A galaxy of small, white Edison bulbs sparkled overhead. Bowls of roses, dahlias and other blossoms made a low, flowery hedge down the center of the long table. As if on cue, the early October moon rose in a cloudless sky. Laughter and conversations of the 150 guests mingled with the moonbeams.
Although this was Josh and Lindsey McCullough’s sixth anniversary, the party celebrated their Red Twig Farms in suburban Columbus, not their wedding. The peonies and the farm’s namesake red twig dogwood branches are used in floral designs across the country.
The crops may be colorful and romantic, but to flourish, a flower farm requires planting, pruning, weeding and savvy social media marketing. On this balmy evening to remember, chores were forgotten.
Evoking the easy abundance of a Sonoma winery, this Field to Vase dinner was one of six sponsored in 2019 by Certified American Grown Flowers, a national organization whose members produce over 50% of the cut flowers grown in the U.S. Most fresh flowers sold have been imported.
Visitors buy tickets to a catered meal featuring locally sourced food and drink — and an abundance of blossoms from members across the country. The flowery focal point at Red Twig was a colorful vintage pickup truck. Masses of flowers cascaded from the open passenger door onto the driveway. The bed was full of bouquets for guests to take home.
This was the 37th dinner since the program launched five years ago. Besides Red Twig, locations included California, Virginia and Alaska. The McCulloughs are among the newest of the 66 CAGF members, some of whom grow flowers on thousands of acres. Because of this, Lindsey didn’t think Red Twig, with six acres in production, had much chance being accepted as a destination on the 2019 dinner tour.
“This may be the first time Lindsey was ever wrong,” Josh said. “While we see the flaws of the farm, our customers kept telling us the farm is magical and so did the team. Together they convinced us to do the dinner.”
“What stood out to us is their story, their passion and their program,” said Andrea Philpot, CAGF spokeswoman. The dinner sold out in record time due to Red Twig’s online presence.
The McCulloughs only had to string the lights — and make the farm ready to impress. They felt confident their staff could handle the visitors as well as prep, another plus for the CAGF team. The 2019 annual Peony Season Opener on Memorial Day weekend drew 7,000 people in two days, up from the 168 in its 2017 debut, thanks to Lindsey’s use of Facebook and Instagram. One consistent customer complaint is that workshops and the peony opener sell out almost as soon as they’re posted on the farm’s website.
In the beginning
Such events weren’t imagined in 2011, when the McCulloughs began planting the first of the 900 peonies representing 26 varieties of the beautiful but tough plants that evolved in Siberia and northern China.
“The original farm was developed to supply the family landscape company with dogwood and curly willow for their customers. We needed another crop to fill in some of the season,” Josh said. McCullough’s Landscape & Nursery lies across the road.
What they grow
Enter peonies, a wedding craze that continues to grow. Forty thousand flower stems were hand cut in late spring 2019, up from 28,000 stems in 2018. Red Twig has a home delivery service in central Ohio to satisfy demand for locally grown flowers. In the fall, there’s a one-day peony plant sale for home gardeners to purchase varieties that have done well in production.
Beside their voluptuous and richly fragrant flowers (depending on variety), there’s a nostalgia factor for many people who have stories associated with these plants. “It’s like a legacy,” Josh said.
“Peony season is fast-past harvest,” he added. “The moment the buds show color and feel like a marshmallow, we are full gear into harvest.” Cut stems are sorted and placed in cold storage.
Harvesting stems of the namesake red twig dogwood, curly willow and winterberry holly began not long after the party. Such stems are frequently used in holiday and winter floral designs, including large outdoor containers. Between 25,000 and 30,000 stems were cut in 2019.
Tulips and daffodils have joined peonies. They harvested 9,000 daffodils and tulips in 2019. A fresh crop of 14,000 tulip bulbs were to be planted in the fall. Dahlias and allium are future prospects to stretch the season further.
An immediate advantage to joining CAFG was lower shipping costs. Plus, the other growers are generous with advice. Josh said, “They are all there to let us pick their brains, show us new ways, and help in anyway they can.”
As Licking County Farm Bureau members, the McCulloughs also found ”many opportunities we didn’t think were even options,” Josh said. “They (Farm Bureau) helped us get to the right people to secure our first grant for a new tunnel going up in 2020,” which will enable them to grow different types of flowers to help stretch their production season.
Farming and horticulture are part of Josh’s DNA. He grew up on the family strawberry farm in Upper Sandusky. Lindsey is “zero green thumb” and allergic to “everything outdoors.” However, she has a degree in marketing/e-commerce that helps her nurture a growing customer base with the use of social media. Her day job is with a custom home builder in New Albany.
As for the party, Lindsey joked that of course they planned to spend their sixth anniversary with “150 new friends.”
During the pre-dinner tour Josh said more than once, “We’re blessed to have you here.”
Photos by Dave Liggett