The Treasure Hunt
It started with 10 dahlias in the empty flowerbeds of her new home. It grew to 50, then 100. Now, four years later, Amanda Cleland has a field of 1,500 dahlias behind her house representing more than 120 varieties.
She prefers the rare dahlias.
“Getting dahlias is like a treasure hunt,” she said. “People call them dahlia wars. There are many online sales I’ll try to get dahlias and when I go to check out 30 seconds later, things are gone from my cart.”
Popular tubers, which are about 50 per cent of Amanda’s crop, are $5 to $9 per tuber. Rare tubers are more likely to be $20 to $50 per tuber. In some American auctions, extremely rare dahlia tubers sell at up to $500 per tuber.
Amanda has always enjoyed plants and horticulture, but she didn’t begin gardening seriously until she left her job as a nurse in March 2021 to stay at home with her kids during Covid. Amanda and her family moved from Listowel to a rural property close to her in-laws outside of Listowel the same year. Her flowerbeds desperately needed flowers, so she began with one of her favourites: dahlias.
As her collection grew, she decided to open a roadside stand and went on a treasure hunt for the perfect stand. She found it in Mount Brydges: an old, beat-up, matte black Chevy truck bed turned into a trailer. Her husband was initially upset with her ugly purchase but, as a mechanic, worked with her vision, and now the turquoise trailer is almost as much of an attraction as her flowers — especially for the kids, who occasionally cry because they don’t want to leave the “blue truck.”
Her roadside stand has been growing into a thriving business. She ships tubers across Canada and arranges eight or nine wedding bouquets each year. She has one employee but still works at least 30 hours each week — 60-70 hours per week during tuber-shipping season. She is planning to open a flower shop on their property where she won’t need to use her spare room as a grow room and house fridges for her cut flowers.
Her 11-year-old twins are also starting to become interested in picking and arranging flowers. Sometimes at night she goes on a different kind of treasure hunt for dahlias.
“They both like to come and pick the flowers and create their own arrangements and sneak them onto the flower truck,” she said. “When it’s dark, I need to go out and take them off.”
It’s both a labour of love and a business for Amanda, but what she enjoys most is the joy her flowers bring people.
“When you hand a bride her wedding bouquet, she’s really happy — sometimes she cries — and you know those pictures will live on forever.”
She doesn’t get a day off, but “you always get satisfaction from watching something grow.”
The Red Lily
Two young girls held a red lily up to their mom.
“We should sell this flower,” they said.
Roxanne Martin considered her daughters’ request, then talked to Ruth Shoemaker, her gardening neighbour and now “flower sister.” They began a joint venture — Ruth would provide most of the flowers and Roxanne and her girls would provide the roadside, take care of the stand, and help with the flowers during the busy season.
They discussed prices.
“Fifty cents? Two dollars? I have no idea,” Roxanne said, reminiscing that time.
They decided to keep their prices on the lower end of the spectrum and set the flowers on a kids picnic table with a patio umbrella beside the Martin’s driveway in Alma. It was the summer of 2014. For two years they sold flowers, picking up jars the wind blew over and replacing the umbrella when the wind turned it inside-out. One day, Roxanne’s husband offered to build a stand instead of buying the fifth new patio umbrella. It became a winter project, and the next spring, they sold from a brand-new stand.
Ruth’s flower garden grew to one acre. She had grown up on a pick-your-own strawberry farm but wasn’t personally invested in gardening until about 25 years ago when gardening provided a refuge for her during a time of grief. Now, during the busy season, she spends 30 to 35 hours each week either in the garden or arranging flowers — sometimes up to 40 bouquets a day — to sell at the roadside stand and at two locations in Fergus: Little Tree Garden Market and Fraberts Fresh Food. In 2019, her husband, Bruce, began working in the garden as a way to stay connected to the land when they moved from their family farm to a smaller property. He works in the garden about 25 hours in the evenings and on weekends when he is not at his day job. His involvement was timely as their sales increased 66 per cent at the roadside stand during the pandemic.
While Ruth’s garden grew, Roxanne’s family grew from three to five girls, all who are now involved in some way, primarily helping with the flowers during busy season and keeping an eye on the stand.
They don’t meet most of their customers, but through the interactions they do have they learned to understand who comes by and when. Many are people travelling from Mississauga to Owen Sound — those tend to buy tighter buds that will bloom later when they give the bouquet to the intended recipient. Others are local and buy full-bloom bouquets for their wives on their way home from work.
“Sometimes there will be a note on a McDonald’s napkin from the car that says, ‘I’m short $2. I’ll come by tomorrow to pay the rest,’” Roxanne said. “Or a corner ripped off an envelope that says they only have a $20 bill, so they’re paying it today and will be back for a free bouquet later.”
The money from the flower stand funds summer activities for Roxanne’s family and provides a side income for Bruce and Ruth. The hobby-turned-side-hustle also creates a place of refuge and connection for these two families, connection to each other, the land, and the community.
“And all because of one lily,” Ruth said.
The Garden Row
The garden was particularly productive one of the first years after Isaac and Ruth Kuepfer got married. Or maybe Ruth had just planted too much. Whatever the reason, Ruth decided to add the excess produce to her sister-in-law’s flower stand at the end of their driveway, and an unintentional business venture was born.
The types of vegetables at the stand on Perth County Road 121 outside of Millbank increased as they began planting more to sell. Ruth had worked at a market garden before she was married and discovered Isaac also enjoyed gardening.
The business grew gradually as their family also grew to 10 children. Eventually, they moved much of the produce from the roadside to a small shed under a shade tree near the house to keep the produce fresher. They began taking orders and selling larger quantities.
“Our aim is to get it profitable enough so that we can keep Isaac at home all the time, but that hasn’t happened yet,” Ruth said.
Isaac works at a pallet shop four days a week and works at home one day a week. As Isaac and Ruth’s children grow older, now ranging in age from one and a half to 16, they have begun helping more in the 2.5-acre garden. Last year Ruth assigned all the children over the age of nine a number of rows that were their own to hoe and weed. She did it again this year, by request.
“This year we were so busy we didn’t do that right away,” Ruth said. “I kept hearing about it until we did. They enjoy having their own rows.”
One of the boys smiles as he talks about the 22 rows of potatoes, corn, gladiolas, and garlic he is responsible for. His two oldest sisters are experimenting with growing their own flowers for bouquets this year. They plan to sell them at the Elmira Produce Auction so that they don’t interfere with their Aunt Mary’s flowers at the end of the driveway.
Mary Kuepfer is Isaac’s sister who lives in a separate house on the same property as the Kuepfer’s. It is the family farm that she started the flower stand on with her mom many years ago. The flower stand is her livelihood, and she is also takes care of most of the customers who come for vegetables.
With three to 17 customers per day, the combined Kuepfer roadside stand business is at the crossroad of having as much business as they can handle and wanting more so that Isaac can stay at home full time. They are conscious of not growing the business too large so that they can still prioritize family and social opportunities.
“We want the children to learn to work, but we don’t want that to get in the way of them being able to get out and do social stuff,” Ruth said. “We don’t want it to stand in the way of our life.”
To accomplish this, they rise early in the morning to care for the garden, which now grows almost anything one could ask for. And sometimes, they add another row, just for fun. RR