Picture a garden resting in afternoon shadow. The reflected warmth of a refurbished barn soothes blue delphiniums, grasses and peonies in a generous perennial bed. In the field beyond, tall blooms wait for harvest in the cutting garden. This willow-fenced idyll is all country charm ...
This is Moss Cottage.
Kate Fraser-Hominick is the talented gardener behind this pretty and under-appreciated garden destination in Thunder Bay. On the rural property she shares with her husband and two cats, Kate plans, plants and harvests a 4,000 square foot cutting garden each season. She also grows perennials for resale. A shop – in that lovely old barn – features chic vintage treasures as well as handmade products sold under her 'Urban Farmchick' brand.
Every visit to Moss Cottage – whether it's to admire the flowers, smell the fragrant handmade soap or choose a new treasure for the garden – is like a balm for the soul.
With the cool weather closing in, I asked Kate to talk with me about her gardens and her approach to growing annuals for cut-flower bouquets. The interview follows ...
A: We’ve been on the property since 1998 and there were essentially no gardens in existence at the time, but I knew my long term vision was to be a flower grower. Naiv ely I thought, I’ll just turn the land and I’ll plant some flowers and away I’ll go. Of course I discovered very quickly it would be a lot more work than that. We had to clear trees off the section of land that has become the primary flower garden.
So I started in a different way than I had planned. While we cleared the trees, I planted smaller gardens. I discovered two things: that we grow rocks really well here and that country gardening is a whole lot different from the city plot I had been used to. It was really labour intensive getting rid of the rocks and replenishing the soil. That’s when I discovered lasagna gardening. The perennial gardens primarily arose in this way. So I started with smaller beds where I planted a limited number of annuals for harvesting. The perennial gardens were more for enjoyment than harvesting.
We started to work the land for the big cutting garden in 2005. A friend’s father donated a discer so that we could disc the land. We bought a tractor and a plow and turned the land and got it ready for planting.
What annual plants do you grow?
A: I like to think in terms of two types of flowers – filler flowers and primary flowers. Fillers would be things like Bupleurum griffithii (Hare's ear), grasses like ‘Frosted Explosion’ (Panicum elegans). I do grow wheat as a filler – I love wheat. A lot of different varieties of nigella (Nigella sativa). Larkspur (Delphinium staphisagria) is an absolute necessity. I grow cleome (Cleome spinosa) which is one of the primaries, amaranthus, different celosias, ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum). Clary sage (Salvia sclarea) is absolutely an essential in my cutting garden, and setaria (Setaria pumila), which is a grass [foxtail millet]. I allow the poppies which started here as volunteers to grow wherever they please; it is the seed pods which intrigue me in cut bouquets.
Astilbes, cosmos, sunflowers ... Pretty much any annual I consider, and it does change from year to year. And then of course when we do weddings, brides often have special requests and we try to accommodate them. I try not to grow what I would call traditional florist bouquet flowers. I really like to mix it up with different grasses, and texture is really important.
A: In my shop I have radiant floor heating, so that’s where I start all my seeds. It’s like a big heating mat. Because I have a glass greenhouse and I heat it with wood, it’s not that efficient, so I really have to watch the weather as to when I transfer the plants to the greenhouse. I do have grow lights that I use until I can keep the greenhouse warm enough at night to transfer the seedlings. It really depends on the weather we have in the spring. Sometimes it’s early and other times it’s really quite late. We’re hoping to switch to propane heat [in the greenhouse] or at least propane back-up so that the heat will be more regulated.
I grow the seedlings on in the greenhouse until it’s time to take them out to the gardens. Primarily we look to the beginning of June before we start transplanting. And I also do a lot of direct seed sowing.
What is it that brings people to the greenhouse at Moss Cottage?
A: A variety of things, and not really much different than other greenhouses. I have limited greenhouse space so the majority of seedlings and plants are headed to the cutting garden. It’s a very small portion of the greenhouse that’s meant for resale, although I do sell some bedding plants. People are always on the hunt for something different and they just never know what they are going to find [here], so it's not necessarily that they are coming with something specific in mind. They come to take it in and see what little surprises they can find.
I do grow some varieties that you don’t find in a traditional greenhouse just because they are heading for a cutting garden. I am trying to start more varieties of different perennials. That’s my focus in terms of resale – trying to start different and unique perennials that are hardy for our zone.
A: I didn’t know that I had a green thumb. My grandfather and my father were actually the green thumbs in the family. At the time they were here and gardening, I had no interest in gardening. I started out with a small garden when we lived in Winnipeg. Just a few vegetables was what I thought I wanted to grow. Then when we moved [to Thunder Bay] I had a larger a yard space and I started planting flowers. I don’t know that I had a vision. I don’t know that I do now, except to say I am addicted to gardening and addicted to flowers.
I love cottage gardens and the [cutting garden] allows me to play around with that whole ‘vision’. I can plant whatever I want, but the ‘vision’ there is in the resulting bunches I am able to put together for market and for weddings. It’s interesting – when everything is in full bloom, I have a hard time harvesting for the cut flower production because it is just such a lovely vision. When you are able to grow annual flowers en masse like that, it’s pretty lovely.
Over time, I think my perennial vision has been not just about the flowers, but the colour, texture, and foliage. This is something I am still working very hard on – having a garden that pleases me from spring through to fall, whether it be from the colour or the flower or the texture of the leaf. I’m still playing around and experimenting.
You are also a beekeeper. When did you start tending bees?
A: This has been my fourth summer. It’s been a huge learning curve. The reason I became a beekeeper was not for the honey, but to increase flower production. My first year, I purchased one hive. I wanted to be a good steward. I realized that everything I did as a beekeeper had the potential to impact every other beekeeper in the region. It was really important to me to be respectful of those beekeepers and the hard work they put into beekeeping. I remember feeling very uneasy about everything I did with the bees because I was afraid I was going to do damage or something. It has taken me four years to feel comfortable and to trust the decisions I make. But there’s still so much to learn. The bees are pretty amazing little creatures.
What have you observed about having honey bees in your garden?
A: The bees have increased the flower production. I noticed that the first season. I do believe there was more growth in the cutting garden.
I think I’ve always been someone who is ‘visually aware’ of what’s going on in my garden. It wasn’t until I became a beekeeper that I became ‘audibly aware’ of what was going on in my garden. I can pick up the sound of the honeybees in a second. I’ve become more aware of insect activity in the garden. That’s been an interesting part of being a beekeeper.
A: I am hoping to become more efficient as a flower grower. By that I mean introducing things like hoop houses to extend the growing season and more raised beds. This would allow me to do more weddings. Most of the weddings I do now are in August and September because by the time the annual gardens get planted and grow, it’s August before I can actually harvest flowers. I’d like to get the plants out into the garden earlier and grow them a little bit longer. It would allow me to harvest and take bunches to market earlier and do weddings earlier in the season. The hoop houses [like row covers] would be out in the cutting garden, using the heat of the sun to warm the ground and extend the season. I need the longer season in order to plant different varieties and make things more productive.
But one thing at the time. With the drenching rains we had this season, my cutting gardens got flooded. I was only able to plant about a fifth of it. So I am leaning towards raised beds to deal with that issue.
What is the biggest gardening lesson you’ve learned?
A: The biggest lesson? That there’s no guarantee with the work that you put into a cut flower garden. There’s no guarantee because it relies so much on things that are out of your control, like the deer population and the weather. You can plan it and work it, but the end result may not be what you envisioned. There’s a whole lot of work; it’s what I call ‘hard but joyful work’.
You can find Kate at Moss Cottage, 700 Hazelwood Drive, at the Thunder Bay Country Market, and online at The Urban Farmchick.
Moss Cottage images - Kate Fraser-Hominick
Verbena bonariensis - therebloomsagarden.com