In Full Bloom

Courtesy Brenda Kennelly

Brenda Kennelly had already had a full teaching career in Turkey and at Italian universities when she decided to pursue her PhD in semantics. The work was intensely theoretical, Kennelly said, and "I wanted something that would keep my head straight." She began gardening, building up an impressive collection of flowers, and soon found herself buying books for her garden rather than her PhD research. When she decided to buy land in Tuscany and discovered having a "farm activity" would help her obtain a permit to build on the land, her son pointed out the obvious: "He said, Mom, the peonies!" she remembers. Her Sunset garden book told her the flowers she owned (peonies and irises) were a perfect match for the soil and climate on her land. In 2003, Kennelly's PhD was in hand, and fate took over. Giardini Toscani in Casentino was born. Stanford talked to Kennelly about her experience as an organic flower farmer.

It's no walk in the garden.
With 115,000 plants, Kennelly is up at 5 a.m. and works until she drops. She and her staff cut tens of thousands of stalks by hand during a narrow window of opportunity. When she's not in the dirt she is traveling to landscaping and plant fairs, making labels, researching the chemical makeup of her soil or marketing to clients. "I couldn't work 18 hours a day if it weren't fascinating," she says. Today she has up to 15 staff depending on the season—two-thirds of whom are women—representing Italy, Morocco, Romania, Nicaragua and America.

A peony by any other name might smell as sweet . . .
But Kennelly's name is quickly becoming a standout in the industry. Her flowers go to the royal gardens in Spain and all over Europe, Russia and the Middle East. She has more than 500 colors of tall bearded iris and 250 colors of herbaceous Paeonia. Last year, for the first time, Kennelly was able to invest in a large number of plants for a large number of cultivar (cultivar are specific names for particular colors). This enables her to leave some flowers in the ground for future seasons. The farm uses parallel planting to replenish the soil by rotating rows of unplanted, fertilized soil.

Tuscany, Palo Alto, same difference.
Maybe not, but Kennelly's flowers can be grown in the Bay Area. Though peonies may be challenging here (they need 1,000 hours of temperatures below 35 degrees in order to flower), irises would flourish on the Farm. Kennelly's Dubai clients have shown those flowers do not need cold winters.

Special treatment not necessary.
Kennelly recommends using a green fertilizer such as mustard or lupin. Irises are very strong plants and according to Kennelly, "do beautifully with recycled water." As for technique when cutting off blooms? Hack 'em off. Happy gardening.