“Ready to go?”
“Mmhmm,” I say, still stumbling around my house looking for my laundry bag, my phone charger, and a thicker sweatshirt. My dad is waiting by the door, keys in hand, when I remember.
I hurry back into the kitchen. My birthday bouquet is centered on the lazy Susan, its vibrant orange and purple color scheme striking against the deep red walls. I attempt to pick out the best flower. Dahlias. Celosia. Scented geraniums. Rita and the farm team had bunched the choice few—the last of the season—for me. The citrus scent of the lemon geraniums overwhelms the bouquet, but the dahlia in the center is what catches my eye. I remember planting them months ago at The Herb FARMacy alongside Emily, Paige, Rachel, and Julian. The Herb FARMacy is Rita’s small plant nursery and flower farm in Salisbury, Massachusetts. Since I was two years old, Rita has been supplying the plants for my family’s backyard and organic garden. Rita would greet us on opening day every year, and as my mom browsed for plants, I’d hop over hoses and search for my favorite fuzzy-leaved Cuban oregano plant.
It seemed only natural that one day I’d work there. After my first college summer vacation spent working on the farm, I’d have given anything to stay for just a bit longer. But, as autumn arrived, school beckoned me away. Luckily I was able to stop by and visit yesterday. When I arrived, we gathered around the lunch table, sharing stories from the past couple of months. Looking out over the field, barren in autumn, I longed for the summer heat and the buckets upon buckets of fresh flowers.
As Rita led me to the tomato field house after lunch, the ground crunched beneath me and cool air nipped my cheeks. Stepping out of the autumn air and into the usually sweltering enclosure felt pleasantly warm. Instead of rows and rows of red-ripe tomatoes, though, wilting stems dangled from their twine supports.
“A lot has changed, huh?” she asked, with her hands in the pockets of her fleece pullover. The seasons were shifting. When I left, Emily handed me this bouquet, as full as if it had been made mid-summer. I crunched the soft, lemon scented leaves between my fingers.
I know which flower I need to bring back to school with me now. I snatch my favorite purple and white dahlia from the center of the bouquet, cut the stem short, and put it in a clouded, antique Listerine bottle.
“I’m ready!” I shout, glancing down at the flower—the petals in the center are tightly furled and a hint of green announces its potential. I think it should last. Getting into the car, I place the dahlia carefully into the cup holder, preparing it for the bumpy ride down to Boston.
Dahlias range from small pompoms to monstrous “dinnerplate dahlias” and from vibrant pinks to deep burgundy. Yet, each one features petals cascading from the center as though they would never end. Planting dahlias was my first real day of field work at the farm. The dahlia forms tubers from which new flowers will grow the following year. In warm, southern climates, tubers are preserved naturally, but here in the Northeast, they require a bit of help.
On a day in late May, I had carried crates of dahlia tubers, protected in pearlite, up from Rita’s basement. We pulled the woody, dried-out stems from the dust, placing them in clean containers to carry out to the fields. Trimming the thick, bulky stems, we searched for “eyes,” or new sprouts, on the tubers. Some had very visible shoots, reaching for the sunlight they’d been denied in the dark of the basement. After fertilizing and planting them deep into the soil, we waited. I postponed connecting irrigation lines after careful instruction from Rita.
“Water too soon and the roots will rot.”
I arrive back to school, my dahlia in hand. It’s raining. After slamming the car door shut, I drape my raincoat over my head and trot into the red brick dorm building, holding the flower steady. Entering my room, I drop my bags to the floor and carefully place the dahlia on my desk. The musty scent of the building compounds with the added humidity. I sit in my desk chair and gaze out the window at the ambulances and the commuters with patterned umbrellas rushing by. Rain trickles down the window pane in uninterrupted streams, and I watch a droplet until it disappears from view. I wonder if Rita is watching the same stream pour down her kitchen windows or if Paige and Emily are dragging the flower table into the greenhouses to shield themselves from the weather outside. I wish I was there, shaping market bouquets with them, instead of sitting here under these fluorescent lights.
On a humid July morning, I had crouched in the field across from Julian. His wide brimmed hat, concealing his brown, curly hair, brushed my forehead. We were sinking flower plugs into the soil and anchoring them into the ground. The sky erupted above us, drowning our cotton clothing. We looked up at the sky and laughed at our luck. When we saw Rita’s hands flailing in the air from the base of the field, we scrambled to plant the last tray of zinnias. Julian slid through the muddy pathway as I raced him to the barn where we met Rita and the rest of the farm team. My shorts were heavy with the weight of water.
Inside, we flipped over five gallon buckets that landed unevenly on the wooden planks and convened together in a small circle. Paige climbed into the stairwell and began drying her glasses, the wood squealing in resistance, and Julian pulled the single barn light on illuminating our six faces with a warm glow. We were surrounded by fertilizers and twine, glass bottles from around the world, and pails of flowers already pre-cut for tomorrow’s bouquets. Laughter echoed through the barn as we asked Rita why she held onto all these bottles, and I couldn’t help but hope the thunder might last just a little bit longer.
When I finally move from my spot in my desk chair, I remove my rain boots and discover a pile of mud on the dorm room floor. Entering the bathroom to throw away muddied paper towels I catch a glimpse of my past self—hair frizzed from the humidity and a streak of dirt across my hand. I wash my hands and smooth down my hair.
As time had passed that summer, my fingernails had caked with dirt, and the creases in my hands stained a brown that would take weeks to fade. At the end of each day, I’d enter Rita’s kitchen and watch her stifle a laugh at my dirt-covered face. A racer-back tan etched itself into my body from the days I spent under the summer sun. I plucked tiny yellow flowers from the St. John’s Wort bushes, from which Rita would brew a calming salve to soothe our aching muscles. In the early afternoon we ate sweet watermelon together under the mock orange tree, juice dripping down our faces as we prepared for the last hour of work. I went home at night and slept soundly from a physical exhaustion I had never felt before.
Working on the farm, I learned the difference between a pink bumble bee and a pink tiger tomato. I knew exactly when a Dr. Green Frosted tomato was fifty percent ripe. I recognized the scent of dill and chamomile on the wind. Walking down the aisle ways, I’d spout off names of the lime queen zinnias, homeland dianthus, and ruby red gomphrenas. On farmer’s market days, I’d arrange bouquets with dill in the center, a sparkler exploding from the center of a silken sweet pea bouquet. I breathed deeply while clipping and hydrating mint bunches, NPR Science Friday muttering softly in the background, right up until the day I had to say goodbye.
After four days in the dorm had passed, my dahlia began to wilt. As the first frost of the year hit, none were left at the farm, either. In Salisbury, the team was uprooting the tubers, cleaning and curing them, and preserving them in pearlite once again. For months they’d sit in the dark of the basement until an early spring day when a few of the eager would send up shoots in search of the sunshine. By then the school year will have come to a close, and I’d be back at the farm, hauling the dahlias up once more. But, for the time being, they’d simply have to wait.
Rachael Nazzaro is a senior English major at Emmanuel College. She spends her summers working on a small flower farm and plant nursery in Salisbury, MA. Her favorite flower is the Sweet Pea.