By Margaret Martin
Down a remote highway, across curving railroad tracks — twice — over Loggy Bayou Bridge, along a stretch of Highway 514, in the middle of a hay field.
And, there is Plum Nelly.
A flower farm.
There, retired teacher-turned-farmer Mary Marston and carpenter-turned-farm staffer Billy Palmer raise a crop of flowers.
They sell the harvest at Shreveport Farmers Market, to some area florists and to customers who want something fresh for their homes. A licensed florist, Marston also uses the flowers when commissioned to create designs for events.
“It is very exciting to have her in the market. It is delightful to look over a sea of people and see many carrying beautiful bouquets. It makes the market lovely,” said market manager Noma Fowler-Sandlin.
Besides that, Marston is very successful. “Sometimes she will sell out,” Fowler-Sandlin said.
Marston was the first vendor to sell only flowers at the market, Fowler-Sandlin added.
Marston’s love of flowers lingers from a childhood spent with her Aunt Frances O’Quin, whose Ninock Plantation garden bloomed with antique bulbs and roses.
She didn’t get a yen to farm until about seven years ago when she ran across an article on the LSU Agriculture Department website. By Denise Cummins, it was headlined “Growing Cut Flowers in Louisiana.”
“It caught my eye,” Marston said. It said: “You need great climate and soil to grow cut flowers as a business in Louisiana.”
The idea intrigued her. “I came from a farm. I love flowers and arranging flowers,” said Marston, who grew up on Loggy Bayou Plantation.
“I said, ‘We have property. Why not use it?’ I think I’ll retire and try this.”
Zinnias and sunflowers have been the main crop since the beginning. The zinnias are Benary’s giant, which have big heads and tall stems so they are easy to cut. The sunflowers are great for cutting and are pollenless, so they do not shed pollen in a house.
But in a tour of the garden, Marston also points out other blossoms she coaxes from river land: rosemary, a row of fledgling vitex bushes, dianthus cinnamon and citrus basil — both of which she lets go to seed and uses as a spikey element in bouquets.
Marston and Palmer, who plant all year, will soon start putting snapdragons, larkspur and anemone in the ground.
Planted earlier for a fall harvest, small pumpkins, ornamental gourds, pumpkin-on-a-stick, which are eggplants, are poking heads out of the ground.
And, in the cooler a bucket of cattails. Where were they?
“From a ditch. I needed some, so I told Billy to get us some,” said Marston with a shrug and a smile, a country girl who knows where the wild things are.
But Palmer is more often in the field, planting and cutting or whatever Marston needs done to keep the farm going.
“Ain’t they beautiful … I pick them every day,” said Palmer, just in from the field with a white plastic bucket filled with zinnias.
In the field, Marston plants in rows, but also in a “hoop house” set aside for prairie flowers and a lean-to shady area for hydrangeas and fern.
“I tried perennials in raised beds and the weeds got away from me. You have to hand weed and I don’t want to do that. It is a low priority. Cutting is what I want to do,” Marston said.
She applies fertilizer and pesticide only when needed. Those times include an invasion of cutworms from a hay field. “I used spray to control them.”
In the beginning, she leased a small plot of land where she grew up. (Although still owned by her family, it is leased out.) And her brother lent her a niche in his white barn for an office.
Then, she had a Sears Roebuck kit house moved from her aunt’s property up the road, a water well drilled and electricity put in..
Although she remembers her aunt teaching the planting basics, Marston learned a lot by trial and error and help along the way. “I joined the Association of Special Cut Flower Growers and every organization I called on shared information.”
Plum Nelly is only 3 years old, Marston said.
Its name comes from conversations Marston remembers having with her father, the late James G. Marston Jr. “He’d say, ‘That is plum out in the country nearly to the city.'”
As to her success with farming, Marston is optimistic and said she does better as time goes by, she reads more and talks to experts.
“Every year I learn more about new varieties and ways to plant,” she said.
Most important: Marston loves what she is doing — farming flowers.
Flowering tips for planting and cutting
• For best results, plant in a sunny place that has well-drained and organic-rich soil.
• Consider planting flowers with an existing vegetable garden.
• Directly sow seeds in rows. (Seeds are inexpensive and quicker to get out than planting each individual plant.)
• Plant in October/November for spring bloom: snapdragons, larkspur, bachelor buttons, stock, sweet pea.
• Sunflowers can be planted all summer for they will continue to grow and flower until the first frost.
• To keep a steady supply of some flowers that don’t keep blooming after being cut, continue planting new ones.
• Cut stems during the coolest part of day, immediately putting the stems in water.
• Cut stems regularly to keep blossoms coming as frequently and for as long as possible.