Tender Roots: East Beach Flower Farm
There is something so inspiring about spending time with the dreamers and do'ers in our community- the ones with not only big ideas and hopes in their hearts but the gusto to take a scary leap of faith and go after those wonderings.
Sherri Toole is nothing short of a hard-working, dream-chasing, flower-loving farmer who we all can learn a little something from. A few weeks back, we had the opportunity to meet with Sherri, and her daughter Skylar... it wouldn't be right to not mention Sandra the cat and Bella the dog who kept us company as we strolled the lovely flower lanes of East Beach Flower Farm.
Located on Mersea Road B in Leamington, Ontario - the Toole family grows on about 3 acres of land. What started as a sunflower patch has grown into a multi-sectioned farm with areas grown specifically for different uses; sunflowers, pumpkins & ornamental gourds, dried flowers, pollinator-attracting blooms, dahlias, snapdragons, zinnia and various wildflowers ideal for arrangements...just to name a few.
"Sherri: “Flower farming has been a hidden passion of mine since childhood. I loved taking photos of the flowers I’d find during my outdoor adventures. I enjoyed sharing them with others and found joy in those who shared my enthusiasm. Fast forward a few years, I enrolled to become a Landscape and Horticulture Technician at St. Clair College. During my time there, I had discussed various options of farming my small 1.5 acre plot with my college professors, and flower farming was mentioned by someone who inspired many of my horticulture endeavours. In spring of 2021 our first seeds went into the ground. Since then we’ve tripled our production area, growing over 100,000 plants in 2023."
With Sherri's horticultural background, it's not about simply growing flowers for the sake of it, she has developed a true appreciation and understanding for what it means to work with the land and to discover the science about why plants and insects do the things that they do "It's a constant dance and experiment out here, and I am forever learning and inspired by nature!".
An Interview with Sherri Toole of East Beach Flower Farm:
What does gardening mean to you?
Everything. My income, my passion and my biggest stress all in one!
What type of garden do you have?
How would you describe your garden?
Designed for cut flowers.
How has Anna's been a part of your garden story?
Inspired me in my early years of starting to grow. Now carries my fresh-picked bouquets in store!
How did you get into gardening?
My mom is an avid gardener and I always loved what she did so I would say she kind of inspired me. Then I ended up going to school for horticulture and followed that career path and just have kind of done it since then.
How many years have you been gardening?
I would say personal gardens for around 6 years, and growing cut flowers for selling I have done that for 3 years.
Tell us about your offerings from East Beach:
I go to a farmers market in Windsor, the Downtown Windsor Farmers Market every Saturday and I do a full season of that. We offer private workshops, and public workshops at places like Anna's or we can do Bachelorette parties and events like that. We do "Pick Your Own Flower Days" on Sundays at the farm and flower subscriptions where we deliver flowers to people's houses - they prepay for 4 or 8 bouquets and they will get that throughout the season. They get the best of our flowers, our subscription members are kind of our prime people and it works similar to a CSA. so they prepay for a season's worth of farm-grown product and in this case, it is flowers. So that is a really exciting thing that we offer this year.
We do small weddings, nothing too crazy and nothing too big. We also do DIY flower buckets so if people want to arrange their own flowers for events we also offer that.
Do you have any resources for helping make your garden succeed or inspiration sources like books, podcasts, influencers, etc. ?
So I do listen to a fair amount of podcasts, I love Lisa Mason Ziegler (author, speaker, and renowned expert on cut-flower gardening), and I love Erin Benzakein of Floret Flowers there are many of them that I follow but also for people locally, there are some really good Facebook Groups that you can get knowledge on what grows best around our area, but not only that if typically people in our area are having similar issues to what we have so I am active in local gardening groups just because it's ideal to get information that is more specific to our area. So I like those and I like to see what people grow and do and find inspiration in that.
A lot of things I see online and I try it - if it works it works and if it doesn't it doesn't. I like to try so many different flowers so everything is like an experiment for me. I will do a small patch of it for a year and if it doesn't work out I stop growing it and if it does work out I continue to grow it.
What is your favourite thing to grow?
Ou that is a hard one, well I will start off by saying that I love dried flowers. I have an obsession with dried flowers, especially after last year I got a little taste of it but if it wasn't dried flowers I am going to have to say Dahlias. I love Dahlias, I am a sucker for them. They are just beautiful.
Although they aren't the most profitable cut flower because they are quite expensive but I just love them so I can't stop growing them.
Do you experiment with different Dahlia tubers or how do you go about choosing which variety to grow?
I did grow an assortment last year but this year I kind of honed in on the bulb type because they do last longer in the sun and are just more productive for cut flowers so I do have to have somewhat of a control over what I do buy so I do like all the bulb varieties and I added a bunch of those this year and I'm excited about those ones.
What does gardening bring to your life?
Happiness. I find that my mental health is at its best in the summer when the gardening season is at its peak. Even though it might be stressful with all the work that needs to be done, I find that keeping my mind busy out here is just the most relaxing thing that I could ever do, it has been really good for me, it's just very therapeutic for me to be out here and I tell other people too - If you are struggling come pull weeds on the farm for a week and you will be good by the end, you will get such a good workout and see so many cool things and just being more in touch with nature - it's very therapeutic and I think we are missing that.
Talk to us a little more about how this has become a family affair - your daughter is out here lots, tell us about how the flower farm has impacted your family.
I lost my job to COVID two days before we surprisingly, unknowingly got Skylar and then after we got her in our care we kind of switched gears and were like okay I kind of need to do something where I'm not a stay-at-home mom but I needed something with more flexible hours so we just took a risk and we thought okay let's grow sunflowers, we grew sunflowers only for the first summer and I was able to be at home with her because we needed some extra time with her and then we grew sunflowers all season and it's just worked into I've been able to stay at home with the kids now and the kids love the farm and Skylar is like the best helper on the farm, it's been good. Even for her, its therapeutic for her when she needs to take her mind away from things so I think it's good for everyone. Even my son, the second the tractor starts or the lawnmower, he starts running over to my husband and Skylar will hop in and you will see them both riding on one side inside of the tractor. We love the farm life, we've wanted it - I tell people that I might not be making as much money but I'm like the happiest person that I could be right now.
How would you describe your garden style? I would say definitely bright, I love bright colours. I do like some muted tones and I can do that for people if they want but I think that flowers should be bright and they should bring colour to people's lives I'm often pairing colours that people wouldn't pair together but I think it's awesome because the more colour in bouquets the better and the more unique flowers the better. Just things that they don't see when they get cut flowers so I like bright, everything bright.
What is your favourite month and time of day in your garden?
Okay, my favourite time is sunset - golden hour is the nicest in the garden and I would say mid-summer, right now (end of July), when everything is in full bloom is my favourite because this is when I will have the most colour on my farm so definitely right now. I do love Spring and the tulips and everything but it's just not as colourful as this.
What inspires your choices when it comes to plants?
So I am a little bit different because I am growing for sales so productivity is my number one but also uniqueness and the colours too but I definitely need something that is productive. I try to stay away from anything that is super hard and that we won't make money from. I am looking for plants that are really productive, drought tolerant, pest resistant and things like that.
What dreams do you have for your garden?
Okay so for my garden I dream of having a 5-acre flower farm. So right now I have about 1 acre dedicated to cut flowers and the rest is sunflowers and pumpkins but if I could have like a 5-acre therapeutic cut flower farm where there would be wildflower areas and stuff like that I think it would be really awesome. Within time hopefully we can get there.
What is your plan for your gourds and pumpkins?
So we hopefully will be selling them at Anna's, so I'm growing two types of light pumpkins. One faded orange winter squash and a couple of different kinds of ornamental gourds. I'm not growing any orange pumpkins, I'm sticking more to decorative ones. But I'm excited, this is my second year of growing pumpkins, I really loved growing them last year ,that was like another spark in me. Another horticulture obsession that I got so it was really fun growing pumpkins and that is why we like quadrupled our land size this year for them.
What would you say is the thing you do best in your garden?
That is a tough one - I do think that I am creative but I think more of me is on the grower side so I am more in tune with like when I walk through my crop I'm not thinking "Wow this is beautiful", I'm looking and searching for bugs and pests to see if anything is different from the day before all of that kind of stuff.
Coming from a horticulture background and not an artist background I am definitely more in tune with the grower side of things than I am with creating and designing but I have been getting better on designing. I know I still have some work to be done and some practice but I definitely am more the grower type thing - I like to learn the science behind everything, and I like to know why insects and pests like certain plants more than they like the other, I like to know the controls and the cycles of if I can just leave this pest and let nature take care of it and I've done that this year without spraying. I had a pretty bad aphid problem but I let the ladybugs hatch into their pretty vigorous stage and let the ladybugs do their thing and now I'm good with the aphids. So I'm happy I didn't spray, I try not to spray on my farm at all so that is one thing about here!
Just the scientific part behind it, It's incredible the way that biology works with these insects. It's like the perfect timing... one thing hatches and there is a huge infestation and the week later the predator is ready to go very vigorous and ready to take that insect over so it's pretty cool, most things are taken care of, we are pretty lucky, I'm crossing my fingers we haven't had to spray this year but I'm thinking that not spraying has done an incredible job of keeping the good insects around so I'm excited about that and I take pride in being able to touch and smell my plants without having to be worried.
Anything else you want to add about East Beach Flower Farm?
I want to inspire people to come and visit the garden as it's an incredible experience, and I think that seeing all the different insects, birds, and wildlife that we have here and then just all the different varieties of flowers that we have, it's a different experience that we don't have anywhere else in Leamington.
I just really want people to experience this, bring some friends out and come to see what it's like here on the flower farm.
Where can they learn more about planning a visit to East Beach Flower Farm?
On my website there is information on the "You Pick Days" or if you just want to order a fresh bouquet picked from the farm, everything is on there!