Fields of flowers arrive fresh at market

Richard Odell snips only blemish-free dahlias to sell at Thriftway and the Farmers Market. - Ralph Moore photo
Richard Odell snips only blemish-free dahlias to sell at Thriftway and the Farmers Market.
— image credit: Ralph Moore photo

On a quarter acre of land on S.W. 156th Street just behind the Vashon Winery, Richard Odell tends Fieldstone Flowers’ rambunctious rows of hundreds of dahlia blooms.

He works his way among a riot of plants, some of them reaching shoulder-high, choosing the best of the best to add to hand-picked bouquets he sells at the Vashon Farmers Market and Thriftway.

Each dahlia’s exotic name evokes the blossom’s characteristics or the grower’s whimsy. There’s Shadow Cat, so dark red it’s nearly black, and Hillcrest Royal, an almost iridescent purple-red in what’s known in dahlia speak as the “cactus form” — its pointy petals evoking spines. Skipley’s Spot of Gold was a favorite of Odell’s last year — each lavender pink petal appears as if its tip has been dipped in gold. And Blackberry Ripple sounds and looks good enough to eat — white petals spattered with burgundy, some completely dark.

When it comes to flowers, Odell is no stranger to drama. As a teenager he worked amidst a panoply of orchids in the Beall Greenhouses, unaware that he would look back on his first paying job as the most pivotal of his life. It was here in the tropical warmth as he nurtured the delicate blooms of cattleyas and miltonias that he had the first inkling that plants were something he had a talent for.

“They were the largest orchid growers west of the Mississippi, and I was too young to appreciate that,” said Odell, who joined Fergie Beall and his staff in the company’s orchid division when he was a sophomore at Vashon High School.

“I didn’t see it coming, but I think it sparked my lifelong interest in growing flowers.”

The contentedness Odell felt at Beall stayed with him, eventually leading him back to Vashon.

He took the long way back to the Island, tending ficuses and ferns in bank lobbies for a rent-a-plant company in San Francisco, before spending several unhappy years in the graphic arts industry. Sick both emotionally and physically, Odell said he realized — during an Island birthday celebration for his mother in 1987 — that it was time to come home.

“Something in me was determined to do what I wanted to do, not what I had to do,” Odell said. “I realized I needed to do something that was in my nature.”

He moved back to Vashon and planted a small plot of vegetables and flowers in his mom’s back field.

“All those years I was away I thought I’d come back here to grow vegetables,” Odell said. “But flowers just work better for me; they fit my temperament, and I get more satisfaction out of them than from growing produce.”

He grew a variety of heirloom flowers such as cosmos, delphiniums and feverfew before dahlias entered his life in 1993.

“I didn’t realize when I started growing dahlias how much people would love them,” said Odell, who initially grew them for their reputed productivity. “I wasn’t that drawn to them at first; I grew them as a practical matter.”

The practical grew into a passion, and Odell now grows 70 dahlia varieties for both their flowers and bulbs, which he sells each spring at the Farmers Market.

Though he wishes growing flowers could be his main source of income, he only covers costs in the dahlia business. Odell pays the bills by working as a respite care provider for families of children with special needs and is also interested in pursuing writing and photography interests.

This year, late summer and early fall — with its cool and rainy days — were especially hard on flower growers. Indeed, he’s not been able to make his usual sales to Seattle grocery stores due to a low inventory.

“I haven’t seen anything like this in all the time I’ve been growing flowers,” he said. “I’m selling a little more than half of what I was last year at this time.”

When Odell cuts flowers for market, every bloom is individually selected and must pass a test of perfection that can seem harsh to the casual observer. It’s hard not to cringe as a near-flawless peach-colored beauty is rejected for being “too advanced.” Though he adheres to tough standards, Odell feels for the flowers too, once apologizing to a keeper he’d accidentally snipped too short.

“Thriftway is going to appreciate me more for having made that distinction,” Odell said as he collected an armful of acceptable blooms: those long-stemmed and young with no bug-eaten petals.

“I’m not certified organic, but aside from the occasional spray of Roundup, I do run an organic operation,” he said. “I haven’t had an insect problem I couldn’t handle with a hand-held bottle of organic soap.”

Though Odell acts on organic principles, he says it’s difficult to attract apprentices to the flower business. “Most idealistic college students want to save the world through growing vegetables,” he said.

Could dahlias save the world? “Maybe,” Odell said, adding, “I suppose I’m producing something that would be missed.”

If hundreds of Vashon gardeners have anything to say about it, this is an understatement. Fieldstone dahlias are showing their stuff in yards all over the Island, bringing to mind a possible new bumper sticker: Think globally, bloom locally.

— This article, the fourth in a series featuring Island farmers who sell at the Wednesday Market, was written with funding from the state Department of Agriculture through the Vashon Island Growers Association. Kathryn True is an Island writer.

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