The dry, oppressive?heat of Eastern Montana in August fades to just a memory as you step into Debbie Smith’s Kinsey, Montana, yard.
Millions of serrated oval leaves on decades-old elms along the yard’s edges cast feathery shade that opens to the wild cacophony of flower blooms that are Smith’s bliss. An oasis of color she’s created in an often stark and unforgiving environment.
Every direction the eye is cast reveals another rambling bed, bursting with an assortment of floral delights. Short, ground-hugging dianthus. Towering, regal, blue delphiniums. Whimsical and colorful columbines. Every color, size, and shape imaginable, and probably a few more beyond that.
In the early morning hours of a summer Monday, a pony-tailed Smith can be found traversing the paths of perennial white Dutch clover that wind through the beds, scissors in one hand, and a growing bouquet of cut flowers in the other. She moves with?purpose as she cuts an arcing loop through all the beds in her yard, carefully selecting budding perfection.
Once finished, her flower bouquet contains a decidedly chaotic blend of at least 20 stems and is plopped into a water-filled mason jar before she heads out to repeat her journey in excess of 40 more times.
Those forty-plus floral arrangements are delivered weekly to subscribing customers in nearby Miles City.
“I love the scent, the color and the mixing of all the shapes and textures,” she says as she expertly strips the stems of any leaves that would be below water in the jars. Well before the sun hits its apex she will have snipped and stripped about 1,000 stems. Smith’s routine is repeated each week from June through frost in September or October.
Her 6,000 square feet of perennial beds and 4,000 square feet of annuals don’t bat a blossom at the number of flowers that leave in jars each week. The yard is still exploding with blooms.
“This is a working garden,” Smith says. “I think people expect to visit and see this showpiece yard. It’s always beautiful, but it isn’t always perfect.” Though it would take a pretty discerning eye to point out any shortcomings of this ‘working garden.’
A Garden In Bloom
Debbie Smith’s backyard garden features a wide variety of floral delights.
A Garden In Bloom
Smith hasn’t always called this garden retreat home. Growing up she bounced around the country a lot as the child of a trucking executive. One of her constants, though, was her grandmother’s home in green, lush Oregon. Fond memories of her grandma’s gardens made flowers a comfort — a reminder of stability — one she carried with her as she bravely moved to a remote western Montana mountain ranch as a young newlywed.
“The ranch foreman’s wife loved flowers and shared plants with me,” Smith recalls. “We were so far out of town there and that’s just what ranch women did in the summer. They gardened. I soon discovered that it truly was my passion. I can’t put my finger on it, but it just feels right.”
Debbie, her husband, Phil, and their three teenage boys eventually moved to southeastern Montana. They sought something of their own and found it 20 minutes north of Miles City in a 5-acre farmstead where the mighty Yellowstone River cuts through the short-grass prairie and lumbers on toward the haunting white gumbo of the badlands.
“That first summer Phil tilled the garden before we even moved in,” Smith recalls. Soon, she started slowly establishing perennials. Each bulb buried, each plant pulled from its container and secured in the earth, Smith was finally taking root in a place of her own. Happy blooms soon mirrored her smiling face, and other creatures started settling in, too.
“Our gardens are more than just pretty plants. They’re a living wild space that includes butterflies, ladybugs, bees, worms, frogs, snakes, and many other creatures,” she says. All of which made an appearance during our visit. “Once I picked up an old bouquet from a customer to reuse the jar and there was a monarch caterpillar in it. The customer had been happily watching it all week! I brought it home and released it back into the garden.”
Smith initially picked flower bouquets for her own enjoyment. Then she started bringing them to the local farmer’s market, an idea she got from her sister-in-law. A magazine article on subscription flower delivery took her to the next level, and she soon had a dedicated customer base.
“It’s often women buying flowers for themselves, each other, or for their offices,” Smith says. “Some women have trouble doing that, and I help let them know that it’s OK to buy flowers for yourself. They’re beautiful and make you happy. It’s a great feeling to deliver bouquets and watch people be so excited about receiving something they bought themselves.”
Alice Kmetz, a pediatric nurse, was gifted a Gone To Seed flower subscription by her daughter in Florida. “It just makes me smile when I see her coming with the flowers,” Kmetz says. “I’m a country girl and it feels like we’re bringing the outside in, which I love. It really brightens the office.”
Besides color, the flower bouquets bring some surprising scents. Smith uses herbs as her greenery. Cinnamon basil and licorice basil are favorites. Dill fronds are both beautiful and fragrant. Long-stemmed mints, lemon monarda (beebalm), wild marjoram, and tarragon all make the cut.
“I think scent in a bouquet is very important, hence the herbs,” she says. “It should be a sensual as well as visual experience to receive flowers.” Customers have noted fragrant plants like sweet peas or lily of the valley evoke memories of childhood, parents, and grandparents. “The style of our bouquets visually triggers the same sense of nostalgia.”
I think scent in a bouquet is very important, hence the herbs. It should be a sensual as well as a visual experience to receive flowers.”
If a customer is really into scent, Smith likes giving them special treats. “I added rose geranium for one lady. She was so excited,” she says.
While many of the flowers are familiar, Smith loves bringing in new species to delight her customers who are, in turn, very inquisitive about the bouquets. Unique flowers like love-lies-bleeding that grow in a long rope, tassel flowers, a dianthus called Rainbow Loveliness with amazing scent and fringed petals, and striking blue?Chinese forget-me-nots are all crowd pleasers.
Caring about her customers’ experiences mean they care about Smith. When hail hit her garden in 2013, the outpouring of support was humbling.
“It was devastating for us, but this isn’t our livelihood. So, with support, we just carried on,” Smith says. She also gets to deal with other farm pests, like flower-hungry deer and grasshoppers. “Phil built me my greenhouse and the deer fence.”
He’s also the quiet voice that helps guide the business. “He’s the one that suggested counting stems and picking individual bouquets instead of the mess of putting flowers in a bucket then arranging,” Smith says. He does the tilling, setting up irrigation, composting, and more. He has a lot to make up for bringing a new bride to the middle of nowhere, after all. “I’m a control freak about my work, but after being married for 35 years, he can gently persuade me. And, yes, I’m aware of this ploy!”
Smith is adamant about creating DIY flower bouquets that last. She picks and arranges in the cool of the morning, and freshly cut stems are immediately put in water containing a bleach and sugar solution. She asks that customers replace the water regularly.
For her part, Smith plucks many flowers on the verge of bloom. The result is a floral arrangement that morphs daily. Just when you think you’ve admired it from every angle, another bud pops forth with a fresh flower to enjoy. They’re a gift that gives and gives.
“I don’t want to be too sappy, but I feel like this is a special place and was a gift to us. It’s our responsibility to share its beauty and bounty with others,” Smith says of her garden. “And I love it. If I wasn’t doing this as a business, I would still be doing the same things. Growing and enjoying flowers.”
A version of this story appeared in the Spring 2015 issue?of The Homestead Magazine?published by John Deere.