Picking the flowers that please


While other farmers are turning their attention to fall crops such as pumpkins, Indian corn and even Christmas trees, Frank Rhodes Jr. still is tending his 2-acre field of flowers in Ellicott City.

At the end of the fresh-flower season, customers still are stopping by Frank's Produce on Old Waterloo Road to troop through the blossoms, armed with shears to clip off those that strike their fancy. While there are a couple of cut-your-own flower farms in western Howard County, Frank's became the only one in Ellicott City when it opened five years ago just west of Interstate 95.

"These types of places aren't around anymore, not even in the suburbs," said Jennifer Wickwire of Ellicott City. Once a week for the past two years, she has visited the farm to pick flowers from the field. Twice a week, she buys fruit and vegetables from the produce stand.

The Rhodes family has grown vegetables for 30 years. They own 4 acres surrounding the produce store, where they sell 70 percent of what they grow. They rent 50 adjoining acres and 100 additional acres at two plots in Ellicott City and another in Anne Arundel County.

"Produce is what we intended to make our profit on, but my father wanted to grow flowers to make the place prettier," said Mr. Rhodes, 38.

Although Mr. Rhodes has gardened since he was 10, his emphasis had always been on vegetables. "I learned about flowers by planting them, killing them and learning how not to kill them the next year," he said.

In the beginning, there were only mums, but hundreds of other varieties -- 17,000 plants in all -- were added through the years, he said.

As his flower patch grew, so did the number of customers who were attracted to his prices of $2 a dozen and $5 for three dozen. He also tries to lure them with a huge sign on Route 175 that says, "Local vegetables. Cut your own flowers."

When customers come, Mr. Rhodes provides each one with a plastic bag and a pair of cutters -- aficionados often come with a bucket of water -- before they trek through his fresh produce store to the field of zinnias, strawflowers and snow-on-the-mountain.

He estimates thousands of people -- a few hundred every Saturday -- pick flowers in his field during the season, which began 10 weeks ago. Now that the season is ending, some flower enthusiasts plan to dry the blossoms to use to decorate their homes or to put on their Christmas trees.

Visitors may have to look a little harder for perfect blooms, but "there are plenty of good flowers left," said Mary Mumper, a Severn resident who volunteers at the farm.

When the first heavy frost comes, farm workers will mow the flower field of celosia, cleome, statice and hundreds of other varieties and replace them with barley and wheat crops for the winter. In February, they will plant new flower seeds in greenhouses and then replant them in the field in May. But that process may be delayed if the fall and winter are as mild as they were last year.

Columbia resident Eva Anderson visited the 2-acre patch well into December. "I'm a country girl, and I get real joy from cutting fresh flowers," said Ms. Anderson of Long Reach village. "It's sad the season is coming to an end. I'm going to dry some of these flowers so they can carry me through the winter."

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