PAXTON -- Nestled along County Road 500 North is a hidden flower farm.
Well, it’s not exactly hidden, but to get there you drive down a quiet road tucked off of Illinois 115 to rows of dahlias, sunflowers, cockscomb, celosia, hydrangeas and lisianthus, to name a few, in a rainbow of colors.
Danette Johnson and her husband, Daron, have been growing flowers for six years, starting with just three varieties that they raised over the course of only six weeks. Their farm is now up to 70 varieties.
The farm’s name, Nettie’s Petals, was derived from a childhood nickname of Danette’s. “We just thought it sounded kind of catchy,” she said.
Danette and Daron, who are both teachers, came from families with farming backgrounds. “We loved plants,” Danette said. “We saw people selling flowers at farmers markets and thought it looked like fun.
“It became a dream of mine to start this flower farm,” she continued. “Then my job situation changed, which I now see as a total God moment. I’m always telling my children to go after their dreams and not sit on the sidelines, so it was my turn to show that. So I took this leap of faith, and here we are.”
Since the Urbana and Champaign farmers markets seemed to be pretty saturated with flower farmers, the couple decided to sell wholesale to florists and do some local farmers markets, including in Paxton. This summer they set up a flower bar at Cedar Oak Farm Market.
“It’s something we have in common and can do together,” Daron said. “It’s fun working together.”
“It’s fun,” Danette said. “Every year you learn something new. I just like growing things and getting my hands in the dirt.”
When they began selling their flowers to florists, they learned about desirable stem lengths and colors. “We learned insects can destroy things pretty quickly,” Danette said.
Danette said when people hear that they grow flowers, they imagine the Johnsons casually tossing out a handful of seeds onto the ground and letting nature take its course. But the process is much more complicated, she explained. “There’s a lot of work that goes into flowers,” Danette said. “It’s pretty labor intensive.”
Each year, the Johnsons add more perennials, which currently make up about 20 percent of the flowers they grow. “The annuals are more labor intensive because you have to tear them out every year,” Danette said.
“There’s a lot of cost up front (with perennials), but it’s worth it,” Daron said.
And the payoff isn’t immediate; with some you have to wait three years for them to be able to harvest them, and in the meantime, that’s space you can’t use for other crops.
The Johnsons have already ordered seeds for next year. “You have to order early to be able to get what you want,” Daron said.
The Johnsons start planting the seeds indoors in January, using grow lights. “I’m not a winter person, but planting seeds usually gets me excited about getting back outside again,” Danette said.
The seeds are then moved to a sunny window location before the Johnsons hand-plant every single flower outdoors in April, May and June. Danette estimated that during the months of May and June they spend 40 hours per week working on the flower farm, while doing their full-time jobs. “Oftentimes it feels like two full-time jobs,” she said. “It’s pretty much what we do on weekends. December is kind of our quiet month.”
This year the Johnsons are growing evergreen stems and curly willow used for making front porch greenery and wreaths.
It keeps life busy since Daron coaches baseball, and the couple still has a 15-year-old-son living at home and two other children living in St. Louis. Indeed, Danette said, the most challenging part about flower farming is “finding the time to get it all done.”
“It takes a lot of organization,” Daron said. “Danette is very organized and will lay everything out for us.”
Sometimes the unexpected happens too, like when their dogs dig up a freshly planted bed or the Johnsons go outside to find plants fallen over. Recently, a frost hit, putting an early end to their season. Danette chose to look on the bright side, though, noting that it was followed by warm weather that made pulling the plants out much more comfortable than if she’d been doing it in a snowsuit.
Danette noted that 80 percent of cut flowers sold in the United States come from other countries, primarily in South America, where farms use pesticides. “We try to do things naturally if possible,” Danette said.
For example, Nettie’s Petals uses grass clippings and wood chips as mulch to improve soil health and reduce weed growth and free-range chickens that eliminate many of the insect pests.
“I just think it’s important if you’re putting the flowers right up to your nose and face and putting your hands on them for them to be chemical-free,” Danette said.
This year, Nettie’s Petals started a flower subscription service with five- and 10-week options in which customers pick up on a given date, similar to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), in which the public can buy vegetables directly from a farmer. “That has been so great,” Danette said. “It’s very well supported. People were excited about that. When the quarantine started, people wanted something uplifting.”
The Johnsons also take bouquets of their flowers to sell on the weekends at Ruby Jewel Antiques and Gifts in Paxton. Nettie’s Petals also provides flowers for weddings and makes custom bouquets by request.
Most of Nettie’s Petals’ business is done in Paxton, Gibson City, Cissna Park and Rantoul, but they also go as far as Watseka, Fisher and Mahomet. They occasionally supply flowers to other flower farms if those farms are short on something, and vice versa. “Flower farmers love to help each other,” Danette said.
The Johnsons communicate with other flower farmers via social media, sharing ideas and advice. “Everybody has different ways of doing things,” Daron said.
“I love the learning aspect of it,” Danette said.
“Every flower is so unique,” Daron said.
Danette’s favorite flower depends on the season. “Peonies are amazing, and I love sunflowers,” she said. “I also love lisianthus. In late fall, I love celosia. I love the different colors and textures.”
Danette’s favorite time of the year is late summer. “Weeding and planting have way slowed down,” she said.
Daron said early spring is a time of a lot of anticipation, waiting to see which perennials planted the previous year will come up again.
“As all farmers know, you can’t control the weather,” Danette said.
Many customers post photos of their flowers on Instagram and Facebook. “They’re so excited to get them,” Daron said.
“I look forward to seeing people’s faces when they get their flowers,” Danette said. “It’s really beautiful.”
Visitors are sometimes surprised by the appearance of the farm, which grows its flowers on just a quarter of an acre. “You can grow a lot of flowers in a small area,” Daron said.
And the Johnsons cut the flowers before they fully open. “There are not a lot of blooming fields,” Danette said.
That said, “In late summer it is gorgeous,” Daron said.
The Johnsons have thought about opening up their farm to allow customers to cut their own flowers, as some produce farms do.
“We’d love to do on-the-farm workshops like how to make a bouquet ,” Danette added.
Right now, 3 acres are farmed in traditional crops. The Johnsons don’t have a tractor or the time required now, but eventually they may expand their flowers into that area.
The Johnsons currently grow pumpkins and decorative crops for their own enjoyment. Another potential plan is adding more, even if it’s just to sell them to neighbors.
The Johnsons like to visit other flower farms, and Danette follows some on social media. For inspiration, they look to a Washington farm called Floret Flowers, which Daron calls “the industry standard.”
“They’re kind of the Chip and Joanna (Gaines) of flower farming,” Danette said, referring to the husband-and-wife renovation experts.
For updates on the farm, you can follow Nettie’s Petals through its Facebook or Instagram pages.