Ralph Gardner Jr: Our Local Flower Fairy
Whenever you’re tempted to believe that civilization is going down the tubes something happens to restore your faith in the future; to persuade you that we’re not on an accelerating downward trajectory; that peace, justice and beauty will eventually triumph. Such an event occurred last year when Damsel Garden, a Stuyvesant, NY flower farm, began selling stems and bouquets, arranged on the spot, at the Saturday morning Kinderhook farmer’s market.
I have mixed feelings about flowers. By mixed, I mean that they’re beautiful but almost too beautiful to be cut. To do so is a form of sacrilege. What right do we have to ask them to sacrifice their lives to stage our homes?
I posed this question to Denise Pizzini, Damsel Garden’s owner, when I visited her at the farm Tuesday afternoon. Denise was preparing buckets of exotic “Cummins” tulips – lavender flowers with frilly white edges – for her mail delivery customers and the eighty members of her sold out tulip CSA, my spouse among them.
Denise, who used to work in the music industry – her husband Evan still does when he’s not behind the wheel of their tractor – is the type of person who has already thought these things through. She wasn’t the least bit thrown off by my question.
“I used to have a hard time with it,” she confessed. “I’ve since gotten over it.”
She describes herself as being in the happiness business. Human happiness, that is. If flowers have to give their lives for the greater good – she grows more than enough to give her resident bees the opportunity to pollinate them and pass on their genes or whatever flowers pass on – so be it.
I had another question. What is it about women and flowers? Denise acknowledged that 82% of the activity on Instagram site is fueled by females. “I think it’s a societal role,” she guessed. “Especially in Victorian times, the woman was in charge of the cutting garden.”
Denise, who grew up on Staten Island, said that she came to the realization that growing flowers, rather than marketing musical artists for major entertainment conglomerates, was what she wanted to do with here life, in the same location where many New Yorkers have their epiphanies: while engaged in the tedium of early morning alternate-side-of-the-street parking.
“I want to be a grower,” she told herself. “But of what?”
Flowers, came the answer. So she signed up for courses at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the New York Botanical Garden and then shared her newfound expertise, first with her daughter’s Greenwich Village elementary school classroom and then other classrooms. But cut flowers don’t offer much of an education. Denise had the good fortune to meet Warrie Price, the president and founder of the Battery Conservancy at the lower tip of Manhattan.
Denise’s idea was a 4’x4’ teaching garden. “Warrie,” Denis recalled, “said, ‘How about an acre? We can start a farm.’” Thus was born the Battery Urban Farm, steps from the farm that sustained Manhattan’s original Dutch settlers.
The Battery Urban Farm, which these days engages thousands of students a year and grows thousands of pounds of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers gave Denise the experience and self-confidence to believe she might just possess the dexterity to deliver people happiness while turning a profit.
So she and her husband bought an eighty-two acre farm in Stuyvesant – the Hudson River sparkles through the trees – even though they, thus far, have grow on just two acres and in four greenhouses. The place, which they acquired in 2017, remains very much a work in progress. They still don’t have a generator and, given how often we lose power in these parts, have learned to handle the natural world’s curveballs. A late season frost threatened the tulips. “It was fine,” Denise said with characteristic roll-with-the-punches bravado. “They’re so tough.”
Thus far nature has smiled on the farm. If the tulip season is coming to an end peonies, with their intoxicating fragrance, can’t be far behind. Unlike many flower producers in our hypoallergenic age, Denise grows hers with an eye not only toward beauty – she seeks out heirloom and even varieties in fashion during Victorian times -- but also scent. “Even some of the tulips have a light fragrance,” she boasted.
One of her goals is restoring a beautiful, historic 19th century cistern on their property, believed to have been a municipal water project. But that will have to wait. Between her mail order customers, summer CSA shares – information about them can be found at Damselgarden.com – and the Kinderhook farmers market, she doesn’t have much time on her hands.
“In June we’re going to take a little break,” Denise promised. “We’re going to be preparing for summer flowers which don’t appear until July. Hopefully, I can take a couple of days and chill out.”
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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