A flower farm born of love

On a recent Sunday morning I found myself strolling through a field in Hadley surrounded by row upon row of exquisite flowers — legions of many-hued celosias, foxgloves and nicotiana, along with others I couldn’t identify.

A flower-crazy friend had invited me to a pick-your-own session at Many Graces Flower Farm. I had often admired the spectacular floral arrangements at the Many Graces booth at the Amherst Farmers’ Market. These are not run-of-the-mill florist bouquets, but intimate and unusual combinations of flowers, buds and seed heads composed into works of art. I had no idea where or how these luxurious bouquets came to be.

The field in Hadley, as I discovered, is where the magic happens — or at least, where the magic begins.

Many Graces Flower Farm is an endeavor born of love. As founder Rebecca Maillet explained, a series of unexpected life events led her down this path that began seven years ago, when she was pursuing a doctorate in English at UMass Amherst. As she was preparing to take her comprehensive exams in early 2014, she learned that her best friend, Ruth, who was living in Seattle, had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

Ruth didn’t have a strong network of friends in Seattle, so Rebecca urged her to come live with her in Northampton, where she had a spare bedroom. Ruth arrived in April 2014 to spend what would be the final year of her life.

“I wanted us to live life in the biggest, best way we could,” Rebecca says. “We did a lot of special things, like taking a hot air balloon ride.” One of the women’s daily rituals was going out to the garden and cutting flowers for each other. They also walked in the woods to forage sticks and other interesting objects, something that Rebecca had done as a child with her mother.

“For me, that ritual and practice was a natural way I knew to bring magic and a different kind of medicine to my friend,” she says.

Ruth died in February 2015. “I’m still grieving,” Rebecca says. “I didn’t connect the dots back then, but I was still connected to flowers. I had studied poetry in grad school. Flowers are another form of poetry, the poetry of the earth.”

She got in touch with her friend Ray Young at Next Barn Over Farm in Hadley and asked if she could grow flowers there. “It was my way of staying close to Ruth,” she explains, “and it took on a life and energy of its own.” She started a small CSA with 30 members and began selling flowers to River Valley Co-op in Northampton and creating floral arrangements for social events in the area.

In January 2018, Rebecca decided she was ready to leave Next Barn Over and start her own flower business. She settled on the name Many Graces after describing to her mother all the things she loved about her work.

“I started listing the less quantifiable, more poetic aspects of it,” she said. “I told her I loved hearing the insect sounds, witnessing the life cycles of plants, from seedlings to when we pull them up in the fall, and hearing the wind blow through the leaves. My mother said, ‘You just love the many graces of the work.’ And so that was the name.”

That spring, Rebecca rented two farm fields totaling 8 acres off Lawrence Plain Road in Hadley. The business snowballed over the next two years as word spread from Newport, Rhode Island, to the Catskills about Many Graces’ gorgeous floral designs. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in spring 2020, all social occasions dropped from the calendar, and Many Graces, which had supported itself through event work, suddenly had no business.

Rebecca and her romantic and business partner, Kel Komenda, had a season’s supply of seeds and no customers. As Kel recalls, “We asked each other, ‘What are we going to do now?’ We’re from working class families. We have no farming background. We already had purchased the seeds. So we decided to go ahead and grow the flowers and then figure out who wants them.”

Then something unexpected happened. While the pandemic shut down the event business, it also stopped the importation of flowers from abroad. The demand for domestically produced flowers skyrocketed. Many Graces had a connection to a flower market in New York City and began to sell its flowers wholesale to florists in New York. Business soon spread to Boston, Providence and Connecticut.

“That’s how we saved the farm,” Kel says.

Building on‘inherent magic’

The magic that starts in the fields continues in Many Graces’ design studio, where Rebecca and her team create floral arrangements for social events. Although Rebecca has no formal training in horticulture or design, she developed a strong affinity for nature and flowers while growing up in Orange, surrounded by farms and woods.

“My muse is the flowers and the inherent magic they have,” she says. “We bring flowers around us in the most momentous events of our lives. They have such a presence. They are poetry. As a designer, I’m trying to capture a microcosm of that poetry in the arrangement.”

Typically, she says, “I’m inspired by a single thing, like the natural movement of a nodding seed head.” She picks up a stem of celosia that has grown in an unusual curved form. “An interesting shape like this can dictate an entire design,” she says. “Because we’re trying to give people the experience of poetry and the natural world, we don’t try to constrain materials, but to elevate them.”

You might assume that growing thousands upon thousands of perfect blooms would require liberal use of pesticides, but you’d be wrong. Many Graces produces its flowers using strictly organic practices.

“My philosophy is to plant enough for everyone, including rabbits, bugs and humans,” Rebecca says. “We work in a spirit of generosity. I don’t like the idea that certain things are considered pests. They’re all doing what they need to do to stay alive.” She and Kel acknowledge that their fields are on land that was stolen from the Nipmuc and Pocumtuc Indians. “We feel it’s important to care for the land,” Kel says.

The work that goes into producing Many Graces’ flowers is astounding. In March, the farm rents a tractor to prepare the beds on two parcels of land that they lease. After that, the work is done mostly by hand. This year, they planted 600,000 plants. To provide enough flowers for the season, they do succession planting once a week from mid-April until mid-July.

Many Graces grows more than 250 varieties of flowers, many of which are out of the ordinary. For example, in addition to common zinnias, Rebecca grows “Persian Carpet” varieties, fantastic bicolored blooms in exotic colors that she calls “jazzy zinnias.” Cosmos and bachelor’s buttons also appear in unusual double and bicolor varieties.

The farm also grows a special variety of snapdragons called “Madame Butterfly,” with full, frilly blossoms that bear a crisp apple scent. Not surprisingly, seed for all these specialty flowers is considerably more expensive than common seed.

Dahlias and lisianthus are two of Many Graces’ most labor-intensive and cherished flowers. Dahlias are grown from tubers that are planted every spring. This year the farm crew planted 4,487 dahlia tubers, all of which will need to be dug up, cleaned and stored in the fall. Lisianthus plants are started in the greenhouse in January and take seven months to mature. They require careful tending and weeding and produce only one cutting of flowers. But they are worth the effort. Because they can go without water for several hours, they are invaluable for large-scale wedding installations such as arched trellises.

The farm’s Sunday morning pick-your-own program known as “Frolic!” was launched this year. Customers sign up on the farm’s website for a time and are greeted at the cutting field by Rebecca and Kel, who give a brief explanation of the farm’s history and philosophy as well as a tour of the flowers available for cutting. Flower buckets and shears are distributed, and customers are free to cut what they wish. The charge is $2 per stem (slightly more for dahlias and lisianthus), and Rebecca demonstrates her infallible design sense by creating an instant bouquet for each customer as they check out. For more information about Frolic! and to register, go to: manygraces.com

In Rebecca and Kel’s eyes, Many Graces’ workers are the foundation of its success. The business is affirmatively queer-owned and operated and employs four full-time and three part-time people. Everyone works both in the fields and in the design studio, which was built by Kel with help from Rebecca’s father during the pandemic. “Before we built the studio, we worked in an old trailer,” said Kel. “But when the pandemic came, we needed more space to keep everyone safe.”

Sustaining a team

“Our goal is to give our workers year-round employment,” Rebecca says. “It’s hard to retain good people with seasonal work.”

Once the growing season ends, the Many Graces team creates autumnal arrangements and holiday wreaths with their vast array of dried flowers, grasses and seedpods. There’s a six-week break between Christmas and Valentine’s Day, when they create arrangements with flowers from trusted sources, mostly in California. In March they begin preparing the fields for the growing season, and it all starts again.

Rebecca believes what makes Many Graces Flower Farm special is the deep connection with the land that the flowers come from.

“That intimacy is expressed in the designs we create. We’re the growers and the designers. We’re trying to show people that they can have luxury floral design made with 100% locally produced flowers. Part of my job as lead farmer and designer is educating our customers about the cost of what we do. Running a young farm like ours is exorbitantly expensive,” she says, but she and her team and her many avid customers understand that growing sustainably produced flowers is worth it.

“Rebecca is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known,” said Candace Hope, a local photographer and longtime friend of Rebecca’s who was taking photographs of the pick-your-own session for the farm’s website, social media and newsletter.

Candace told me that she lost her father to cancer around the same time that Rebecca’s friend Ruth died. “She offered so much care to her friend,” she says. “I was so moved by her that I wanted to help her when she started her business. It’s really a privilege and honor to be able to use my skills and talents to support her.”

Candace enjoys being part of the Many Graces team. “I’m so impressed with how well Rebecca cares for her people, for the land,” she says. “She prioritizes taking care of the community. She’s been such an inspiration for me and my own growing practices over the years. The crew works so hard, they have such great spirit, and everyone loves the flowers. It’s a very special community that she’s building.”

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.