By Jill Draper
Running a 3-acre flower farm in a small town just south of Kansas City involves being outside in all kinds of weather and earning an income that’s not quite a living. “If that doesn’t bother you, it’s the greatest job in the world,” says Lydia Cranston, owner of Hope Meadows Farm.
“I used to feel guilty about being out in the garden. Now I can justify it because it’s my business. For me, it’s perfect.”
Cranston, whose maiden name was Lydia Hope Meadows, says she always knew she would have a farm someday. She grew up on 80 acres near Joplin and when she moved to Belton in 2016, her goal was to transform several acres of mostly fill dirt into rich organic soil. She planted a variety of flowers, ferns and grasses, and last year began selling them in glass jars and yard sale vases at the Belton and Raymore farmers markets.
At first Cranston underestimated how much she would have to learn and how many plants she would need. “I had to really ramp up production and choose varieties good for cutting. For example, stem length matters enormously.” She also had to view the flowers in her yard as produce rather than beautiful landscaping. “It’s a different intention—you’re harvesting them a little before time and bringing them inside rather than outside.”
She grows certain flowers that are standard in the floral industry, including daffodils, irises, sunflowers, hyacinths, lilacs and peonies. But her goal is to plant at least half of her acreage in natives.
“I love Missouri. The flowers that grow here are absolutely gorgeous. Plus, they’re adapted to our extreme weather. There are so many advantages to it,” she says. “We don’t have to go to Asia to get beautiful plants.”
In fact, Cranston doesn’t go far at all to get many of her plants. She’s a frequent customer of Critical Site’s Prairie and Wetland Center, a large native plant nursery just a few miles away in Belton. Some of her favorites are Culver’s root (a veronica with long spires of tiny white blossoms), blazing star (“almost an exclamation point in arrangements”) baptisia or false indigo (for both its blue lupine-like blossoms and foliage), nine bark and royal fern for foliage, monardas or bee balm, Joe Pye weed and butterfly weed.
Many of these are fragrant, which she regards as a top consideration.
She starts most annuals from seeds, especially zinnias, which she describes as “an almost no-fail flower” that come in an enormous range of colors and shapes. She finds perennials are easier to grow from plugs or bare root plants. Her 12 by 16-foot greenhouse is currently filled with 285 swan mix columbine plugs, five varieties of phlox paniculata and a mix of tall astilbe—all waiting for milder weather before transplanting in her yard.
Cranston encourages home gardeners to think outside the box when making flower arrangements. In early spring she likes to add two or three sprigs of St. John’s wort to bouquets, finding their last year’s burgundy-colored leaves and seed pods provide an interesting element. Marestail or horseweed can be used as a filler, as well as other weeds and seed pods.
She cautions that not everything has a good vase life, especially certain types of sunflowers that drop pollen and most homegrown roses. Florist shop roses, while longer lasting, are imported from South America and have no fragrance, she points out. “They kind of lost the roseness of the rose.”
Cranston hopes to join with other local flower growers to organize a cooperative that would sell directly to florists, many of whom are desperate for different, interesting material and who care about the heavy use of chemicals in the industry, she says. At her farm she tries to avoid herbicides and pesticides, and relies on compost and fish emulsion for fertilizer.
While her focus is on selling beautiful flowers at local markets, it’s also about the larger picture of soil and plant health. “People can have an impact on the world, even if it’s a small area,” she believes.