MARYVILLE, Mo. — Just outside of town a woman has put her green thumb to work for three years growing a business to provide fresh-cut flowers to florists and now the public, only to have her growth stunted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The coronavirus, it affected everything,” said Ann Volner, owner of Windy Hill Flowers, LLC. “Coronavirus has definitely done a number on the floral industry.”
Sometimes florists don’t have a demand during the summer months, she explained, but this year has been different. With weddings canceled and funerals not being held, she explained that florists have really taken a hit during the health crisis. That affected her business as well.
This spring — her first growing tulips and daffodils — brought with them the question of going public. Originally Volner planned to sell wholesale to florists, but with them needing few if any flowers and her fields offering a plentiful bounty that she couldn’t bring herself to throw away, a new plan was required.
Just getting started with social media, Volner told The Forum on Monday that it’s not her forte, but it is one of the best ways to show off her flowers and connect with people in the socially-distanced COVID-19 world. On May 3, she sold out of tulips and is using those sales to judge how best to continue offering bright bouquets to the public.
From a young age, Volner worked with her hands digging and pulling weeds in the family garden. Only recently has she turned those skills into a business working with florists in Maryville, Savannah and St. Joseph.
A teacher at the Maryville R-II school district’s alternative school, Volner has the summer off and decided to put that time to good use doing something she enjoys.
“I’ve been gardening a long long time,” she told The Forum on Monday. “As a kid that was one of our chores.”
In high school she was in FFA and learned to grow and cut flowers as well as make corsages, however she’s learned a lot since then.
With the fresh scent of flowers in the air, Volner spoke about how much she enjoys growing the flowers from tiny seeds, some so small you can barely see.
“I think there’s just a sense of achievement, from the time you start that little baby as a seed to the time it blooms,” she said. “Whenever you finally see them bloom, it’s definitely a sense of achievement. It’s like ‘Wow! I did that. Finally it survived!’”
Placed in tiny pots in her home in January, Volner waters and cares each day for the seedlings as they grow strong enough to be transplanted into larger pots and placed in a small utility shed or outside in the open field behind her home.
“Whenever we had our own place we started our own garden,” she said. “I always like to have a garden because I like to see the butterflies and hummingbirds.”
What to plant?
Volner said she thinks about what flowers will look best together when deciding what to plant for the season. With regard to floral options, she explained that her flower farm is based on the season and offers a lot of choice, however, she does grow with bouquets in mind so there are different shapes of flowers.
From dahlias, tulips and daffodils, she said choosing the shape of the flower is just as important as its coloring and scent.
From spikes, discs and focal flowers, the floral vocabulary begins to take shape. Zinnias are disc-like and offer a round wide flower for full bouquets. Spikes like Liatris spicata, also known as Blazing Stars, provide both color and height to any floral spray. Focal flowers, such as oriental lilies or Lisianthus offer a large place for the eye to focus on in a displayed bouquet.
One year Volner grew a flower called Lisianthus (Eustoma grandiflorum) also known as prairie gentian, which look a bit like roses. Used a lot in weddings and to add height to floral arrangements, Lisianthus are popular for bouquets and can really take heat, according to Burpee.com, a seed purchasing website.
“They hold up in a vase nicely, like two weeks,” Volner said. “I didn’t realize that they were valuable to the floral industry. I had just happened to start them one year because I had seen them.”
Realizing “these were just too good to sit on our table,” she began asking around and found several interested florists.
Thus began the Volners’ foray into seasonal floriculture.
For several years working to get the business off the ground, Volner explained that she and her husband, Tony, decided it would be best accomplished without taking out a loan. So every dollar made from the business is put back into it.
Couple the difficulty of this year’s health crisis with the sometimes difficult clay-filled ground that the flowers are planted into, and the Volners have some hard work ahead of them.
“We’ve had a lot of perennial flowers that have died in the field, because we get 6 inches of rain in a month and it doesn’t drain,” she said. “I have to be very aware of that.”
She said they have one field that can’t be planted until the end of May, because the end of the wet season just saturates it.
“These Liatris do super well. I’ve been amazed,” Volner said. “They’ve been in standing water and they have been months without rain. Last year they did amazingly well and I’m like ‘You guys are a winner. I’m going to keep growing you.’”
Along with a lot of help from her husband, Tony, and son, Derek, Volner said the family is working hard to keep the business viable while also providing cheerful bouquets for clients throughout northwest Missouri.
“Our first couple of years you’re going to (take a loss),” she said. “It’s a gamble. It’s kind of like farming, there’s no guarantee ever.”
Volner recalled a hail storm last year that took out a large portion of her flowers in the field.
“My son had just helped me,” she said. “I could smell the rain coming in the air. … As soon as we got inside, it started hailing. We probably lost half of what we had planted that day. ... There’s definitely a risk in it.”
How to purchase flowers?
Volner said the subscription cost is $114 for bouquets delivered once per week for six weeks. The cost of 12 weeks worth of bouquets delivered weekly is $216.
“I like to see people’s faces, especially when they’re not expecting to get flowers, Volner said. It’s really nice to see their faces light up.”
However, that’s not the only way someone can get flowers. She said a single large bouquet of seasonal flowers would cost anywhere between $10 and $20. She also is more than willing to work with people to find their floral fit.
Delivering for free within a 15-mile radius of Maryville, Volner said the paper-wrapped, no preservative bouquets are typically delivered no contact after 3 p.m. on weekdays.