Virginia is for Farm Lovers: Lessons on an Herb, Flower, and Seed Farm (Part One)

I am passionate about exploring — and not only exploring but absorbing all the world has to offer. Since the start of COVID though, travel has come to an abrupt halt and this has left me seeking adventure in my home state of Virginia so what better way to explore it than to focus on the top highlight of my state and that is farming.

First background on me: Since I was a little girl, I have wanted to work in a florist shop.  I remember the first job I applied to: My mom drove me to a busy downtown Richmond florist.  I had just gotten my license but I was crippled by the mere thought of driving through the city’s one-way streets.  “If you get this job, I am not going to drive you to and from work every day,” my mom threatened and so we made a deal that this would be a one-time nicety.  The sad part of this story is that I never got a call back. And it broke my heart.

However, as I’ve grown older, I realize I do not want to work in a flower shop — Cut flowers die. I yearn to be there before the shop.  I need to get my hands dirty planting seed, I want to see the green sprouts rise above the ground, and I dream to cut flowers and tote the bunches of beautiful blooms back in buckets so that those blooms can bring happiness to others. Yet, it is not solely flowers — I have an overwhelming love for herbs and so I desire to learn their healing properties. However, overall, I crave to work outside with both — to feel the sunlight warming my back, the rain drenching my clothes, and the weight of extra layers when the temperature dips.  My body demands physical labor. Essentially, I want to work on a farm.

This is why over the summer last year I set out to fulfill a long-held dream, and what better place to achieve this than in Virginia where agriculture is the state’s largest private industry by a vast margin.

In fact, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, “Virginia agriculture reportedly has an economic impact of $70 billion annually and provides more than 334,000 jobs in the Commonwealth.”

Not only this, but Virginia’s agricultural production is reported to be one of the most diverse in all of America. 

Virginia agriculture also has unbelievable statistics: There are 43,225 farms; yet, for every consumer dollar spent on food, less than fifteen cents actually goes to the farmer. This is why it is so intensely important to buy local.

Another interesting fact: About thirty-six percent of Virginia’s primary farm operators are female . . . and I happened to find a local farm that is owned by a self-taught female who is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to plants . . . and who (incredibly) said I could volunteer.

Her small Virginia farm grows herbs, flowers, and seed in a low-till and chemically-free way so in my overwhelming enthusiasm to work and learn, I documented my farm lessons. Why I waited to post these writings, I am not sure, but get your tools ready because we are farming . . .

↠ Volunteering on the Farm ↞

A Lesson on Planting, Raising, and Harvesting
I was invited to help on the farm during “harvest time,” which is two days a week. Farming solo is hard and so having help makes the job much easier. Here, several farmers move quickly and efficiently to gather all flowers and herbs before the hottest part of the day arrives. To give you an idea how how much is cut during those hours, this harvest board shows only one day’s harvest, which can be more or less depending on orders:

The reason I fell in love with this farm is because of the passion behind it: The goal is to raise the plants from seed then harvest the seed so that the seed can be re-planted again in a cycle-of-life process.  Farming this way allows the plants to adapt to the area, which is important because when plants are imported from a different state or country, they struggle to survive due to not being native.

A Lesson on Working on Farms
One of my first lessons came in learning how to work.  Because farm work is intense — as a job and on the body — proper precautions need to be taken.  One is to reduce the body’s amount of movements, such as reducing bending, picking up and putting down tools, even pulling rubberbands in and out of pockets.  When movements have to happen, it is important to activate core muscles, which allows work to be done more efficiently.

A Lesson on Bunching
Who would have guessed there is a recommended way to tie a rubberband when harvesting plants?  Not me . . . until I was taught. Instead of placing the band around all stem ends at one time then twisting it to go around again — the band should instead be looped through one stem end then the entire rubberband (smooshed together so nothing more is inside) wrapped around the bottom of all stems before placing the final loop through another stem end.  By wrapping this way, when you find the end, the band is super easy to pull off and the plant stems do not risk being damaged. It’s wizard work going on here, y’all.

A Lesson on Bees
The owner also has several different bees and, I confess, this was one of my favorite parts of being at her farm. She does not use pesticides or other chemicals — which many farmers do. When these chemicals are used, it prevents animals — such as bees, butterflies, and birds — from getting food and while people argue these animals damage cash crops, the farmer I volunteered for feels there are more than enough flowers to go around. I have to say, that mentality is beautiful.

Back to my lesson though: Her farm is a buzz of movement and sound from numerous animals, though it does take awhile for this buzz to happen — When harvesting in the morning, sleepy bees splay their bodies on flowers to warm. I learned bees love hot temperatures so they get cold when night sets in. By the time the sun comes up in the morning though, they become happier, warming their little bodies before being able to set off again.

“Would you like me to still harvest the Echinacea then?” I asked the owner.

“No,” she said lightly. “Let’s wait and allow the bees to warm.” Y’all, it was then I realized I found my people.

More on Echinacea in a moment though . . .

A Lesson on Harvesting Snapdragons
My first harvest was with snapdragons and there is one very important lesson dealing with these plants: As snapdragons grow, their stems are pretty much straight; however, the moment they are cut, the stems become crooked.  And apparently no one likes crooked snapdragon stems.  To keep the stems straight, cut the stem and then flip the snapdragon so that the blooms face the ground.  Only once all snapdragon cuttings are done, the flowers can be turned right-side up before going into water. The stems may still bend a little but not as severely as they would without the flip.

A Lesson on Harvesting Echinacea
Now back to Echinacea: This plant can be used for many medicinal purposes, such as those for colds; upper respiratory issues, illnesses, and infections (coughs, bronchitis, etc.); and inflammation.

Another fact: If the petals are pulled off the stem, the orange disk becomes a super cute and different “flower” too!

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A Lesson on Harvesting Yarrow
You know that moment when you are told a name for something you have always loved but never knew its name?  Mine’s yarrow.  Similar in bloom to Queen Anne’s Lace, one difference that I adore is that yarrow has the most perfect green leaves — They look like tiny dainty ferns.  Not only is yarrow a beautiful flower, but the plant is also extremely medicinal.  It can be used to stop bleeding — Apparently during war, yarrow was stuffed into open wounds.  It also helps regulate body temperature so it is great at reducing fevers, and — as if there needs to be more — it helps with joint pain.  Again, I love yarrow!

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A Lesson on Drying Yarrow and Lavender
There are different ways to dry plants according to use.  I dried yarrow and lavender for ornamental, not medicinal, purposes.  Here, I took three bunches and — facing the bloom-side down — I placed two bunches on the back of a drying string and another bunch at the front of the string before tying a rubberband around all stems.  This allows ventilation around the giant bunch, and so they remain in a drying room until dried . . . which I have no idea how long that takes.  (Leave a comment if you know!  Otherwise, more lessons for another day, I suppose!)

A Lesson on Preparing Ground Covers
It sounds ridiculous but I was most grateful to learn a lesson on ground covers. I have had many planting days of using ground covers only to have spidergrass weave in and out and damage not only the covers but the plants. Then I’ve had many planting day where I threw out all covers in frustration only for every weed to make a home in the plant beds. And I hate wedding. Now I’ve learned instead of using weed barriers, geotextile fabric is the way to go.  I read this is common for draining systems but because the fabric is thicker than weed barriers, it serves an amazing purpose in gardens (and farms).  How to create all of the holes though so plants can come through?  Prepare your minds: A blowtorch!  This makes creating the holes faster and circular and — the biggest plus — no raveled or frayed ends.  Sheer brilliance.

A Lesson on Transplanting, Well, Plants
From cutting to planting, the first plant I transplanted was Zinnia, which is an annual flower that loves the heat so much so that it blooms all summer.  There are many different colors (such as the Oklahoma blush and salmon that I got to plant) but transplanting any plant is the same . . .

The most stressful part in any plant’s life is transplantation (is that even a word?) because it is not natural — Nowhere in nature will plants be plucked from the ground and re-planted into a new hole.  Because of this, great care needs to be taken and this is where I learned the most important lesson of the day: Do not pinch or even lightly hold a plant’s stem when taking it out of a planter. This will cause the plant’s xylem stem cells (the vascular cells that bring water, nutrients, and support to the plant) to bruise and that causes the stem to collapse upon itself, which then causes the plant to die.  Avoid this by lightly pinching the two opposite-side leaves closest to the roots then delicately lifting the plant from the planter.  Worst case scenario: A leaf is ripped but the plant regrows leaves; it cannot re-grow a new stem. Life-changing lesson here.

A Lesson on Planting Tomatoes
I also helped plant Pinkie tomatoes, which look like teeny tiny cherry tomatoes.  Tomatoes are hardy plants but there are ways to make them more hardy and less leggy as they grow: It is suggested to put the roots deep into the ground and then lay a portion of the stem parallel to the ground before covering the roots and stem with soil.  Tomatoes can grow roots across the length of their stems and this makes the plants stronger.

After hours passed, it was time for me to go home and so — covered in sweat and dirt with a light sunburn — I called Andy. I was bubbling with excitement about every flower, every herb, and every lesson . . . so much so that by the time he returned home that evening, my excitement was still uncontainable and so I made him sit down to hear all of my stories again. He’s a good man and I love him, but what I also love is farming so head on over to my Part Two farm lessons . . .

Author: Soul of a Seeker

We are one American girl and one English bloke who seek an escape in nature. We chase a different life, one not dictated by society. With our pup-kit-cat and rare 1965 Clark Cortez motorhome, we have one soul of a seeker.

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