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Santa Rosa business creates rustic wreaths, arrangements

Dried flowers are back in style. Blossom and Bine makes wreaths and arrangements that outlast the season.

Erin Shea and husband Mike Sullivan are pulling the last of their summer flowers from the field, putting an end to their first growing year at Blossom and Bine farm in Santa Rosa.

And what a year it has been. Embarking on full-time farming is always a risk, with much trial and error in the early years. But when they started preparing their fields last fall for spring planting, the couple never imagined a worldwide pandemic would transform life everywhere and bite into the market for flowers as special events and social gatherings ground to an abrupt halt.

Still, they managed to make it through this most challenging of years and are grateful for that. Now, with the last fruits of their harvest, they are creating rustic wreaths and farmhouse-style arrangements that preserve the colors of summer.

Yes, dried flowers are back. Blossom and Bine on Guerneville Road (blossomandbine.com) is one of many flower farms, florists and floral arrangers returning to the homespun beauty of dried blooms, whether set in a vase or adorning a wreath.

Shea and Sullivan, who also grow hops on the 8 acres they lease from Sullivan’s dad, sold their flowers at their farm stand and through a flowers-only community-supported agriculture program, or CSA. At the season’s end, each of their customers received a wreath or arrangement of dried flowers as a parting gift, one that potentially can last for years to come.

Shea did not plant flowers specifically for drying, but some varieties in her field naturally lend themselves to dried arrangements. So, thinking ahead, she set some blossoms aside, picking them at their best, then binding them and hanging them upside down in the dark cool of the garage until she was ready to work with them.

The beauty of dried flowers is that they will keep, she said. That enabled the busy farmer with two young daughters to tend to more immediate demands at the height of the growing season. She played with her dried flowers when she found time, after the frantic push at the end of the season.

“You still need to pick them when they’re at their best,” Shea said. “Pick them like you would if you were using them fresh. Keeping them out of the sun is best so they can hold their color. It usually takes one to two weeks to become fully dry.”

Almost anything goes

So many things can be used in a dried arrangement at this time of year, Shea said. A few varieties of flowers can easily be worked in with other foraged materials from the garden or landscape such as seed pods, leaves and berries.

A good mainstay of dried arrangements is statice, an annual with sturdy stems and compact and colorful blooms. It’s also nice as a cut flower, which makes it versatile. Shea also uses dried strawflowers, cheerful blooms related to asters and daisies that lend themselves to fall arrangements.

She is particularly fond of Gomphrena, a cutting garden favorite with cute gumball flowers in autumn orange that add a fun bit of color in a wreath. Celosia, with their flame-like flower heads, also hold up pretty well for drying, Shea said.

Ammobium, which has darling white flowers with yellow centers, is popular for dried arranging, but the petite blooms also are good in fresh arrangements. And one can’t leave out nigella, or Love-in-a-Mist, an old-fashioned garden flower that is favored in dried arrangements.

Amaranth, when dried, adds a nice touch of fall to wreaths and arrangements. Shea likes “Hot Biscuits,” with warm coppery plumes that contrast nicely with brighter pops of flowers or berries.

For filler she likes the look of cress, an edible herb that produces tiny white to pinkish flowers clustered in small branched racemes.

Some flowers don’t do well in drying. But others, Shea found, are better dried than fresh. One is Sweet Annie. She incorporated it liberally in her wreaths and bouquets. But fresh it tends to drop pollen on the table and make a mess.

Look for other goodies from the garden to add interest to a wreath, like dried eucalyptus, thistles and seed pods.

It’s easy to create your own wreath. Shea simply forages grapevines, found all over Wine Country. She soaks the vines in water to make them pliable, then wraps them in paddle wire, which she also uses to create tiny bundles to attach to the vines. From there, you can add other pieces.

Shea likes an asymmetrical approach, dressing only part of the wreath and leaving the rest bare to reveal the structure of the brown vines.

First year on the farm

Shea has farmed before, growing vegetables in Healdsburg and in the Mark West area of Santa Rosa. In recent years, she worked for the youth organization Tomorrow’s Leaders Today and was a preschool gardening teacher. But she never gave up on farming. Last year, when her father-in-law, Mike Sullivan Sr., decided to buy a small hay farm and turn the old farmhouse into a retirement haven, they got the opportunity they had been waiting for.

Mike Jr. quit his job in insurance and the pair went all in as farmers.

“My grandparents had an apple orchard, and we’d go out and work there until I was in my late teens,” he said.

Over the last century, various crops have been grown in the hard clay soil: strawberries, prunes and, finally, hay. Shea and Sullivan tilled the soil, added amendments and organic compost and planted a cover crop last winter. They started their flowers from seed in a small hoop house and planted in April.

Shea said in doing research, she learned that flowers were a higher-value crop than vegetables. And although they ran into more competition this year, as farms that normally cater to big events turned to more individual sales — Blossom and Bine’s target market, they managed to do well enough that they’re planning a second season next year. The couple also intend to double their hops yield next year.

“Everybody wants flowers, and in difficult times like this it’s nice to give yourself a treat or share it with somebody else,” Shea said. “All things considered, there’s still a market for flowers and people like knowing they’re grown locally.”

“I love growing them,” she added. “And I love all the pollinators they attract. I really love putting them into arrangements and the happy response I get from customers.”

After all, whose heart is not uplifted by a big dahlia or zinnia?

Because of the pandemic shelter-in-place order that began in March, daughters Magnolia, 12, and Ophelia, 9, where able to help out during the busy months of spring. Shea and Sullivan live in a house on 10 acres adjoining the farm and the girls, who now are distance learning, can drive back and forth from home to the farm on a little ATV.

“Ophelia loves to make bouquets,” Shea said. “She would come over and keep me company while I was putting bouquets together. She had her own separate bucket. In a way, it was nice to have them more involved than they would have been if they were in school.”

Now, the field is almost empty save for a few scrubby leftovers. The couple is looking forward to relaxing in December with their daughters before starting all over again in February.

“It’s a nice time of year to regroup,” Shea said, “take a little breath and think about what we want to do next year.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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