Susan Lyell is the fairy godmother of roses. She runs Restoration Rose, a sustainable rose and cut flower farm on the outskirts of Nashville straight out of our flower dreams. In addition to farming an abundance of stunning heirloom roses and unique botanicals, Susan is a mother, business owner, and attorney! We sat down with our dear friend and flower aficionado to talk Restoration Rose, sustainable farming, and juggling all of the above.
What promoted you to start Restoration Rose?
I am smitten by roses. Their perfume and beauty. Their ability to transform mood….Over the years I’ve collected more than 1,000 varieties of rare, antique, heirloom, found and “no longer in commerce” roses. I’ve taught myself to propagate them as well. My original dream was to propagate them and sell them as nursery plants. That dream starts this autumn. A fellow rose lover and I have teamed up to offer a superior collection of garden roses starting this autumn. You can sign up to buy them here! Flower farming became a reality two years ago when I met a local floral designer who insisted I must make them available for design. In addition to roses I offer tulips, peonies, dahlias, heirloom cutting flowers and scented herbs for the vase. As a lifelong gardener I’m familiar with all sorts of plants and I like to grow the uncommon and unusual.
What is organic farming?
As I understand it, organic farming requires that farm inputs allowed for use in production and processing are certified by OMRI (the Organic Materials Review Institute). My farm goes beyond organic in that it is sustainable. Sustainability means that our farm avoids toxic chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, or practices that degrade soil, water, or other natural resources. By growing a variety of plants and using techniques such as crop rotation and conservation tillage, this method protects biodiversity and fosters the development and maintenance of healthy ecosystems. I don’t see the beauty in flowers grown in chemicals or sprayed with them. I have children. I’m just passing through. A diversity of plants, encouragement of beneficial insects and healthy soil create an ecosystem in balance. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen over time.
What has been the biggest challenge with sustainable farming?
Once you are actually growing flowers on a farming scale you realize why farmers rely on and become dependent upon nasty chemicals. Mother Nature is a force! She is always bringing the weeds, the diseases, the pests right along with the beautiful flowers we admire and desire. The labor costs alone for hand weeding make herbicides appealing. But, at some point, we have to draw a line. I could grow roses with heads the size of baseballs if I wanted to use synthetic fertilizer and chemical pesticides. Again, I just don’t see the beauty in flowers grown with such practices. I remind myself I am not competing with the imported stuff from South America. Importing flowers into the United States require that they be “insect free” — not pesticide free. Therefore, there is an economic incentive for importers to drench their product in chemical pesticides. Studies have shown farm workers and their children experience all kinds of illness and even developmental delays due to chemical exposure in the workplace. This toxicity travels with the product. Studies have shown that floral designers and those in constant contact with these chemically treated flowers are exposed to all sorts of nasty carcinogens and toxic residue. Do I really want to bring this toxic bouquet to a new mom? Do I want to hand a bundle of chemical residue to someone I love to show them that I care? I don’t think so. Because I don’t use pesticides and fungicides I have a larger amount of stems that are unusable. I may lose a crop to pests or disease, but this possibility is factored into the price of one of my bouquets. I believe we all deserve a living wage. When you choose my flowers you can rest assured that they have not been exposed to anything I would not use to bathe my children. You can be assured that they have not been out of water. Local flowers are fresher. They have not traveled thousands of miles in a box. They are likely cut from the field no more than 48 hours prior to your purchase. They are field to vase in less than 30 miles. The carbon footprint is significantly reduced. It upsets me when I see a sign advertising “fresh cut flowers” in the grocery or floral shop. Those flowers were likely fresh cut two weeks ago, shipped dry and resurrected in the floral shop (often with more toxic chemicals). Check the back door or dumpster area of a flower shop. I’m dismayed by how few recycle the huge cardboard boxes and packaging necessary for shipping. Toxicity and waste are present in the green blocks of floral foam most florists use. It contains formaldehyde gas which is released as it decays in the vase. Then, it gets poured down the drain to end up in our watershed and drinking supply. It is non biodegradable For more information on why local flowers are just better for all of us, please see Manifesto for a Better Bouquet by my flower farmer colleague Jennie Love of Love n Fresh Flowers here!
How do you juggle motherhood, farming, and running a business?
As best I can. Actually it’s not juggling, it’s more like prioritizing and finding balance. Most often I achieve some semblance of balance but it’s a daily practice, not a permanent state. In the early Spring, the farm won’t wait. The farm is the newborn of the family and requires the most attention at that start of the season. As summer heats up there is more time for family, and during the winter I try to proactively plan for my business. However, there are aspects of each piece that fall to the wayside to be revisited. I think the most important task for me is to be kind to myself and accept that not all pieces of the puzzle are fitting perfectly every day, but over time it stays together in a way I can live with.
What is your biggest success with Restoration Rose?
In keeping with my love for the rare roses, it’s important to spread the word that there are thousands of varieties of stunning roses beyond what is found in the typical florist’s shop. Garden roses have a charm and grace not seen in roses grown for mass production. Roses that are given plenty of sunshine, fresh air, creek water and good soil are superior and it is obvious.
I consider it a success that I have turned some folks on to roses and helped educate them regarding healthy growing practices.
Personally, my greatest success stems from the friendships I have made on the journey thus far. The love of roses and flowers really brings people together. It’s a strong bond. Handing someone a rose, watching her bury her nose in it and seeing the positive emotions that simple act creates….it’s awesome!
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