Sewing the seeds of beauty

By Judy Riley

All for the love of the bloom, that is the crux of why Saline County flower farmers Elizabeth Kooiman and Garry Looney got into their respective businesses. For Kooiman, it was a lifelong love of flowers ramped up by a special flower request from her daughter. For Looney, it was a nostalgic connection to his mother and her flowers, specifically peonies. In both cases, it is passion turned into a business. According to Lady Bird Jonson, “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.” And these two success stories are full of hope, hard work and perseverance.

Photos by Tony Baker

Elizabeth (Lizzy) grew up in a family of nature and flower lovers. She had grown flowers for friends and family since she married. Her uncle started Bradbury Christmas Tree Farm in the community of Sardis. Her flower enterprise is in a half-acre behind her home, located on her family’s original property. Then, as often happens in life, an event precipitated a new adventure. 

When asked by her daughter to grow and arrange flowers for her wedding, she jumped at the chance. Determined to have fresh, fragrant flowers by the May wedding date, Elizabeth began researching what was best suited to that time of year. “I became intrigued that people had businesses doing what I loved. I had been a nurse at Arkansas Children’s Hospital for 25 years, my children were grown and had finished college. It was time to pursue this crazy dream of mine!”

So in the fall of 2019 at age 54, she felt she had no time to waste. She dove right in, took her first class from seasoned flower farmer Lisa Ziegler, retired from her career at the hospital in February and hoped to sell her first flowers in March! She took advantage of every avenue for learning: becoming a Master Gardener, talking to other flower farmers and reading everything she could.

Elizabeth “Lizzy” Kooiman is one of several cut flower farmers in the 501 who sell to florists, at farmers’ markets and through social media.

Memories of Garry Looney’s mother, Sue, and her peony patch brought him to flower farming. “As a child, I remember her growing a peony in the flower bed behind the house. I still see an image of her at dawn, admiring the many buds on the variety Sarah Bernhardt, waiting for the fragrance of the bloom to become intense with the heat of the day.” As one would expect, his favorite flower is the peony. Because of mild Arkansas winters, he can grow them in the field, planting some in pots in a hoop house to hasten their blooming.

Garry works full time as a contractor and home inspector and grows cut flowers as a hobby-turned-business. He first began giving his flowers away. “My wife told me that I could give them to any woman who was 20 years older than me. As I got older, it became a little harder to abide by my wife’s request.”

He grows (with knowledge) bells of Ireland, yarrow, mums and roses, as well as cool and warm season flowers. Garry sells wholesale through local florists, area farmer’s markets and, through social media, Steel Bridge Farms. Contact him directly at [email protected] or by calling 501.590.5978.

Elizabeth starts rudbeckia, larkspur, yarrow, snapdragon, campanula and other cold hardy flowers in the fall. These flowers help bridge the gap between the early blooming bulb crops of tulips and daffodils to the warm-season crops of zinnias, cosmos and celosia. She calls this succession planting. As one crop is waning, there is a new crop ready to take its place. She adds, “Keeping up with planting, harvesting and selling is quite a feat!” 

Lizzy Kooiman and Sloane, her 5-year-old granddaughter, load flowers at her Mabelvale farm for an event in Hot Springs.

She sells mostly wholesale to florists and designers in Central Arkansas, as well as providing flowers to small local markets. She does sell retail through weekly subscriptions where flowers are delivered to individuals or businesses. DIY flower buckets are also available. She is quick to give credit to other flower farmers. They often back each other up to supply large events and weddings. She can be contacted through Instagram at the_poppy_patch, or directly at 501.993.4960.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of flower farmers in the 501. Information on local growers can be obtained through Randy Forst, extension educator for Consumer Horticulture, and Master Gardener coordinator at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, [email protected]. As spring flowers bloom and Mother’s Day approaches, enjoy locally grown cut flowers. The advice of Mark Twain rings true for us all, “Live simple, love well and take time to smell the flowers along the way.”