Three miles upland from the Pacific Ocean, adjacent to pygmy-forest-covered ridges above the Mendocino Headlands, a lush organic garden bursts with flowers. It’s an unlikely bounty in this region of low soil fertility, coastal fog, and temperatures that rarely rise above 70 degrees. Yet for the past 19 years, this garden has produced bouquets of flowers that have brightened the lives of people in the Mendocino area. The secret: two gardeners with a passion for flowers and organic gardening.
Little Lake Garden is a magical place filled with color, texture, and fragrance. Winnie Pitrone and Andy Mackey (my sister-in-law and brother) have designed this garden to please the senses while producing cut flowers and vegetables to sell at the Mendocino Farmers Market. Their reward is the daily delight that a well-designed garden brings and the praise of their weekly customers who eagerly purchase their goods.
Careful Plant Selection
Andy and Winnie consider a variety of characteristics when selecting plants for their cutting garden. To be good in a bouquet, flowers must have a long vase life and not drop petals or pollen. Tall plants with long sturdy stems are the easiest to work with; flowers with thin stems take longer to pick and more are needed to fill up a bouquet. The gardeners choose plants that are strong and easy to grow, yield many flowering stems per plant, and bloom for a long season. Not surprisingly, these are the same characteristics—ease of propagation, high yield, and productivity—that market gardeners use to select fruits and vegetables to plant for sale. “After all,” Winnie says with a smile, “the flowers at Little Lake Garden are our main crop.”
Winnie and Andy have a long list of favorite plants that pass the first test of providing value in a bouquet. The challenge is to decide which ones earn a spot in that year’s garden, balancing a good mix of flowers for bouquets with the work involved to raise the plants. They first consider season of bloom, selecting a variety of flowers and interesting plants that produce from early spring through fall. For each season they want a range of colors that work well together and a variety of flower shapes and sizes to create interest. They also look for accents such as foliage, buds, berries, seed heads, and branches. Serendipity plays a role. Winnie admits, “Nobody can go through a batch of seed catalogs in January and not be tempted to try a few new flowers.”
The gardeners aim to strike a balance between annuals and perennials with about one third of the material used in their bouquets coming from annuals and the other two thirds coming from perennials. Annuals offer a long flowering season, and increase the productivity of the garden when planting beds are used to produce more than one crop of flowers: sweet Williams in the spring followed by a fall crop of annual sunflowers. At the end of a season it is easy to clear a bed of annuals, add compost, and let the bed rest for a season. However, growing annuals means starting new seeds and transplanting each year.
Perennials, on the other hand, do not need to be replanted each year; a benefit tempered by shorter flowering periods and periodic maintenance—pruning, lifting and dividing—to keep the plants productive.
At Little Lake Garden, when somebody puts his or her nose into a bouquet to enjoy the fragrance of lavender, rubs a finger on the soft leaves of lamb’s ear, or picks a violet flower to enjoy its spicy sweetness, there is no need to worry about residues of pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Flowers here are raised organically and are safe to sniff, touch, or even eat. Andy and Winnie believe that organic methods are the best to use for any type of plantings, but especially for flowers that people keep close at hand.
The garden’s native soil is challenging. The ridges above the Mendocino coast, ancient sand dunes that were uplifted tens of thousands of years ago, are practically void of nutrients other than iron, are low in organic matter, and have high acidity and potassium. The gardeners focused on building the soil as soon as they arrived on Little Lake Road. Because organic matter quickly washes through the extraordinarily sandy soil, the gardeners have learned to layer it on the surface of the beds rather than digging it in. To increase fertility, they add a variety of powdered amendments including kelp meal and glacial rock dust for micronutrients, and oyster shells to raise the pH. Recently, Andy has been experimenting with using compost tea as a soil spray to unlock nutrients in the soil and increase their availability to the plants.
Weed control may be the most labor-intensive part of gardening. Andy admits, surprisingly, “I love to weed,” though he adds that he thinks a lot about “selecting our weed bank.” Wherever soil is exposed, nature will supply plants—called volunteers by some and weeds by others—to protect the precious topsoil. “At Little Lake Garden, we select our weeds by letting useful plants go to seed, and removing undesirables. Over time, we have built up a wonderful ‘weed bank’ that fills in empty spaces in the garden with plants we are happy to have around,” says Andy. Their edible flower bouquets, composed primarily of plants that some would call weeds, include calendula, borage, sweet alyssum, Johnny jump-ups, and chrysanthemum. Andy and Winnie consider these weedy annuals a living mulch as the prolific self-seeders cover the soil, leaving little room for actual weeds. They also welcome food-plant volunteers such as kale, chard, cilantro, Italian parsley, arugula, red mustard, cress, and mizuna if they choose to find homes in open spaces in the garden.
Plant selection plays an important role in pest management. Winnie and Andy collect seeds from vegetables and flowers that grow especially well for planting out the following year. Through this type of selection, they favor plants best suited to the peculiarities of their climate and soil conditions. The right plant in the right place leads to healthy plants that can fight off pests effectively.
Little Lake Garden has animal pests, too, and the policy is exclusion, relocation, deterrence, and biodiversity. A perimeter fence keeps out deer and rabbits while the worm composter is kept inside the shed to keep it from serving as a tasty snack for local skunks or raccoons. Snails are dispatched by hand at night with the benefit of headlamps. Andy relocates snails to the compost pile or outside the fence where they can do their work as decomposers without causing damage in his cultivated beds. A foliar spray of compost tea coats plants with beneficial organisms that out-compete disease organisms on the leaves, such as apple scab, pear scab, and peach leaf curl.
Andy estimates that they have more than 80 kinds of flowers available on a single harvest day and they use more than 200 kinds of cut flowers from spring to fall. Their garden’s biodiversity keeps pests down by attracting and fostering a wide range of beneficial insects that are natural enemies of many insect pests.
The rewards of this vibrant garden filled with a wide range of plants come each Thursday when Winnie and Andy head out through the beds with clippers to select beautiful flowers for their bouquets. They know the science of gardening as well as the art of creating stunning bouquets. During the peak of summer, they start harvesting flowers up to two days before the farmers market. Cut stems are submerged in deep containers of water and placed in the shade of an apple tree in the center of the garden. They spend the day before market arranging the flowers, bunching them into bouquets, and trimming the stems.
“I like to think about my customers as I put together special combinations of flowers,” says Winnie, “knowing they will be met with warm smiles.” Winnie and Andy use a range of themes to choose flowers for individual bouquets, creating single-color bouquets, white and green bouquets, or bouquets featuring a stunning peony, dahlia, or gladiolus set off by simple blossoms. They offer a few small bouquets for those who need the pick-me-up that flowers provide but who might not have the money for a larger bouquet. In addition to their weekly farmers market sales, the gardeners supply local inns with weekly flowers, create flower arrangements for weddings, and sell specialty flowers by the stem to local florists.
Each week, while cutting and assembling their bouquets, the gardeners discuss what flowers are working out well and which ones are disappointing. They constantly challenge their decisions about the plants they select, where they plant them, how they carefor them, how they use them in bouquets, and how well they sell. As soon as they pick the first blossoms of the season, they start thinking of ways to improve the flowers, the garden, and their much-loved bouquets. And, like all gardeners, they always imagine how wonderful the garden will be next year.
Little Lake Garden is a gem of a garden in a most unlikely environment. Using organic principles, Winnie and Andy have transformed poor soil into rich beds that support a huge range of flowers. Their practices improve the environment, and the beauty of their flowers soothes the soul of all who are lucky enough to experience them.
A year of cut flowers from Little Lake Garden
Spring: sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), evening primrose (Oenothera stricta), bellflower (Campanula medium), love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), veronica (Veronica spicata), columbine (Aquilegia), gladiolus (Gladiolus)
Summer: ‘The Third Harmonic’ and ‘Yellow Friendship’ Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria cultivars), love-lies-bleeding and ‘Emerald Tassels’ amaranth (Amaranthus caudatus), sunflower (Helianthus annuus), globe thistle (Echinops), giant bellflower (Campanula latifolia), meadowsweet (Filipendula purpurea), summer phlox (Phlox paniculata), loosestrife (Lysimachia punctata and L. clethroides)
Fall: ‘Autumn’s Touch’ and ‘Opopeo’ amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus), ‘Lemon Queen’ sunflower (Helianthus annuus), ‘Zimbelstern’ sneezeweed (Helenium), ‘Little Carlow’ aster (Aster cordifolius), bishop’s flower (Ammi majus), Formosa lily (Lilium formosanum), toad lily (Tricyrtis), St. John’s wort (Hypericum androsaemum)
Winter: pink-flowered currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum), blue honeywort (Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’), kerria (Kerria japonica), tulip (Tulipa), blue poppy (Meconopsis), and flowering fruit trees