At the edge of Hillsdale County’s city limits, Sarah Maier’s backyard is a luscious, green lawn divided into sections for her farm animals and flower garden, faintly smelling of the manure nourishing her plants. Her garden is filled with many different species of flowers.
Needing money to purchase a car, Maier was 14 years old when she got her first job at a greenhouse. Her interest in plants eventually turned into a degree in horticulture landscape design at Michigan State University. Now she grows flowers and sells them to Smith’s Flowers downton. She also sells arrangements at the Hillsdale farmer’s market on Saturdays.
Jane Stewart, owner of Smith’s Flowers, started purchasing Maier’s flowers two months ago and said she appreciates their freshness and variety.
“They’re local and have less carbon footprint. Most of our flowers come in from South America and they use a lot of pesticides to preserve them,” Stewart said. “She uses less chemicals and they’re fresher, which is my main thing. We can’t get some of the flowers she grows from other florists, and we like variety.”
Maier said she began her business after her husband told her she was growing too many flowers and had to do something about it.
“He was going to run out of grass to mow if I didn’t slow down,” Maier said. “I really started selling them because I was looking for a way to make extra money on the side with kids at home, and I found several other moms in our community doing something similar.”
Maier’s mother in-law also began encouraging her to sell her flowers after she tried selling the arrangements at the farmers market for her and received positive feedback from customers. Maier finally agreed to start selling her flowers there regularly about a month ago.
“This is a labor of love; they’re my babies,” Maier said. “To take them out and to put them in front of somebody is hard and this is why I procrastinated on this.”
With an acre of property, Maier has a backyard full of flowers, in addition to a vegetable garden and her husband’s beloved animals — goats, chickens, large bunnies, pigs, and two dogs. Out of the roughly 100 different kinds of flowers in her garden, Maier favors dahlias, marigolds, zinnias, and corn flowers. The flowers appear healthy from looking at the petals, but some of them have diseases visible on their leaves, including a leafhopper infestation on her marigolds and a powdery mildew on the roses. It is common for flowers to get both of them. The infestation happens when nymphs, baby insects, suck the leaves’ honeydew, causing spots of discoloration on the leaves. Powdery mildew spores spread by wind, transferring onto other plants. When the morning dew evaporates off the leaves, the spores stay and infect the plant.
Maier gardens around 15 to 20 hours a week and uses the manure from her animals for the soil, saving on a lot of fertilizer and money. She also cuts her flowers in the morning since they become more stressed and wilt faster if done later in the day.
Maier said she enjoys her work, and her kids often play in the yard while she works.
“If I didn’t love what I did, it’d be hard to take time to care for everything,” Maier said.
Maier also noted that while a lot of young people are becoming more interested in the art of flower arrangements, they tend to have a low level of appreciation for the efforts of the flower industry.
“The new generation wants something that they can bring home from the greenhouse to put on their dinner table, and they’re going to be successful with minimal input,” said Maier.
The employees and customers at Jilly Beans express their appreciation for Maier’s floral masterpieces. Jilly Beans manager Julie Crowley said Maier drops the flowers off after the farmers market if any extras are left, along with her business cards, and many customers ask if they can take the arrangements outside and enjoy them in the garden.
“Whatever doesn’t sell she brings them right over. It’s an informal arrangement and she surprises us with them sometimes,” Crowley said.
Maier even takes the time out of her busy schedule to teach the employees how to maintain the flowers’ freshness, says Rebecca Voccola, a barista at Jilly Beans.
“She tells how to keep them fresh by asking us to put more water here and there, so they last longer,” Voccola said.
Maier said while horticulture was always a pursuit for her, she never imagined herself living on a farm.
“I always thought I’d be in Grand Rapids or Chicago creating landscapes, not living in Hillsdale, Michigan,” Maier said. “But, things ended up going another way and it’s okay.”