Members of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Master Gardener Association are passionate about gardening, and we love to share that passion with others. Read about the favorite home gardening activities of our members with a new story each month.
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April 2021—Vanessa Kulick: Where All the Flowers Have Gone
Aster, bupleurum, black-eyed Susan, calendula, celosia, cosmos, dianthus, dahlias, echinacea, hydrangea, irises, marigolds, milkweed, poppies, roses, sage, sunflowers, and zinnias. Extension Master Gardener (EMG) Vanessa Kulick’s garden reads like a compendium of flowers. These are just the ones she rattles off the top of her head. At Indigo Page Flower Farm, she grows 30 different varieties of sustainable, cut flowers, herbs and flowering shrubs for commercial use.
The name Indigo Page pays homage to three natives of Page County: indigo bunting songbirds, the medicinal herb wild indigo and the natural tint of the Blue Ridge and Massanutten mountains. The nearly five-acre farm, idyllically complete with a house in need of extensive renovation, is an ambitious undertaking for a self-described beginner. It’s hard work, trial and error, and pure joy.
No stranger to gardening, Vanessa lived in Montgomery County, MD, under the tutelage of a green-thumbed mother (who hailed from a farm in upstate New York). She quickly denies that she is a “natural,” however. “I was forced to help out,” she said. “I much preferred to climb trees.”
After earning a master’s degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Vanessa established roots in Washington, D.C., beginning her career as a conflict advisor and peace worker for the Department of State. Based in U.S. embassies in Myanmar, Nigeria, and other Sub-Saharan African countries, she credits a flat mate, a former botanist, for sparking her transformation from think tank to farming.
“She taught me about plants and herbs and their healing and medicinal aspects, which led to my career change,” said Vanessa, who subsequently applied for and received a botany fellowship from the Shenandoah National Park in Page County. Her education continued with seasonal work in a nursery, digging up trees for commercial landscapers. She learned more about native and ornamental trees, tree health and pest management and, encouraged by other EMGs, joined the Northern Shenandoah Valley EMG Class of 2020.
As her new ambition flourished, Vanessa studied floral design, which took “a lot of practice and resulted in a lot of broken stems,” she said. She leased one-quarter acre of land at River Bend Ranch in Page County, and, in March 2020, she started 3,000 seeds indoors. She began harvesting the first of her 12,000 flowers in May, crafting weekly bouquets for both Community Supported Agriculture and business clients and fulfilling special orders for weddings and other events. By August, Vanessa had more flowers than she could use. “By September, I was ready to put my garden to bed for the season,” she said, although that didn’t happen until late October.
Gardening was the counterbalance she needed in her life, and she learned a lot from her initial experience: Start small. Be humble in your aspirations. Don’t be afraid to try. Accept that you will fail. “There were a lot of teaching moments,” she said, “but failure was the hardest.” She credits mentors for giving her the moral support to stay the course, especially when it came to organic management. “The challenge for me was that I couldn’t protect my plants against pests, yet somehow they survived,” she said.
This year, in addition to running Indigo Page Flower Farm, Vanessa took on the role of executive director, Choices, Inc., a Page County not-for-profit organization for the prevention of domestic and sexual violence. To stay balanced, she is scaling back the size of her farm, but increasing the variety of species. “It’s a smaller garden with a bigger purpose,” she said. “I’m incorporating more natives, multi-purpose herbs, perennials and fragrance into my bouquets; focusing on regenerative agriculture; and creating an ecosystem of biodiversity that attracts more birds and beneficial predators.”
Beauty, food, medicine and clean air. “It all comes down to plants,” she said. “At the end of the day, there’s nothing more inspiring than seeing the mosaic of my flower gardens in bloom. All the effort comes together like a Claude Monet painting.” But not static like a Monet. The gardens transform into bouquets and floral arrangements, which Vanessa personally delivers to an office, a hospital, a home, or a bride. Each bundle is greeted with a gratitude and a big smile. That’s when Vanessa gets a second spark of joy. “Flowers seem to transform everyone,” she said.
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