Jun 21, 2013
07:07 PM
The Connecticut Story

Gardener's Delight: White Flower Farm's Open House Is Saturday

Gardener's Delight: White Flower Farm's Open House Is Saturday

Laurie Gaboardi/Litchfield County Times

White Flower Farm nursery manager Barbara Pierson.

Munching on freshly made cucumber sandwiches and sipping homemade iced tea while gazing at the brilliant hues and delightful shapes of assorted flowers, shrubs and trees sounds like one nice way to spend an early summer afternoon.

If the above does indeed tickle your various senses, then White Flower Farm has just the event for you on June 22, when the world-renowned garden center, which ships bulbs, flowers, vegetable plants, shrubs and trees all over the world, conducts its annual open house.

“We like to make a family event,” says Barbara Pierson, the affable nursery manager and spokesperson for White Flower Farm, which has been in operation for over 60 years. “It’s the families of our customers meeting our family. We like to keep the event low-keyed but we usually attract several hundred, if not a thousand or more, people each year. Of course, when the weather cooperates the turnouts are larger.”

The event, which is free, is highlighted by a guided tour of the farm’s interesting and diverse display gardens, which cover almost three acres of the nursery and retail outlet just off Route 63. The tour starts at 1:30 p.m., with sandwiches and tea served at 2:30 p.m. The display gardens should be in full bloom for the open house, and the farm’s famous Begonia House, flush with Blackmore and Langdon varieties, will be also open to the public, said Ms. Pierson.

“There isn’t a begonia house like it in the United States, and we will have it open for the season on the day of the open house,” she said.

Eliot Wadsworth, the son of the owner of White Flower Farm (also named Eliot) and the farm’s marketing manager, stopped by for a brief chat prior to Ms. Pierson taking a visitor on a tour of the display gardens.

“We like to think of the open house as saying thank you to our customers,” said Mr. Wadsworth. “I try and estimate how many people we get each year by the boxes that the cucumber sandwiches come in, and we get hundreds if not more people most years.” They come from as far away as Texas, and Ms. Pierson said she talked with a couple from that state that came by on open house day after building a travel itinerary around the visit.

“I think it is important for a mail order catalogue company that does business all over the world to open itself up to our customers so they can see what we are all about and what we do. In addition to the tour and sandwiches and iced tea, we’ll do fun things like a best garden hat contest and maybe have a plant sale in the retail store [which faces Route 63].”

White Flower Farm had its genesis back in the late 1930s when William Harris and his wife, Jane Grant, made a house out of a small barn in Litchfield. They were both writers and fancied a “little place in the country” to which they could bring their work and where they could vacation. Before long, they discovered that trying to write in Litchfield was difficult for them because nature beckoned and they spent far more time outside and in their gardens than with their work. The couple turned most of the energies to gardening and soon grew a business based on the principle that good plants and good service will have a strong audience among knowledgeable gardeners. With very little paid promotion, the enthusiastic endorsement of early customers led to gradual but consistent growth in the business. White Flower Farm remained small but built a devoted following, these customers coming to the farm looking for the best of ornamental plants, both new and old, plus the information and advice necessary to succeed with them.

Jane Grant died in 1973 and Mr. Harris sold the nursery to its current owner, Eliot Wadsworth, in 1976. Mr. Harris passed away in 1981, by which time Mr. Wadsworth had settled in to live with his family at the nursery and to shape the future of the business from its humble beginnings

White Flower Farm continues actively to collect and evaluate plants from around the world, propagating commercial quantities for sale through three seasonal catalogues. The farm welcomes thousands of visitors every year, many of whom take home plants selected at the retail outlet. A staff, which now numbers almost 100, is filled with professional and amateur horticulturists from around the world.

Ms. Pierson, who has a burning passion for growing beautiful things and admittedly hardly ever takes a day off, is at home in the outdoors, tending to and keeping a close eye on her plants and gardens, as well as 32 greenhouses located at the farm. White Flower’s administrative, shipping and customer service operations are located at a large complex in Torrington.

“My father was a rose grower, so I have had my hands in dirt since I was a child,” said Ms. Pierson, who graduated from Cornell University with a degree in floriculture and ornamental horticulture and who has been at White Flower Farm for the past 15 years. She said the trend in recent years has been for homeowners to gladly delve into gardening as a way to enjoy the homes to a greater extent.

“They call them ‘stay-vacations,’ people staying at home and spending more time making their yards and homes beautiful. And that means adding gardens, flowers, shrubs and trees. And people are more concerned about the foods they eat and are growing more vegetables in their yards,” she said.

She walks past one of the main attractions of the guided tour, the Lloyd Border, named for the late Christopher Lloyd, a well-known and respected English “plantsman” and garden writer. The border was designed by Fergus Garrett, head gardener at Great Dixter, Mr. Lloyd’s estate in England, and planting began in 2001. The border is 280 feet long by 20 feet deep and contains more than 3,000 individual bulbs, perennials, shrubs, trees and annuals. A slate walkway frames the front of the border and there is a backdrop of European beech.

Visitors can also view a shade garden, which features shade-loving perennials and annuals, and a cottage garden that is set in the crook of a Cape-style house that dates back to 1756 and is the oldest structure on the property. Sweet autumn clematis covers a stone well head on the west side of the cottage. There is also a tree peony grove, daylilies, ground covers, a pollinator garden, bulb and annual display beds, a shrub/perennial/bulb border, and a mixed evergreen hedge to stroll past and wonder at.

“We love bringing people to Litchfield because there is so much else to do and see in the area, fine restaurants, wineries and nature centers,” said Ms. Pierson. n

For further information on White Flower Farm, visit, www.whiteflowerfarm.com.

Gardener's Delight: White Flower Farm's Open House Is Saturday

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