Written by Tovah Martin
Photos by Rana Faure
When Debra Kaye dove into cut flowers at Bear Creek Farm, she went big. In spring, that means voluptuous peonies beyond your fondest dreams.
“I work with my land,” (emphasis on the collaborative with) Debra Kaye responds when customers drool over Bear Creek Farm’s humongous peony blossoms. A bodacious eight inches in width and voluptuously heart arresting, each fluffy white bloom is an opus worthy of accompanying any bride down the aisle on her big day. That explains why Bear Creek Farm completely sells out of peonies every spring via their CSA (with several drop-off points) and that’s why the adoring fans of Bear Creek Farm’s cut flowers form a line stretching half a block at their weekly farmer’s market stand in the city. Clearly Kaye’s collaboration with nature has proved fruitful.
Located on 38 acres in Stanfordville, building an arresting bouquet was not in Bear Creek Farm’s agenda until 2013. That was the year Kaye asked a Southampton-based florist/friend to do the flowers for her own autumn wedding. When that florist was overbooked, she asked for advice on flowers she might grow on her farm to feed into the event. She’d never heard of a dahlia before that day, but trusting his advice, she ordered 100 dahlia tubers. From that autumn on, dahlias and Debra Kaye have an ongoing romance…in addition to her happy marriage.
The fact that Debra Kaye has a background in marketing and innovation has everything to do with what happened next. She saw the dare of supplying locally grown cut flowers for regional brides as a personal challenge. “My background is in solving paradoxes,” she explains. She dove into dahlias—planting 300 tubers the following year and then expanding into a field that stretched into 10 acres of dahlias with a focused emphasis on the massive dinnerplate versions. She had a corner on the larger-than-life flower market and the endeavor proved a raging success. Meanwhile, she didn’t want to leave spring brides unfulfilled, and that’s where the peonies came in—specifically, 1,600 peony plants. Peonies already held a special place in her heart, especially white, ultra-frilly, double-flowered versions targeted for brides.
Bear Creek Farm also produces boutique tulips, fritillarias, and Icelandic poppies for the spring cut flower trade—all crops that veer from the usual agenda. But what really puts Bear Creek Farm on the map is their unique approach to farming—and those practices are based on Kaye’s promise to partner with her land. For example, like all parcels in this area of New York, the soil is ultra-rocky. Rather than fighting the terrain, she embraces the fact that stones furnish minerals to enrich her crops. Similarly, she does not amend her soil per se because amendments only enrich the upper strata of earth. Instead, she harnesses cover crops, plowing them into the soil to build up its profile over time.
Bear Creek Farm’s peonies benefit from her earth-friendly mission. She waits four years after planting rather than the typical three before harvesting her first peony crop. And her pathway to those humongous blossoms includes removing side buds and channeling the plant’s energy into the terminal flower. “We also hand weed and leave generous spacing between plants,” she explains. “We don’t pinch buds to see when they’re ready to harvest, we let nature tell us when to pick. On harvest, we let each branch rest for 20 minutes before putting it in water so we don’t shock their system.” Clearly, everything at Bear Creek Farm is reverential and the crops respond. But check it out for yourself. For information on their CSA and workshops, go to bearcreekfarm.com.