF: I have been selling flowers at the Amherst Farmers’ Market for 18 years. My husband and I have about two or three acres in flowers, in a combination of annuals and perennials. Our two major crops are dahlias and lilies.
We make a lot of arrangements for Dining Services and Catering because they’re really into local growing. We do arrangements for Commencement, Public Affairs, the religion department, weddings and whomever else happens to know about us and asks us to do arrangements for them.
MH: How large was your operation when you first started?
MF: It was really just meant to be a hobby. I asked my husband to make me a little cutting garden for my birthday and because I wanted some flowers around the house. Well, he doesn’t really do anything small. He went out and rented a rototiller and tilled a plot probably twice the size of a classroom. I planted it and had tons and tons of flowers the first year. I thought, well, what do I do with these now? I had always been a regular customer at the farmers’ market, and no one was doing flowers at that time—this was 19 years ago. I started with one small card table and brought 10 or 15 bouquets, and they sold instantly. We just had that small plot for probably 10 years, but we were becoming more successful each year. Eight years ago, my husband just happened to see this farm that was for sale, things kind of fell into place, and we ended up buying it. It was really overgrown, and we had to do a lot of work to get it into shape. It’s still a work in progress.
MH: Did you hire any other labor, or was it just you and your husband?
MF: We got goats because they like to eat everything in sight! We’d pen them into an area and let them eat it to the ground before relocating them to another spot. Setting up the new beds was a lot of work—not to mention that my husband and I both have full-time jobs. This whole thing is a huge undertaking, but we really enjoy it. Life is not boring at all. In fact, last Monday night it was raining, so we couldn’t do anything outside. We ended up going out to dinner, which was so weird because we’re usually outside working in the garden as soon as we get home from work. That’s what we do from May until November.
MH: With rising food prices, have you seen a trend in personal gardens? Are more people moving away from flower beds to vegetables?
MF: I’m not so sure that people are eliminating their flower gardens, but I think that they’re definitely getting into vegetable gardening. Garden centers are selling out of vegetable starts quickly and are really not able to keep up with demand. Not to mention that this area has really strong roots for gardening, especially vegetables. I think we’re definitely seeing more people wanting to grow their own vegetables, knowing, “I did this, I know I didn’t put any chemicals on it, and I know the soil is good.”
MH: What’s ideal to grow in this region’s climate?
MF: Tomatoes, corn and squash. You may be able to grow tomatoes year-round in Florida, but New England tomatoes taste better.
MH: What percentage of your diet, would you say, is composed of local foods?
MF: Obviously, it depends on the reason. This time of year, theoretically, you could almost do 100 percent. You have all your vegetables; there’s milk and cheese and yogurt and a lot of people who are doing meat products. There’s also a discussion about the grains in this area. I was just reading in the newspaper that there’s a big push to do more local growing of wheat products and ryes because the cost of flour has increased so much.
MH: Have you thought about doing edible flowers?
MF: We grow nasturtium, which is an edible flower. But people think of us as flower growers for ornamental purposes. The people next to us at the market, Atlas Farm, actually put edible flowers in their salad mix. A lot of times you’ll find a sprinkling of nasturtium or calendula, or Johnny-jump-ups, pansies and that sort of thing. Those are all edible. We tried, for a couple weeks, to bring a few packages of nasturtium, but that didn’t work. So we let those guys do that.
MH: I know they’re edible, but what’s the nutritional value of some of these flowers?
MF: I’m sure there’s some nutrition in them, but you wouldn’t want to live on flowers alone.
MH: How long has the Amherst Farmers’ Market been around?
MF: Thirty-six years. It’s actually the oldest farmers’ market in the state of Massachusetts after the one at Faneuil Hall.
MH: How does someone get into the farmers’ market?
MF: There’s a board, which my husband and I have both served on for quite some time. If someone wants to get into the farmers’ market, they approach the president, John Spineti, the person on the end of the market who wears a hat and sells a lot of houseplants. If there is a space available, then it’s brought before the board. Technically it’s a sold-out market in terms of vendors. But there are many vendors who just don’t have things in the beginning, and alternatively, there are many vendors who don’t have things in the end. And then there’s the possibility of splitting the season. That actually happened this year with a new vendor who sells yogurt. They’re really wonderful, but they were given a spot also belonging to an apple-seller, who will be coming back soon. We’re trying to figure out what to do with that person now.
MH: I don’t exactly have a green thumb, and I want to start a garden. What’s an easy plant or flower that would ensure success?
MF: Sunflowers are easy to grow. In fact, they always say that if you’re gardening with children, sunflowers are the best flower to start with. The seed germinates in about two or three days, so for kids it’s instant gratification. And it flowers really quickly as well. Marigolds and zinnias are also pretty easy to start with. Perennials that you might want to start with are rebekia or black-eyed Susans.
MH: What about indoor flowers? Is there anything I’d want to put in a pot on a windowsill?
MF: You could do coleus, which is a garden flower that can be brought inside. A lot of people ask us about indoor plants, but we specialize in plants that are really meant to be outside. People have told us that they put some of the flowers into pots and nursed them all through the winter. But again, you’re kind of forcing it into something that it really doesn’t want to do. It’s meant to be outside in the bright sun, and when you bring it inside, you’re causing it to stress. Once you put a plant into stress mode, you’re making it prone to all sorts of things like disease and insects. It’s like a plant on life support.
MH: Do you keep your own compost pile?
MF: Yup, we do, but we also supplement that with compost that we buy. UMass has a great composting system where they take all their scraps from all the dining commons and bring it to a central area for composting. I’m sure they add leaves and other scraps from the grounds. It takes about a year, and then it turns into this black gold compost.
MH: Do you start everything from seed?
MF: Everything, for the most part, we do from seed. However, the dahlias are tubers, so they need to be dug up every year and stored in the cellar and then brought back up again to be replanted. We have about 350 of those plants, so it’s a huge project—my husband does that. There are a few things that I buy as seedlings because they take too long to grow from seed.
MH: What’s the one gardening tool you could not live without?
MF: It’s a circle hoe, and I actually just discovered it this year. Instead of having a flat edge like most hoes have, it’s a circle that’s sharp all around. You can use it to weed, and weeding is the biggest bummer of gardening. I always say that if you didn’t have to weed, gardening would be heaven. With this hoe, you can go around the plants in addition to the rows in between the plants. It just brushes the surface enough to get the roots of the weeds out. That’s really important because when you’re hoeing, you’re not only killing the weeds, but you’re also stirring up the soil. And the more you stir up that soil, the more new-generation weeds come up to the surface. The deeper down you go, the more soil you’re actually exposing, and the greater the chance you’re going to get more weeds.
MH: Do you use pesticides? Are you organic growers?
MF: We don’t use pesticides. To be certified organic, though, your land would have to be clear of any kind of chemical for seven years. They visit your farm, check your soil, and after seven years, you’re certified organic. Then they visit you once a year to make sure you’re still practicing organically. We haven’t gone through that process, and I don’t think that we will simply because we’re just going to grow flowers.
We don’t use any chemicals at all, but we do use a granular fertilizer, which is technically not organic. We also use Miracle-Gro, which is also apparently not organic. I don’t see that as being an issue. I think there’s more emphasis on the things you spray on the plants like pesticides and fungicides, and we don’t use those things at all.
MH: So what do you use to get rid of bugs or diseases?
MF: Nothing, and sometimes we have problems. Earlier in the season, the dahlias got a bug called the leafhopper. It injects a poison into the leaves and causes them to get small and yellow, and then the plant doesn’t produce the flower. A couple years ago we didn’t know about this leafhopper problem, and that year, we had no dahlias. It was really sad, but we finally figured it out. Now we spray Neem, an organic oil, diligently a couple times a week.
MH: During the farmers’ market months—May to November—about how many hours do you spend in the garden on a given week?
MF: I don’t want to know. A lot.
For more information about the Amherst Farmers’ Market, visit www.farmersmarketamherst.com.