Flowers for the Soul

Cape Cod Life  /  April 2021 / ,

Writer: Elizabeth Shaw / Photographer: Meryl Gartside 

Meryl Gartside spent her career doing what she needed to. Now, she spends time at her flower farm doing what she wants to do.

“A flower blossoms for its own joy,” said Oscar Wilde, but what about the gardeners who garden for their own joy? Since 2016, Meryl Gartside has quietly tended her farm on leased fields, providing the most stunning variety of flowers to local florists and designers, and brightening up lives across the Cape. With Blue Lobster Flower Farm, Meryl has spent her time experimenting and perfecting the unique and eye-catching flowers she grows. A washashore, Meryl was born in Philadelphia, but spent a big part of her adult life in Boston, with many vacations on the Cape. “I retired when we moved here, which allowed me to do what I wanted to do, rather than what I needed to do,” she says. “That’s how the farm got started. I was orignially trained as a graphic designer, but for over 20 years I worked in horticulture, primarily with perennial plants. I knew nothing about growing specialty cut flowers for production. It was a steep learning curve for me, but I have a strong background in plants and I’m a master gardener, so it wasn’t a total leap. But I entered a whole new area of growing I wasn’t familiar with.” 

Working on two fields, adding up to less than one half acre, Meryl splits the space, with one field acting as her perennial and “trial” field where she tests new flowers, and her larger field that contains the majority of her operation. And what is her operation? “Since I don’t own the land, I can’t bring many people on the property, but I have strong relationships with local florists and designers,” she says. Working with them, she provides blooms for a variety of uses, including weddings and events. In 2020, her work changed slightly, due to canceled or postponed weddings, but the flowers grew anyway. “Last year, because of so many cancellations of events and weddings, I started doing flower subscriptions. I was able to connect more directly with the public instead of selling my flowers only wholesale.” But selling wholesale isn’t the only way Meryl puts her gorgeous flowers to work. “We do a big installation at the end of the season every year someplace local, with longtime friend and ‘Flower Soul Sister’, floral designer Kate Formichella, of Flora Chella Design. We do an end of season installation, which is sort of our gift to the community. Potential locations are always on our radar, because we haven’t decided year by year where it’ll be, but people are always thrilled by it. This will be our sixth installation coming up.”

For Meryl, the joy of growing flowers outweighs the challenges of nurturing her farm on Cape Cod. “I don’t own my own land or greenhouses, so our work is very specific to the season. I have tunnels I put up that give me a little extra time at the beginning and end of the season, but I’m primarily subject to weather on the Cape, which means most things, other than some cool season flowers, aren’t even in the ground until May,” she explains. “I grow roughly 60 varieties of dahlias and they can’t go into the ground until the temp of the soil is up to 60 degrees. There’s no tricking mother nature in that department. And you have to wait until all danger of frost has past before planting warm season flowers.” That seasonality is a key aspect of Meryl’s planting choices, and keeps things fresh and interesting, for Meryl and her customers. “When you buy flowers that I’ve grown, they’re not going to be the same throughout the season. Varieties peak and wane and then we move on to the next part of the season, when other flowers come into their prime. We’re constantly pulling up rows when a crop is finished, then we replant in the hopes of getting another succession before the frost. It’s all about timing and making the most of the season in the small area where I farm.”

This short season of growing means a short season of selling, but Meryl has found a way to extend the appeal of her blooms. Last year, she began drying flowers and crafting wreaths, with a focus on fall-themed colors, to sell on Instagram. “I’m going to be focusing more this year on our dried flower offerings, because last year I did a great number of wreaths with the dried flowers I had harvested from the farm and it was a huge success. I’m going to focus on things I can grow for sale as fresh cut, but also with the thought in mind that it would be used for drying. I’m developing that line of goods that will be available after the growing season. I’m very excited about it.”

Aiding her in that venture, and what makes her blooms stand out in arrangements and on her colorful Instagram account, are her uncommon and extraordinary flower choices. “I try to grow things that others don’t grow. That’s the advantage of buying something that’s been grown locally; a lot of thought has gone into what I’m growing at the farm. If I’m crafting a bouquet, you’ll find things that aren’t available at regular outlets. I like that, I pride myself on that,” she explains. Unique flowers are not without their challenges. She gives new potential flowers a trial run, after extensive research, to make sure they not only grow in the Cape climate, but thrive. And while her customers play a role in the choices she makes regarding what to grow, what really matters is how the flowers make a person feel. “I put a lot of thought into what I think would be an item people would notice, like an old-fashioned flower that evokes a memory or feeling; a real old-fashioned snapdragon that actually snaps when you squeeze the throat together, things you remember doing when you were a kid. People really love and have strong associations with flowers and I try and hit on those notes,” she says. “I’m also a big one for color. Most people really are drawn to bright colors. I won’t grow anything that I personally don’t like. I’m doing this for me, to begin with, and while I want to be successful, I try to grow things I’m drawn to, and something different that’s not offered elsewhere. That’s my criteria.” Though the farm isn’t open for visitors, those interested can scroll through Meryl’s Instagram account and be transported to a tranquil farm on a picturesque spring day with every photo and video she posts. Her rare flowers, like the crinkly Straw Flowers or the velvety ruffles of Celosia, inspire awe, and the classics, like daffodils and dahlias, remind viewers of seasons gone by. 

Despite the short seasons and mercurial weather, growing flowers on the Cape has its advantages. “Its challenging but at the same time I think the climate here on the Cape is excellent for growing, at least what I’m growing anyway,” she laughs. “I feel that with the warm days and the cool sea breeze that sweeps in at night, I’ve had better success growing here than anywhere else I’ve lived because of the climate. The air gets cleared out every night and it’s a wonderful place to grow. I just wish the season was longer.”

The joy brought to people by her flowers are an added bonus to the hard work and satisfaction earned for herself. “I’ve already had the main careers of my life; this is for me. I do it for the connection to the earth, really. Nothing makes me feel more complete than when I’ve been outside for the day and gotten sun and air and gotten my hands dirty and am physically exhausted and I get to do it again the next day. That’s my idea of fun. It’s hard work but it’s the way I would always choose to spend my time. I like to be out in the field, in the elements pursuing my passion while putting smiles on people’s faces.”

Keep up with Meryl and explore all her delightful blooms on Instagram, @bluelobsterflowerfarm.

Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth Shaw is a former assistant editor, photographer & videographer for Cape Cod Life Publications. Born and raised in Massachusetts, Elizabeth spent many summers on the Cape, before she and her family moved down full time in 2016. She graduated from the University of Rhode Island as a double major in Writing & Rhetoric and Film Media, and started at Cape Cod Life the following fall. In her free time, she takes as many pictures of her dog, Watson, as possible, in between beach trips.