Erin and Scott Veitch grow flowers from asters to zinnias
by Jodi DeLong
It’s a breezy but sunny Saturday morning in mid-June and the Truro, NS, Farmers Market Co-operative is a whirl of activity both in the covered courtyard and inside the former fire hall. Vendors are busy showing off and selling a cornucopia of wares—fresh produce, hand dyed yarn, soaps, woodenware, perennials, herbs and vegetables—and a visitor’s eyes are drawn to a burst of colourful blossoms at one booth in the courtyard.
A steady stream of clients is visiting Erin and Scott Veitch, the young couple who run Bountiful Brookfield Blooms, and their rainbow-hued baskets and pots of planted annuals, along with dozens of bunches of fresh-cut flowers, are steadily being carted away by happy customers. Many are regulars, coming weekly for their floral fix—all flowers and foliage grown by Erin and Scott, or, as their signs say, “locally grown, not flown.”
As their business name suggests, the Veitch flower farm is located in Brookfield, just a few miles from Truro. On a rare sunny day in mid-June when I visited, the flower plots are carefully planted with rows of many kinds of flowers—statice, snapdragons, zinnias, dahlias—as well as herbs and other plants used as greenery in their bouquets. Most are not yet in bloom, of course, but closer to the house and the greenhouses there are several plots awash in colour: poppies, anemones and ranunculus, in jewel-like hues. Most are planted according to colour, so there are big blocks of each shade—rose, yellow, orange, red, cream—and, of course, contented bees drifting around checking out pollen supplies.
Scott Veitch teaches in the department of Plant, Food and Environmental Science at the Dalhousie Agricultural Campus (the former NSAC) in Truro. He also studied there and took numerous horticulture courses from retired professor and plantsman extraordinaire Lloyd Mapplebeck, who runs Hillendale Perennials in nearby Hilden. Both Scott and Erin credit Lloyd in no small part for their developing their flower farm as well as their business plan.
“We bought our farm in 2007,” Scott remembers, “and at the housewarming, Lloyd was looking at the land and saying, “you have great drainage and sun exposure, you should do cut flowers.” Lloyd had been selling fresh flowers along with his perennials, but he wanted to focus more on the perennial plants, so he was keen to see the Veitchs take up flower farming.
“When we first moved in, we started doing jams, jellies and other preserves with Erin’s mum,” Scott recalls, “and some flowers on the side. And when her mum didn’t want to do the preserves anymore, we just kept on with the flowers.”
“When we first started selling in 2008-2009, we were freaking out if we could sell 30 bunches in a morning,” Erin says, “and now, we make 300 bunches and it’s not enough. We’re sold out by 10:30-11am in peak season. In the beginning, we did very little in the way of supplying flowers for weddings. That’s changed a lot: last year we did 63 weddings, including 13 in one weekend!”
The couple are quick to stress that they are not florists; they provide fresh-cut flowers, but they don’t do the setup at a wedding. “We make the arrangements, and some are quite ornate, but the family pick the flowers up the day before and do the decorating and so on themselves,” Erin says. “We get brides that want something local and seasonal, sort of a country feel, not so much the formal look that you get from many florists.”
Erin has worked for the past 17 years as a physiotherapy aide and office staff at a local clinic, which she says is handy because, “If I hurt myself on the farm, they can fix me!” The flower business is keeping her and Scott so busy that she takes Thursdays and Fridays off so she can prepare for market. Scott has most of the spring and summer off except for horticulture courses he teaches in China after the university year has finished, so that can make it challenging to get early season tasks done on the farm.
One and a half to two acres under cultivation may not seem like a lot to farmers who are growing hundreds of acres of crops or forage, but this is enough space to grow the dozens of different types of flowers the Veitchs have in production. “If we go bigger, then we’ll have to expand the deer fencing that we have around our planted area,” Scott says.
They plan to expand their greenhouses where they start their seedlings, to add another tunnel structure for heat-loving plants like the ornamental peppers, eucalyptus and celosia. To extend their season in the spring, the couple offers some hanging baskets and other planters featuring pansies, geraniums, begonias and marigolds. In the late autumn—again inspired and encouraged by Lloyd Mapplebeck—they create holiday décor, including table arrangements, which are also hugely popular.
Along with the vagaries of the Nova Scotian seasons, one challenge is sourcing seeds and bulbs. As members of the Dahlia Society of Nova Scotia, Erin and Scott can order with the group and thus can afford to bring in unique varieties from the United Kingdom. In order to ship plants, even bulbs, from other countries, a phytosanitary certificate is required, and in the UK it’s a straightforward process. Shipping plants or bulbs from the US is another matter: you have to apply for a full year phytosanitary certificate, and dahlia growers are only shipping at certain times of the year, so the additional paperwork is a hassle for them.
Sourcing seeds can also be a challenge, as Erin and Scott pride themselves on growing some unusual varieties that you don’t find just anywhere. “Many of the big mail-order companies have gone more to vegetables now, with the interest in small scale farming and veggie gardening,” Erin says, “but we do find unique things here and there. We save seeds when we can, like with honeywort and matricaria, but of course some flowers are hybrids and won’t come true from seed.” One of their favourite companies is Chilterns in England, where there are many unusual varieties, and as Erin confesses, “we are collectors and have to have one of just about anything interesting, for our personal gardens!”
Production for weekend markets begins on Wednesday with the first of the flower cutting. Long-lasting flowers like statice and zinnias are the first cut, and statice, being a dried flower, gets cut in the middle of the day when the flowers are fully open, and the stems are dropped in a bucket with no water. If the weather is hot, the couple will start cutting other flowers very early in the morning and can be out again as late as 10 at night. Wedding materials are cut on Thursday mornings and arranged on Thursday evening for pickup next morning.
Scott says, “We try to do some of the market bunches on Thursday evening, sometimes that happens, and… sometimes not.” They both laugh, and Erin continues, “We start making bouquets Friday afternoon and work through ’til midnight or even later, because there’s, of course, always more flowers to cut!”
How do two people make up 300 or more bunches of flowers in a few hours? “We have recipes for our bunches,” Erin says, “and we have a large work table in our cool basement where we lay the flowers out and then do them by colour recipe.” Erin does all the wedding bouquets because Scott is colour blind, “but I can do the simple bouquets easily enough.”
Because there are always more flowers, the Veitchs have begun a CSA program (Community Supported Agriculture) where people sign up and prepay for a number of weeks of fresh-cut, midweek flowers, with pickup from a Truro location on Tuesdays. This is a great benefit for those who can’t make it to Saturday morning markets, or for those days when the couple have sold out of their hundreds of bunches of blooms.
One comment frequently heard from visitors to the farmers market is about the prices of the products the Veitchs offer for sale. Not surprisingly, Erin says they developed their sales plan with inspiration from their mentor Lloyd Mapplebeck. “We bring volume, and it’s eye-catching, and we keep the prices low at five and 10 dollars for bunches. We don’t want to bring home a 10-dollar bunch when we can sell five-dollar bunches, and what we do is keep our inputs low, produce a high-quality product and a lot of it, and they pretty much sell themselves.” The same theory goes for their hanging baskets and planters, which are noticeably less expensive than many places, including box stores.
Do they actually make money? Scott says yes, absolutely. “We were told by some there was no money in flowers, but if you do it right, we make pretty decent money from what we do. It’s hard work, not all picking pretty flowers—there’s a lot of grunt work, especially in the spring, and like all farmers we have weather challenges, but we do love it. We could make more income by producing more flowers but then we’d need staff beyond ourselves. Like Lloyd, we are also selling knowledge with the flowers, and we love talking with our customers. It works for us.”
Like food-producing farmers, the Veitchs are looking to extend their season, in this case to have especially popular flowers earlier in the year. “Dahlias are our most popular, they’re so showy and colourful, and we plant them outside in late May and get blooms by late July,” Scott says. “By adding a high tunnel system over the dahlias, we could plant them out without worrying about frost, wind, and have blooms earlier in July.”
“Which would be perfect for some of the July weddings,” Erin adds. “We do grow Asiatic lilies which come on earlier, but they can be challenging to work with for weddings because of their strong colours; and the Oriental lilies may have more subtle colours, but not everyone loves their fragrance.”
Do they each have a favourite flower? Scott says he loves his begonias in hanging baskets, but of course the dahlias in their huge variety of colours and forms also beguile him. Erin says she is a “fair weather friend with my flowers. It depends on the time of season: ‘you’re my favourite; no, you’re my favourite!”