By Alicia Shepard
Nat and Patty Craley knew nothing about growing flowers when they bought Fields of Flowers farm on Allder School Road near Purcellville.
But the retired couple has learned a lot about raising perennials, running a business, challenging Mother Nature and battling beetles since buying the 5-acre farm in October 2013.
As new farmers, they are experiencing a dramatically different lifestyle from the hectic pace of an earlier life working and raising kids in McLean and Falls Church.
“Deer, rabbits, foxes, groundhogs, skunks and geese all challenge our ability to be successful flower growers,” said Nat Craley, a retired business development manager. “We are operating as an organic farm, choosing not to use chemicals to combat various bugs and other pests. The weather, of course, never ceases to remind us who is really in charge.”
Like many couples on the verge of retirement, the Craleys had been toying with several ideas about how to spend their golden years, including keeping bees and growing flowers on a weekend farm they owned near Gettysburg, PA, to be closer to Nat’s family.
But as his family dispersed, it became clear this would not be their retirement haven. They sold the Gettysburg property and discovered Fields of Flowers by chance through friends Penny and Dave Swan, who lived in Purcellville.
Penny Swan encouraged Patty to enroll in a class on owning and operating a business. After a career in IT as a programmer and analyst, Patty thought she might like to start a web design or record-scanning business in retirement. The teacher of that class probed deeper about her interests. She instead encouraged Patty to pursue her unformed dream of growing flowers for the business case study the course required.
“Penny told me about the Fields of Flowers property and thought the current owner might be interested in selling,” she recalled.
In January 2013, on a whim, Patty called the owners, Robbie and Dennis East, who created the pick-your-own flower farm in the early 1990s. Robbie said the property was not for sale but invited Patty to visit in March when she returned from a winter stay in warmer climate.
“I had no intention of moving to Purcellville,” Patty said. “But I thought, ‘What the heck, I’ll check this out. It can’t hurt.’”
That sentiment turned into Craleys falling in love with the place and making an offer a month later, selling their McLean house and moving into the circa 1860, two-story farm house that October.
Suddenly, they were flower farmers.
Nat became the gentleman farmer learning as he went along. Patty commuted to Alexandria until she retired in 2016. The first big challenge was how to prepare the fields of annuals and perennials, but especially how to manage the many rows of freeze-adverse dahlias for the following season.
“When the moving dust settled, we began to investigate the fields full of flowers but knew nothing about how to replant the flowers, maintain them or even what we had,” Nat said. “All we knew was we had beautiful dahlias and that we would eventually need to unearth the tubers, dry them and store them for the winter in our cellar. “
They figured they’d get settled first in their new house and then invite friends to dig up the dahlia tubers. But the weather didn’t cooperate.
“The forecast abruptly called for weather in the low teens several weeks after we moved in,” said Nat. “Scrambling, with help from longtime friends who made a party of it, we beat the freeze deadline by a few hours but had no idea how to protect the tubers or if they would survive our manhandling. We decided spring would give us the answer.”
Another challenge has been deer. The couple quickly learned an old farmers’ trick: dog hair. “We went to local dog grooming places and got all the dog hair we could collect,” Patty said. “I cut up old nylons and made little bags of dog hair. We strung them on poles, hoping the scent wards off deer.”
Over the years, they got help from several friends who know their stuff when it comes to flowers.
Now in their fourth year, the farm is in full bloom. They are growing beautiful dahlias (the hardy blooms appeared in spring 2014) and peonies, sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos, limelight hydrangeas, shasta daisies, yarrow, rudbeckia and many more annuals and perennials.
The couple is in the process of building a greenhouse and expanding the flower beds. They may someday open the property for small events—workshops, weddings or yoga classes. They have thought of using the property as a “bike and breakfast” for cyclists on the WO&D trail. But for now, they are focused on making the fields a place for their customers to enjoy the pick-your-own-flowers experience.
Last spring, Patty became a beekeeper after taking a class through the Loudoun County Bee Association. They have two hives of bees helping pollinate their growing flower farm.
“It’s challenging to start and maintain a healthy hive,” said Patty, who’s been stung a few times. “Keeping bees is a life-long learning process. But what’s great is I’ve learned there is a supportive community of beekeepers in the area. There are four on my road. I would never have guessed I would be a beekeeper living on a flower farm.”
When the Craleys first bought Fields of Flowers, a close friend was floored. “What do you know about growing, cutting, arranging or transporting fresh flowers?” she asked incredulously. “Nothing,” Patty replied. “But I can learn.”
That’s exactly what the adventurous Craleys have done.
37879 Allder School Road, Purcellville
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily
Contact: 540-338-7231, on Facebook, or loudounfieldsofflowers.com
Visitors choose a container size, ranging in price from $10 to $30, and pick their own flowers. The season begins in mid-May and ends with the first frost.