Often, when she is picking flowers in the lush fields at Brown House Meadows, Susan Gray will stop for a moment and, well, smell the roses.
“The butterflies are flickering around, the bees are jumping from flower to flower and it’s just so quiet there,” said Gray, 40, of Jarrettsville. “There are rows and rows of blooms and, like Dorothy [in ‘The Wizard of Oz’] you feel like you could just lay down in the poppies and go to sleep.”
A pick-your-own flower farm in Pylesville, Brown House Meadows is a rarity, allowing customers to tromp through a one-acre field and snip their own blooms from a mélange of annuals and perennials.
“We wanted a place where people could slow down, breathe and stress-bust,” said Olivia Hartlaub who, with her husband, Keith, owns the place. For five years, they’ve grown zinnias, sunflowers, snapdragons, celosia, statice and dozens of other flowers that draw folks to their farm to wander, scissors in hand, through row upon row of a rainbow of blossoms.
“Some people walk the whole field first, to see what they might like; others just pick as they go,” said Hartlaub, 45. “It’s fun to watch people disappear through the large patch of cosmos as the plants get taller through the summer. Some will pick one of every kind of flower out there, while others go chromatic and gravitate toward certain colors like the pinks and whites.”
Either way, it’s a win/win, she said: “We’ve never had an ugly bouquet leave our field.”
Gray said that while she grows flowers at home, she makes multiple trips to Brown House Meadows each summer.
“Sometimes it’s just nice to get away from your own house,” said Gray, a Harford County teacher. “I love, love, love the purple flowers, maybe because I’m a die-hard Ravens fan. I put them everywhere in the house, on the kitchen sink and in the bathroom. They make you smile when you pass by. Last year, during the pandemic, I had them on my desk downstairs to brighten me up.”
COVID-19 helped business in 2020, Hartlaub said. One weekend, the plants were picked clean, closing the field for a time.
“People had been cooped up for so long, they came here for fresh air and flowers,” she said. “I got emails [from customers] saying that, while here, they could feel their blood pressure drop, that it calmed them down, and how thankful they were for the opportunity” to spend $25 for a milk jug full of flowers.
Not everyone opts for the harvest. Artists ask to paint there; photographers, to take pictures.
“One woman came for a maternity shoot,” said Hartlaub. “She was 8-1/2 months pregnant when she walked through the flowers.”
Keith Hartlaub, a pastor, has held church services amid the lilies and dahlias. Parishioners use picnic tables for pews.
“I feel like we’re performing a community service,” said Hartlaub, a mother of four. “It’s neat when a parent comes with her teenager, who rolls [his or her] eyes as if to say, ‘My mother made me come.’ Then they go out in the field with a shared container.
“Inevitably, the mom will come back and say, ‘I need my own milk jug.’ The picking becomes a creative experience.”
Deer, mildew and drought. Beetles, grasshoppers and slugs. It’s not easy growing flowers organically with all the nasties around. Even anemones have enemies.
“Farming is hard work, but it’s definitely worth it,” said Christy Larkin, 39, who, with her husband, Matt, owns Seven Petal Flower Farm in Whiteford. “People will come up to our stand at the [Havre de Grace] farmers market, see the delphiniums and peonies and say, ‘My grandmother grew these, and seeing them takes me back.’ Those stories are really nice.”
On the Larkins’ 8-acre farm, the flowers hobnob with some chickens, sheep, the couple’s five children (one named Viola) and an orange tabby named Jupiter who, the owner said, “likes to hide in the weeds and jump out at me when I’m cutting the blooms.”
For seven years, Larkin has been selling her bounty — everything from asters and amaranths to larkspur and lilacs — at farmers markets and to floral designers. Customers aren’t allowed to pick their own in the 2-1/2 acre flower field, but they can take family photos amid the sunflowers and dahlias. The latter are most popular, she said, for the humongous size of their blossoms, often called “dinner plates.”
Like its peers, Seven Petal Flower Farm saw an uptick in sales in 2020 as people fought off the pandemic with help from Mother Nature. At farmers markets, Larkin said, “most don’t share why they are buying flowers, and I don’t pry. Some say they are taking them to a parent who’s in assisted living, or a friend who’s having a rough week. Others talk about their own gardens, or ask for tips on how to grow this or that.
“Young women will take a flower and put it in their hair, for fun. Men buy flowers, too, and while most will say they are getting them for their spouse or partner, one gentleman told me he was buying them for himself. When his male friends make jokes, he tells them, ‘Who wouldn’t love flowers? They’re for everyone.’ ”
The power of flowers
Three years ago, Elizabeth Harlan left law for the land. A civil litigation attorney, she traded the courthouse for the greenhouse and the family’s flower farm. Now, Harlan, 49, helps run Belvedere Farm in Fallston on ancestral soil dating back to 1823. She tangles with amaranths, not affidavits, and tulips instead of torts. It’s a move she would make again.
“I don’t want to compare [farming] to law, but I feel like what I do adds cheer to the world,” she said. “My day-to-day life has improved. The work is exhausting, yes, but it’s also a pick-me-up for everyone concerned.”
Harlan hears that from regulars who visit the farm stand or Belvedere’s stall at the Bel Air Farmers Market on weekends.
“They’ll say, ‘This is my therapy,’ or ‘I’m addicted to this,’ but not in a bad way,” she said. “Last year, in March, we offered $10 prepaid arrangements with contactless pickups at the farm. People told us that coming here for flowers every week helped them get through the pandemic.”
Her father, Bill Harlan, 81, is patriarch at Belvedere, which began selling flowers in 1995 at his wife’s behest.
“I dragged my feet a little because, to me, farming was all about tractors and stuff,” Bill Harlan said. “But the customers were much improved. Instead of guys coming to buy hay, there were ladies wearing earrings, in sports cars, buying flowers.”
The 100-acre farm boasts 6 acres of annuals and perennials, from popular standbys (dahlias, zinnias and sunflowers) to dozens of others like dianthus, hellebores, ageratum and dill. Plus five types of lavender.
“We’ve cut a ton of the stuff,” Elizabeth Harlan said. “When the wind blows off the lavender field, you just stop and take a deep breath. It’s nice to be out there.”