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Flower gardener makes food for the eyes

Molly Nakahara, co-owner of Dinner Bell Farm, hands a flower to Hannah Ramey, who helps Nakahara on the 30-acre farm in Nevada County specializing in cut flowers.
Molly Nakahara, co-owner of Dinner Bell Farm, hands a flower to Hannah Ramey, who helps Nakahara on the 30-acre farm in Nevada County specializing in cut flowers. bnguyen@sacbee.com

Molly Nakahara keeps a pair of garden shears in her back pocket.

“I never know when I’ll find inspiration for a bouquet. I’m a big fan of cutting as I walk around.,” she said. “Then I’ll put things in a vase of water and see what happens. The more you understand a plant, the more you learn how to use them in bouquets.”

Nakahara and partner Paul Glowaski own Dinner Bell Farm. Located just off Highway 174 in tiny Chicago Park, it is a 30-acre farm specializing in cut flowers all seasons of the year, as well as specialty peppers, salad greens, and pasture-raised chickens and pigs.

Nakahara sells most of her bouquets at the Auburn and Tahoe City farmers markets, but also does arrangements for weddings and events. At the 2,300-foot elevation, Nakahara is able to grow many bulbs, shrubs and trees that need cold winter temperatures. She’s been planting hardy bulbs – daffodils, allium – for winter and spring arrangements. Several ponds on the property and nearby let her harvest riparian flowers, foliage and seedpods for arrangements, including mint, willow, red twig dogwood, cattails and volunteer figs. Zinnias, strawflowers, amaranth, cosmos, ornamental grasses and more grow in rows near the house. She’s able to go outside at any time of the year and gather bouquets of unusual and beautiful flowers, foliage, seedpods or fruit.

More than a farm, Dinner Bell is a partnership of friends whose goal is to farm sustainably. They want to live lightly upon the land, all the while producing fruits, vegetables and, of course, cut flowers, to sell at local farmers markets. Nakahara’s flowers are field grown without chemical fertilizers. Most she starts from seed. And like the fresh, locally grown produce sold by the farmers at certified farmers markets, Nakahara creates her bouquets with in-season flowers and foliage. No forced tulips in July or hothouse marigolds in December. Mother Nature is her guide.

Unlike the majority of multigenerational farmers and ranchers in the Sacramento region, Nakahara and Glowaski are among a small but growing number of young college graduates who have chosen farming as a career. Both have been involved in various aspects of farming – teaching homeless people how to grow vegetables and flowers, teaching children about gardening – for about 15 years. They started Dinner Bell Farm five years ago.

Nakahara creates most of her bouquets in her hand, adding foliage and flowers, and then turning the bouquet to see what it looks like, adding more as she goes. “A bouquet should look good from three sides,” she said.

With the eye of an artist and a keen sense of balance and scale, she creates stunningly beautiful arrangements with both common and unusual flowers, foliage, branches, berries, whatever is in season. Nakahara’s arrangements are food for the eyes.

Inspiration is everywhere, she said, whether among the rows of field-grown flowers, in the landscape around the house, or in the fields and woods that constitute part of the property. “I’m good at foraging the landscape for amazingly beautiful things, especially in fall and winter. I’m a big fan of seedpods and whole dried stalks paired with the right amount of evergreens. You can make a whole arrangement and not include a single flower. I find grasses and sedges along riparian banks. I also use clusters of acorns or a cluster of apples or Asian pears, stems of curly willow, coffee berry or Chinese pistache berries. You just have to get out and look around to find things growing all around you even if you don’t have a big garden.”

She offers this simple piece of advice for others wanting to create their own flower arrangements: “When I started I was imitating other arrangements, which is a great way to learn. Now I find arranging flowers really has to do with your own intimacy of the plants. The more you know, the more you grow them and hold them and see what they do in a vase, the more you understand where they should go in an arrangement. I love to bring buckets and buckets of flowers into the room when I am arranging and just go for it and see what happens. This time of year I’m using lots of wild grapevines with their brilliant yellow foliage and the tendrils still attached to the vines. I leave the fat clusters of purple grapes on as part of the arrangement.”

The property on which Dinner Bell Farm is located has a family connection. Close friends of the Nakahara family had relocated to the area. “I used to spend vacations in this area,” she said, “but never really thought about farming here. We were originally looking for a large, flat piece of land in the valley or along the coast.”

The decision came down to the availability of water. Parcels of land in the valley had great soil, but were scarce on water resources. “This piece of land didn’t have Class 1 agricultural soil, but it had better access to water,” Nakahara said. “We knew how to build soil. We didn’t know how to make water. Cut flowers don’t take a lot of growing space and we can grow plenty of them in drought-tolerant hedgerows. We can grow cover crops and make compost and make the soil more fertile and less dependent on irrigation, so our patchwork quilt method of growing our crops is working well.”

It really isn’t so far-fetched that a University of California, Berkeley, grad ends up farming in rural Nevada County: Her grandparents were farmers until World War II forced them into internment camps. Nakahara said she spent her teenage and college years helping her grandmother tend a backyard garden full of flowers in Berkeley.

“My grandfather had a huge garden, really an urban farm, in the backyard, and after he died, my grandmother decided to teach herself about gardening,” Nakahara said. “She replaced the vegetables with all sorts of flowers: irises, chrysanthemums, hundreds of cymbidiums. It was important to her to take bouquets of flowers to the grave sites of her relatives every week to pay her respects. She would wrap them in newspaper and then make the trip to the cemetery, so there was a real purpose in my family for growing flowers.” Nakahara has taken cuttings and divided some of her grandmother’s plants, and has them growing at Dinner Bell Farm.

“I’m happy to be able to continue the tradition of growing flowers.”

DINNER BELL FARM

14119 Judy Lane, Grass Valley, CA. (530) 272-2843 www.dinnerbellfarm.com. Visitors by appointment only.

Cut flowers all seasons of the year, specialty peppers, salad greens, pasture raised pigs and chickens. Flowers can be custom grown for weddings and events. Dinner Bell Farm is located off Hwy. 174 in Chicago Park between Colfax and Grass Valley.

Molly’s favorite combinations for fall

Molly Nakahara, co-owner of Dinner Bell Farm in Chicago Park, suggests this “recipe” for making your own fall flower arrangement.

INGREDIENTS

Focal flowers: bold, brightly colored flowers like dahlias, zinnias, sunflowers, flowers with a classic shape, and lots of petals.

Filler flowers or foliage: dusty miller or scented geranium foliage, statice. Can be something that hangs or drapes.

Accent flowers: something that complements the focal flowers, that is perhaps in the same color tones.

INSTRUCTIONS

Start with the filler material. This helps create structure. Nakahara arranges her bouquets two ways. She holds the bouquet in one hand and fills it with the other, so she is holding it up and always looking at it. For wedding centerpieces and table arrangements, she builds the arrangements in the vase. Pay attention to the size and weight of the vase. When using wide mouth vases, she often uses floral wire (looks like chicken wire) in the mouth of the vase to hold flowers in place so they don’t flop.

Next add a focal flower. Turn the arrangement and add another, then turn and add another. Nakahara keeps turning and adding flowers on three sides. Also, she advises, don’t use more than five types of flower or foliage, or the bouquet can get too busy. “My rule of thumb is that I hold the bouquet in my hand and keep filling it until I can’t hold it any more. That seems to be the perfect size to fit into a vase.

Here are a couple of examples:

Browns and Blues:

Focal: brown rudbekia

Filler: light blue statice, green laceflower

Accent: blue nigella, green millet

Magenta and Red:

Focal: scarlet zinnias, blood red dahlias

Filler: statice in rosy shades, purple basil,

Accent: pampas grass plumes, celosia

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