Sandy Sandlin’s new career is growing flowers, thousands upon thousands of gorgeous blossoms, at her rural Port Washington CSA
Growing up on a dairy farm in Richfield, Sandy Sandlin got her first calf when she was 7 years old.
But it wasn’t cows that turned out to be her life’s passion. It was farming of a different kind.
Today, Sandlin grows thousands of flowers in a CSA (community supported agriculture operation) called Bumblebee Flower Farm in the Town of Port Washington where she rents two acres, a greenhouse and walk-in cooler near her home.
“This is my job. I actually quit teaching at Thomas Jefferson (middle school of Port Washington) to finally do this flower business,” she said. “Everybody who knows me says, oh yeah that’s what you should be doing your entire life.”
Sandlin figured out her life’s love early on. She named that first calf Flower.
After high school, Sandlin went to floral school in Denver, where she learned she liked the farming aspect of the industry the best.
The plan became to start her own farm. But life got in the way.
“It’s really hard to be in the flower garden when you have toddlers running around,” Sandlin said.
Her dreams were put on hold, but her two children are now grown at 19 and 21. Sandlin has run her own farm the past two years and has some specific methods.
“I use all organic practices,” she said. “I’m big on composting.”
Sandlin enjoys being out in the field and spends plenty of time there.
“I wake up and I get out to the field usually by 6 a.m. during the summer months. I am usually out there until 8 (p.m.) for sure,” she said. “Even then the weeds get away from me.”
It’s not a one-person operation but it’s close. This year, Sandlin hired college student Lizzie Wilhelm to help with growing, picking, designing and weeding.
Sandlin’s 80-year-old mother, Leila Schulteis, helps as well, “and I don’t have to pay her,” Sandlin said with a laugh. “Only flowers. I pay her with flowers.”
The fruits of her labor appeal to a couple of senses.
“I like growing them and obviously they’re beautiful. And fresh flowers in general smell a lot better than anything you’re going to get overseas,” she said.
Many flowers in shops, she said, come from South America via an auction house in Miami.
“Mine are just fresher. They get picked the day before I sell them,” Sandlin said.
Customers range from CSA subscribers to those holding anniversary or birthday parties. This year, Sandlin returned to the Port Washington farmers market after a strong response 15 years ago. Her new offering this year is flower headpieces.
Sandlin grows 125 varieties of sun-loving flowers and said she may get into shaded ones. Right now, her favorite is salvia.
“It’s incredibly bee friendly. My plants are filled with bees. It’s really wonderful,” she said.
Sandlin has challenges with other forms of wildlife.
“Definitely rabbits. They ate down my sweet peas. I have turtles digging up my dahlias because they laid eggs,” she said.
Next year she said she will put wire around her sweet peas.
“I don’t use any sprays,” she said.
The caterpillar from the painted lady butterfly is eating up her globe thistle, “and I don’t have the heart to kill the caterpillars,” she said.
Weather can be an issue as well, but Sandlin can handle dry spells since she has a watering system on her field and in her greenhouse.
This spring was difficult since it didn’t get warm, an often-occurring issue being near the lake. Her tens of thousands of plants in the field took longer to start growing. Sandlin said she had to be patient.
“It didn’t hurt but it was frustrating,” she said.
Sandlin said she has a process for picking and prepping flowers for sale. Plants start in the greenhouse and then get hardened off in cold frames before going to the field. If flowers go from the greenhouse to the field without any transition time, they will get burned in direct sunlight.
“They’re kinda wimpy because they’ve been in perfect conditions,” Sandlin said.
She learned some of her techniques through trial and error. Other tips she picks up through membership of an association of specialty cut flower growers and at flower conferences like a large one in Baton Rouge, La., this spring.
“The cool thing about flower growing is the other farmers that grow flowers are willing to share their knowledge. It’s really a wonderful group to work with,” she said.
Sandlin said she enjoys her customers as well. She delivers to the Port Washington area and said she often received responses.
“Almost always they get back to me and say thank you. They loved it,” she said.
Proper picking, hydrating and cooling make her products stand out, she said.
“They’re vibrant in color,” she said. “Because they’re picked properly, my flowers last a minimum of seven days in the vase. That’s a huge people pleaser.”
Customers’ preferences can run the gamut, but she said “people just like colorful.”
Sandlin’s flower CSA runs from March to the end of November. In winter, Sandlin substitute teaches in Port.
“In March I tell my friends and family I’ll see you at Thanksgiving time,” she said.
In early spring, she loves being in her greenhouse.
“Sometimes when the snow is flying and I’m in my greenhouse it’s the greatest feeling,” she said.
Sandlin keeps the greenhouse at 42 degrees in spring.
For people looking to start their own flower gardens or improve on their existing ones, Sandlin suggests starting at the bottom.
“I would say spend a year prepping your soil first. Because if you have nice beds, it makes gardens so much more enjoyable. And healthy soil means healthy plants,” she said.
For Sandlin, healthy plants make for a happy career.
“The flowers I have in the kitchen right now – I just love staring at these. My husband said that’s good you love what you’re doing,” she said.
For more information, go to bumblebeeflowerfarm.com.
Photo Information: Sandy Sandlin has loved flowers and gardening her entire life. She grows 125 different flowers at her flower CSA in the Town of Port Washington. Photo by Sam Arendt