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Wednesday, October 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Front & Center: Flower gardener’s passion for outdoors, plants grew from childhood

Beth Mort started Snapdragon Flower Farm on Browne Mountain in 2016. (Michael Guilfoil / The Spokesman-Review)
Beth Mort started Snapdragon Flower Farm on Browne Mountain in 2016. (Michael Guilfoil / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil For The Spokesman-Review

Beth Mort’s earliest memory of gardening may have been planted.

“I swear I remember Mount St. Helens – being outside in the garden, the ash, and my parents’ reaction,” she said. “But I would have been only 3, so maybe I remember it because I’ve heard the story so many times.”

Subsequent hours spent gardening with her parents in rural Stevens County steered Mort toward careers outdoors, eventually leading to her current business raising ornamental and edible flowers on the southwest flank of Browne Mountain.

Her business – Snapdragon Flower Farm – is part of the South Spokane Farm Corridor, a fledgling collective organized by the Spokane Conservation District that aspires to cultivate the same spirit and entrepreneurial opportunities available on Green Bluff.

“Starting in mid-June, growers from the entryway to Palouse Highway all the way south to Valleyford have agreed to offer fresh vegetables, eggs and other farm items at roadside stands on Saturdays from 9 to noon,” Mort said. “I’ll have my cut flowers at 6130 East Jamison,” 2 miles south of 57th Avenue off Ben Burr Road.

During a recent interview, Mort discussed the merits of locally grown flowers, how to extend cut flowers’ longevity and why flower farming may have a rosy future.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Mort: Near Tumtum, about 20 minutes northwest of Spokane. My dad was a self-employed contractor, and my mom worked at the VA as an operating room nurse. But gardening was integral to our lives. We always grew lots of vegetables.

S-R: Which high school did you attend?

Mort: Lakeside.

S-R: Did you have a favorite class?

Mort: Anything to do with the outside – particularly environmental science.

S-R: How about jobs?

Mort: My first was at the Bon Marche. I also worked at drive-thru espresso stands. Always something to do with customer service.

S-R: And after high school?

Mort: Raised in a conservative community, I was eager to experience a completely different perspective. I chose Evergreen State in Olympia because of its reputation as a hippie college. They don’t really have majors, but I immersed myself in native plant taxonomy and got an incredible education.

S-R: Describe your career path.

Mort: I worked a while with the Bureau of Land Management in Wenatchee doing rare-plant surveys and mapping invasive weeds. I developed a special place in my heart for sagebrush country, and probably would have stayed there my whole life if they’d had a full-time position. But they didn’t, so my husband, Michael, and I moved back to Spokane, and I worked for Mountain Dome Winery, the Chocolate Apothecary and a mushroom company. Then I got a master’s in urban and regional planning at Eastern because I was interested in figuring out how cities can coexist with nature. That led to an air-quality job with the Department of Ecology.

S-R: When did you start Snapdragon Flower Farm?

Mort: In 2016. I knew I wanted to farm on a microscale. While I was still at Ecology, I started a tiny CSA (community-supported agriculture) on a friend’s property, and had 15 subscribers who got veggies every week. Eventually, Michael and I sold our house in the Garland District, rented an old farmhouse south of town and leased an acre of land to grow flowers.

S-R: Was there a moment or event that changed the direction of your life?

Mort: Yes. I took a permaculture design course on Orcas Island prior to getting my Ecology job, and it was fantastic. It really wove together the natural ecology and our human environment – our cities, our shelters and how we live.

S-R: How did that affect your approach to life?

Mort: It encouraged me to live more thoughtfully. I’m no saint. I still drive a car and occasionally use plastic bags. If I had a mantra, it would be, “Grow something – anything. Try to have some connection to the Earth.”

S-R: What do you find special about growing things?

Mort: It’s so amazing when you plant a teeny, tiny seed and it develops into a giant plant that produces food for you. I don’t think that sense of wonder ever stops. And it connects you to the reality of how much time and effort and resources are required to produce things.

S-R: How has your flower-farming business evolved?

Mort: I started out not knowing what I didn’t know, which is very freeing. The second year I still kind of just went for it. But this year I’m hyperaware of knowing what I don’t know – seeing the repercussions of not doing something in the right time frame. There are so many layers to this small business. So many clients. So many programs I’m trying to incorporate. So much behind-the-scene paperwork.

S-R: What’s easy to grow, and what’s hard?

Mort: In the annual world, I recommend some of the usual suspects – zinnias, cosmos, nasturtium. Anything you can direct seed with success is a great place to start. Seed heavily so you have the best chance of germination. More difficult is something like lisianthus, which I seed in February. It’s slow to start and somewhat finicky.

S-R: How about the overall business?

Mort: I was far more successful than I anticipated right out of the gate. Some of that was because my vegetable CSA clients followed me when I switched to flowers.

S-R: Have you had moments when you felt in over your head?

Mort: (laugh) This year it feels like every day, starting with our late winter.

S-R: Have you taken business classes?

Mort: No, and that’s one regret. I feel like I can grow almost anything. But the business component is definitely where my learning curve is steepest. Two pieces of advice I’d offer someone starting out is take a business class and have more money than I did.

S-R: How much did it cost to start Snapdragon?

Mort: About $15,000 for the infrastructure.

S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?

Mort: The first few months of planting – March to early June – are the most stressful. But the entire season is full on. There is no rest. I work all day, every day.

S-R: Are there other local microscale flower growers?

Mort: Yes, there’s a fair number of new growers. We just started a Wednesday wholesale flower market to better serve local florists.

S-R: How do you market your business?

Mort: Mainly through Instagram. I also do workshops and public speaking. I have a Facebook page, but I’m not very good at that.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Mort: Working outside. And constantly learning, which I love.

S-R: What do you like least?

Mort: Feeling like I’m behind and don’t know what I’m doing.

S-R: What are you most proud of?

Mort: Overwintering eucalyptus two years straight now. I have big dreams of a eucalyptus hedge that I can keep from dying from frost.

S-R: What have you learned lately?

Mort: That in another life I would have been an entomologist. I knew I liked bugs, but I had no idea how many beneficial insects and pollinators I would get to interact with in the garden. That’s been a game changer for me.

S-R: Are there misperceptions about your business?

Mort: When I tell people I farm flowers, often they have no idea what I’m talking about, because people are used to buying bouquets at the grocery store or Costco.

S-R: How are your flowers different?

Mort: The flowers purchased en masse at a corporate box store typically have traveled the world and might have been cut three to four weeks prior. They have fungicides and pesticides – things that preserve them for that kind of journey. Usually you won’t see the flowers I and other local growers have, because those can’t withstand traveling for weeks. Another missing component in big-box cut flowers is fragrance, which is lost due to breeding for characteristics that add to their shelf life.

S-R: What mistakes do people make with cut flowers?

Mort: Dirty containers can dramatically shorten the vase life of flowers – even grocery store flowers. I recommend cleaning vases with soap and water, and scrubbing them really well.

S-R: Where do you see this business in five to 10 years?

Mort: Flower farming is growing all across the nation, just like vegetable farms did in the ’90s. Back then, people started asking about where their food came from. The same thing is happening now with flowers, because they’re super important to us. They mark all our rites of passage – births, deaths, weddings, apologies. As people see the variety we offer, I think the trend toward locally produced flowers will continue to grow.

S-R: What sort of person is best suited for this career?

Mort: Someone who can work hard. I put in 12 hours a day pretty much seven days a week.

S-R: Anything on your bucket list?

Mort: I have about 1,000 things on my bucket list. One of them is to meet Wendell Berry and Eliot Coleman, two amazing farmers, authors and wonderful humans.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.

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