By Emily Buehler, Contributing Writer
Watch a Youtube video about Sarah & Michael's Farm.
Sarah & Michael’s Farm in Durham provides fragrant bouquets of brightly-colored lilies year round. But drive out to the farm and you may initially be disappointed by the angular plastic greenhouses, stacks of palettes, and tractor parts that greet you. The lilies grow inside, not waving in fields, and staff harvests them two days before they open to ship the fragile flowers to stores. Still, standing in the quiet greenhouse amid the rows of lily plants—growing in crates, in all stages of growth—gives an appreciation for the amount of coordination necessary to run the lily farm.
Michael Turner, owner of Sarah & Michael’s, is a Greensboro native and an NC State undergrad. A career in political science got derailed when he took a summer job at a garden center, managing four acres of vegetables and flowers. Picking vegetables was rough work for little money, but Michael liked the flowers and the greenhouses. After finishing his degree at Boston College, he returned to North Carolina and started a flower farm.
Originally, Sarah & Michael’s grew multiple flowers, some seasonal or outside. Over time, Michael saw a need for lilies, which don’t ship well because they are fragile and must be harvested early. Now the farm grows only lilies, harvesting six days a week with seven employees. They plant about 5400 bulbs a day during the spring. During cooler times of year, when lilies will bloom more slowly, they plant more bulbs less often. Two drivers deliver to small grocery stores and florists all over central North Carolina, and they ship to the coast, the mountains, southern Virginia and northern Georgia.
Lilies grow all year in the greenhouses’ controlled environment: heat, fans, humidity, and the windows are all run by a computer. No spray is needed for pests or disease. In the summer when heat makes it harder to grow, Michael selects varieties that do better in heat. He grows both Asiatic lilies (more brightly colored) and Oriental lilies (more perfumed smell). On the day of our visit in March, Michael is ordering bulbs for Mother’s Day of next year. He’s planting bulbs for this Mother’s Day, two months away. He constantly monitors the weather and adjusts his schedules.
Outside the planting barn, stacks of used crates await steaming. The steam protects against disease and weeds. Inside, the staff empties steamed crates onto a belt. A machine “chews” the soil and dumps it onto a vibrating screen that sifts out old bulbs and leaves, which go to the compost pile. Processed soil ends in a pile, ready to be reused.
A conveyor belt carries ready-to-plant crates through the room. The soil inside is actually “coir”—ground coconut husk. The coir comes from Sri Lanka—farther than peat moss would travel—but it works better and can handle repeated growing and steaming. The crates are the same ones the bulbs ship in. Once filled with bulbs, crates go in a special, 48-degree room for three-and-a-half weeks. This time is a “mini-winter” that stimulates the lily roots to grow.
In the greenhouses, rows of crates demonstrate all stages of growth: un-sprouted bulbs, short green plants, tall plants with buds soon to open, the stubble of harvested stalks. Harvested crates are sent back to the planting barn to be steamed. Bulbs are only used once because it’s more economical to buy new bulbs—the greenhouse space needed to keep bulbs would be enormous. Also, after flowering, bulbs work at reproducing, so the second flowers might be smaller.
With careful planning and attention, Michael keeps a steady supply of lilies coming from Sarah & Michael’s Farm. This Valentine’s Day, give your swetheart local Durham lilies, grown with care by a small grower.