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

It was another warm summer day, and I was thrilled to return again to a local herb, flower, and seed farm to volunteer. Not only did this work allow me to live a childhood dream, but it also brought an incredible feeling knowing I was taking part in something larger — Virginia’s legacy when it comes to agriculture.

In my Part One and Part Two lessons, I’ve written how Virginia farms are the backbone of the state, and so I wanted to tell a bit more about agriculture here.

In Virginia, there are over 43,000 farms. Of the over twenty-seven million acres that make up this state, farms are spread across a whooping seven-point-eight million acres. That’s one-third of the land here, which is quite impressive.

Virginia Department of Agriculture and consumer services

I have a deep love for farming, and this may be based on how I was raised because my family has come from generations of farmers. For the past 120 years, a forty-one acre working farm has been passed down the line and, therefore, to my grandfather. On this farm there have been a variety of animals but the two constants were chickens for a poultry supplier and cows for Angus beef production.

There were also a wide range of vegetables grown on the land — such as the massive potatoes that I remember most because as a little girl, my Papa would dig them up and my sister and I would have to pull them from the hot, dry dirt; and fruit — such as the plump and juicy red strawberries that I may or may not have snaffled when my Papa’s back was turned. The farm is now owned by my uncle and aunt, and if you’re one of the kind souls who have subscribed to our YouTube channel, you will have seen this piece of paradise because it is where they have allowed Andy and me to store and work on our 1965 Clark Cortez motorhome. Back to farming though, my most fond memories come from visiting this farm so it is no surprise that I yearn for that feeling again, which is why I was ecstatic to learn different lessons on a different farm and so, with that, let’s continue . . .

↠ Volunteering on the Farm ↞

A Lesson on Harvesting
When harvesting plants, you want to start with the freshest crop first and then move to the older crop. This reduces the risk of spreading disease.

A Lesson on Cerinthe
Cerinthe is succulent-ish plant with big, thick waxy leaves. My research now tells me that this pretty plant attracts hummingbirds. Aren’t plants lovely?!

A Lesson on Harvesting Sunflower
I confess, I have never been a sunflower fan but I think that’s because I thought there was only one standard-store variety. Looking at the beauties, I learned, there are several varieties, and this deep red one is absolutely stunning!

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I also had no idea that the green leaves of the flower steal water from the plant so, once a stem is cut, it is wise to remove the leaves to allow the cut flower to live.

Also, sunflowers are best cut before they truly have a chance to open. For example, while stunning, the massive one below is actually past its prime — By the time it arrives at the florist (which is pretty quickly) and is purchase by a customer, the bloom will gradually fade so sunflowers are best cut much earlier. I may or may not have learned this by cutting the stems of full pretty blooms only to have them be cast aside, to which I may or may not have said — with great inhales — that farming is ruthless work. In truth though, if sunflowers are not able to be harvested in this peak un-opened bloom period, they can be left because they are wonderful food for birds.

A Lesson on Harvesting Poppies
Poppies are unusual flowers — They are extremely delicate and wilt almost immediately when cut, which is why they do not hold up well in bouquets or boutonnieres. If a vase full of poppies is still desired, know there are facts that should be heeded when cutting. First, poppies cannot be placed immediately into water when cut because they secrete a sap that will prevent the flower from sucking up water. Instead, sear the stem end to prevent sap from escaping — This can be done by blowtorching two to three-inches stem end for about ten seconds. Now the poppy can take up water and will not immediately wilt!

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Note the different bee types: Here is a tiny bee on this poppy compared to the earlier chubby, fuzzy bees!

Last poppy lesson: Before I volunteered here, I also did not like poppies. The only poppies I’ve seen are the very ordinary red poppy . . . then I met this rattle poppy. Rattle poppies are known for their large feathery petals and light lavender color and, oh my goodness, there has never been a more beautiful flower!

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A Lesson on Harvesting Milky Oats
Milky oats get their name because if the oats are squeezed, they have a white milky sap inside. Research now shows me they are great for nervous conditions (from stress to anxiety to panic) because they relax the body — which, I don’t know quite yet how to use them for these purposes so if you do, leave me a comment!

Another interesting fact: The milky oat stems are hollow so they can be used as straws!

A Lesson on Avoiding Pests
Back to how at this farm there are no pesticides, which is great . . . until you meet the cucumber beetle. The cucumber beetle is a little beetle that nearly destroys amaranth leaves. Strangely enough, working on this farm I’ve gained a new perspective on plants — Normally people go into the store and purchase those with the prettiest blooms; now though, I’ve been looking at the leaves. One would think these eaten leaves aren’t “good enough” — which is why we have to cut them off for florist shops. I admitted to the owner that I found the leaves pretty in a delicate, lacy way. I’m not alone either — She told me one local restaurant owner came to the farm, saw these green leaves, and immediately had to have the plant based on the unique quality. Looking past the leaves though, amaranth throws extraordinary blooms (that appear more as plums) that either dangle down the stem (such as this dark pink variety) or grow up from the stem (such as this golden variety)!

A Lesson on Planting Sunflower
There are crops known as “the three sisters” — corn, beans, and squash. These three compliment each other because the corn grows up, the beans twist along the corn’s stalks, and the squash covers the ground. For flower farms, sunflowers can be used in replacement of corn so here, we planted a long line of sunflowers. Once the stems are tall and thick, other plants can twist around the stems and/or other plants can benefit from the big leaves for shade.

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A Lesson on Preparing Beds
This bed of bells-of-Ireland — which always reminds me of octopus tentacles — was done for the year so we cut it back to prepare for next year. To keep the bells, we cut the plant practically as low as we could (slightly above the root!) and removed these thorny stems (which will be used for compost). By cutting the plant that low, it tells the bells not to send out more growth and instead rest and recuperate for next year. How smart are plants?!

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Even more intelligent (and beautiful) plants are ahead in my Part Four post!

Author: L

Hi there! I am the impulsive do-er, the jumper, the one tugging to move past comfort zones to embrace a life of sheer surprise. I am a writer -- a pursuer of stories -- because I believe in the destination over the journey. I am a chaser of sunrises and sunsets and cherisher of the moments between. I have an overwhelming curiosity, an insatiable desire travel, and an obsessive yearn to turn dreams into realities. For all of these reasons, the word that best summarizes who I am is "seeker" -- I am forever a seeker.

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