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September 2011

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Flower volunteers!

Shirley Lanigan visited an unusual enterprise recently in Carlow

We have a new postman in our area and not only does he deliver post, he also brings useful information, sending me on the trail of a venture last week called Sonas Organic Garden just outside Carlow town.

Sonas is the brainchild of Paula Pender. While working on a farm in the United States, she began growing flowers as a crop. So when she returned to Ireland and took possession of a two-acre site on the family farm, she continued with her flowers.

As a certified organic grower, Pauline is one of a small handful of people in this country raising organic flowers for sale. Walking around her plot recently I learned a lot about how she does it.
"I grow volunteers," she told me. Volunteers are flowers that self-sow and basically mind themselves.

The way Paula sees thing is that life is busy. She grows vegetables, selling them under a box system. So there is not a lot of time for tending fussy flowers, hence the attraction of volunteers that can mind themselves. Some of her vegetables are grown in tunnels and in between the tomatoes and peppers, larkspur, nigella and sunflowers spring up and make themselves useful by luring in pollinating insects.

Vivid plum-coloured Hopi red dye, Amaranthus cruentus, as it is known in America, also grows in the tunnels. "I brought the seed of that back from America. The Native Americans used it as a dye. I love how the red tassels look in an arrangement."

Outside, growing between onions and black kale, there are lines of old-fashioned sweet peas like ‘Beaujolais,' ‘Mrs Collier,' ‘Black Night' and ‘Cupani' which has been grown since 1699. Sweet pea is a real favourite of hers. There are also French marigolds, crocosmia, achillea, oregano, Verbena bonariensis, sage and crazy-looking garlic spears with strange ‘knotted' stems.

"Easy flowers can be just as beautiful as hard ones. Who needs roses when you can have daisies?" is Paula's view. Alongside her easy flowers, wild grasses and opportunistic cereals pop up randomly and Pauline even finds use for the echium-like flowers of green-manure plants like phacelia.

When the flowers are ready Pauline picks whatever looks good in a given week and turns them into the most beautiful natural-looking bouquets which she sells at the Potato Market in Carlow on Saturdays. We hear constantly that Irish producers should add value and these bouquets of cornflowers, sweet William, sun flower, wild grass and sweet pea, are surely added value at its most attractive.

Growing organic flowers to sell locally is the sort of dream many gardeners day-dream about. It is great to see someone actually doing it but it is no idyllic, easy life. "I have to grow them. The vegetables are necessary to live but the flowers are good for my soul."

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