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Lily of the Field grows plants perfected to thrive in Flagstaff-area gardens

Jessica Clarke featured on The Daily Sun

When people asked young Amelia Blake what she wanted to be when she grew up, she always answered that she was a farmer. She now runs a plant nursery business in Flagstaff and she can honestly say Ms. Blake is making her childhood dreams come true.

Lily of the valley nurseries focus on growing native, heirloom and drought-adapted plants suitable for Flagstaff’s high altitude, low water environment. Blake and her partner Robin started the business in February 2020 after realizing there was a gap in the market for plants grown in nurseries specifically suited to local conditions. It’s been a difficult time to start a business with pandemic-related lockdowns and upcoming closures, but Lily of the Field partnered with another farmer’s vendor in her market to get his first year off the ground. I was able to earn enough to survive. Four-year-old Blake said the lily of the valley is finally starting to get back on its feet.

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suitable for plant cultivation

Blake comes from a family that has been growing plants for generations. On her father’s side, generations before her were farmers in Kansas during the Dust Bowl years and owned ranches at Camp Verde. Her father eventually moved to Flagstaff, where she became head of the NAU research greenhouse. When Blake was a child, she often accompanied her father on his work, helping her take care of plants while learning the same information her father used to teach graduate students. Ms. Blake believes that caring for her plants is hardwired into her DNA. “If your family has been doing the same thing for generations, it probably means they have some genetic predisposition to enjoy growing plants. I would have been doing something else at some point,” she explained.

Uninterested in anything else, Blake gained work experience from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in plant science. She returned to Flagstaff where she managed native plant and seed nurseries until part of her business closed. Her experience working in a nursery centered on different native plants gave Blake insight into the plants her customers preferred, and she was able to apply that knowledge to her own business. rice field. “You know, people like things that are relatively familiar, and sometimes I grow up to be the native version of them,” she explained. In addition to native plants that are popular among average gardeners, Ms. Blake says, to specifically cater to a small group of people she described as “very geeks about plants,” she added, “Nobody’s heard of it.” ” prefers to grow varieties.

Whether growing for the “plant nerd” or for the more ordinary gardener, Blake seeks to have a variety of plants that perform more than just aesthetics. increase. Her motto is that if you can’t eat it or use it in some way, you probably don’t justify the extra water needed to grow it. “I mean, flowers are great,” Blake admitted. “But it’s like having a field of flowers in a forest… you don’t have to.” here.She also points out that most plants that are edible or medicinal are also attractive, so you don’t necessarily have to choose between functionality and beautiful flowers.

specific skill set

When Blake talks about growing challenges in Flagstaff, the list grows longer and includes items ranging from soil quality to water scarcity to difficult weather (wind, hail, sporadic freezing, etc.). seems to be But that challenge is also an advantage, as she feels. “If you can grow things here, you can grow things anywhere,” Blake explained. “If you can really hone that skill here, you can have that skill in just about any climate, and you’ll have a good understanding of how to mitigate the challenges there.”

However, Blake has no plans to apply her skills to new areas anytime soon. Her father-in-law, who lives in Cambodia, continues to campaign for her family to move to Cambodia. He tells Blake that “everything grows so easily, you’ll love it,” but that doesn’t appeal to her. She said, “Nobody needs me there. It’s like dropping a seed gives you food. My skills aren’t wanted in that place.”

Blake is in the business of helping people develop gardens that are built to thrive even in difficult circumstances, but she tends to see her role through a non-anthropocentric lens. What she loves most about her job is learning that when she’s gone, some of the plants she grows and sells can live for thousands of years (or at least their descendants can live). That’s what I say. Blake cites an oak tree as an example. [an oak tree] Produced some successful offspring and it worked really well. Within a year, that one oak tree can grow many more oaks than it can grow on its own,” she said. She “doesn’t feel bad” about helping with such things.

Blake also contributes her expertise to Tolani Lake Enterprises, a nonprofit organization that helps preserve the Navajo’s culturally significant fruit tree communities. When the U.S. military forced the Diné people out of their homeland in the 1860s, U.S. soldiers destroyed livestock, water sources, and orchards of peach trees that the people had grown to suit the local environment. Today, there is a growing willingness among the Dineh to return to providing their own food and cultivating their own land. Luckily, some of the trees survived the destruction, and from their seeds Blake is now using his skills to grow more trees for the restoration of the orchard.

Business and market growth

Over the past four years, Blake has been able to grow Suzuran from a business that barely covers the cost of traveling to and from the farmer’s market to one that allows her and her partner to live modestly and raise their own children. . , contribute meaningfully to the community. As a business without a storefront, Lily of the Valley’s growth has been driven almost entirely by market participation and plant sales. Perhaps the most important of these is Pine Forest Charter School’s ‘Gardener’s Market’, organized by Blake. Blake used to sell plants in the Pine Forest in the spring, but she had little advertising or clear signage. In 2023, she decided it would be more efficient to establish a ‘proper’ market, so she invited other plant vendors to join her and spread her information through her social media. To her surprise, her market was a success and it was evident in her sales.

According to Blake, the success of Gardeners’ Market comes from putting the right product in the right place. For her, the east side of town has a do-it-yourself culture that lends itself to gardening. She further points out that gardeners, unlike her market in her community in Flagstaff, are looking for plants rather than food or crafts. For her, the gardener’s market is a spring-only, small-scale product focused solely on selling plants, so these two markets are not competitors. She hopes that in the future, more plant vendors will offer a wider variety of options, making the market an even better place for locals to source garden supplies. As a result, she expects even more success, not just for her own business, but for all the local plant growers she joins.

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