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Flower-drying hobby blooms into business

By the time Jane Barger of Forest Hill had opened Natural Gatherings on Main Street in Bel Air this year, she had already become an expert at making arrangements of dried flowers for friends and neighbors.

Next month, she will be making arrangements in dried flowers and for her son's wedding. But she will still have time to forage the hills of Lancaster County and search nearby for colorful hydrangeas. Rick Barger, her retired detective husband of 30 years, helps find the needed blossoms for Jane's creations.

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"Their garden is the envy of everybody around here," said Sue Haviland, who doesn't mind Rick Barger's visits to clip her hydrangeas. "Then Jane will make me something."

In spring and summer, Rick Barger cultivates gardens filled with blossoms and herbs, including flax, amaranth, xeranthemum, colored statice, ammobium, nigella, sunflowers, gomphrena, celosia and safflower.

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The 1 1/3 acres also have space for gourds like the big dipper, bowl, ketre, bird house and egg. The Bargers grow vegetables, like peppers, okra, ornamental corn and broom corn, for the wreaths, too.

Thistles are not welcome in the garden, but perennials, including Chinese lanterns, lavender, hydrangea, yarrow, sedum and alliums, return year after year.

Admitting it is a family affair, Jane Barger said, "I think I'm lucky because Rick does love to garden, and there's so much that I can dry at home. "

"It's so cost-effective for me. For anyone else to try to do what I do, it's going to cost a lot. They are not going to be able to sell their product for the price that I can afford to sell. In fact, some people have said they can't believe my prices."

Jane Barger is doing what is called "value-added agriculture" in her back yard. That is, many Harford County farmers are finding that if they cut out the middle man and go straight to the public with their wares, such as cheese, cut flowers, bison meat or lamb, they get a better return for their time and are able to keep the family farm.

Jane and Rick Barger just used what they had out back. Jane Barger took plants and her talent, honed as floral designer at Radebaugh's in Towson, and started to sell to friends and neighbors at local fairs and festivals. Her finished products look like they are still alive. "Natural gatherings" is the term she coined to describe the fresh look.

"One technique I use that is hard to explain to people is I weave things when they are fresh," Jane Barger said. "That way you don't have to use hair spray."

She applies acrylic spray on finished wreaths to bring out color, she said. She captures country nostalgia by combining plants with old frames, mirrors or pitchers, for example.

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Customers said they are pleased with the arrangements. Dottie Stearns, who sought out Jane Barger's skills, said one of the creations drew wildlife.

"Jane had dried everything that went into the wreath, and it was made so beautifully with the fresh greenery around it, pineapple and apples dried," Stearns said. "After the Christmas season it was so pretty, I hung it on my back deck, up against the wall of my house. I went out there one day and this little brown wren stuck her head out and startled me."

Interest in the wreaths springs from people's love of nature, Stearns said.

"There are more and more people like farm people who always admired what nature has given us," Stearns said. "And I think Jane has just taken it from the woods and fields, and now we can put it in our homes. It's so natural to see how nature just plops things, and when you stand back and look, it looks like it belongs there."

Barbara Leveritt, a neighbor of the Bargers, said, "Jane doesn't make a conscious effort to follow the flow. You know, when everyone else is doing a certain kind of thing, Jane's not going to do it. She's going her own way, which is the mark of a real artist, not just a craftsperson."

Jane Barger says she is a perfectionist when it comes to customers' creations, as well planning her son's wedding.

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"Whenever I do anything, I try to keep in mind that I wouldn't try to sell anything that I wouldn't put in my own home. Rick and I do love to decorate," she said.

In addition to growing flowers and vegetables, Rick Barger makes his own mulch for the garden. The mulch is made from wild cherry and oak bark that neighbors bring from their unwanted bushes, bramble, stumps and twigs. He adds wood, branches and vines.

"You kind of mix everything ... you learn how to use what's there," Rick Barger said.

Jane Barger said she and her husband break even on the business.

"At this point I've kept it at a nice level," Jane Barger said. "I'm enjoying what I'm doing, and that's where I want to keep it."

Rick Barger said he is happy to continue growing the plants, while Jane Barger likes to stop and collect flowers during drives to Lancaster County, where she can find bittersweet, cinnamon fern and rosehips that grow alongside the roads. She also picks up unique containers and primitives for her floral arrangements.

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Customer Ginny Franks said she, too, loves to buy from Jane Barger.

"I think if you are looking for something you are not going to see at somebody else's house, I think Jane's things are good things," Franks said.

Before Jane Barger got into the floral business, she worked for 17 years in child care and had a stint as a postal worker. Now, with her children, Christy and Eric, grown and a back yard with plenty of sun, drainage and space for her hobby, she is grounded happily making arrangements. A course in fresh flower arranging at Harford Community College and the job at Radebaugh's, combined with a natural talent for detail, helped, too.

She also loves old baskets, wooden ladders, containers of all shapes and sizes, old shutters, screens and even old pews and chairs.

"It's always fun to experiment," Jane Barger said. "Each year Rick and I try something different."


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