New enterprise blooms on former grain farm and tree nursery

People can buy flowers anywhere but the experience of visiting Birchwood Meadows and picking their own is something special, says Cory Christopher.

After grain farming and tree farming, Ron and Debbie Cherdarchuk and son Cory Christopher turned to flower farming.

And guess how popular you are these days when you have a landscape full of flowers that you’re willing to share?

“The internet, and in particular Pinterest, have created digital envy,” said Cory (who uses Christopher for his business name), adding there’s also a whole lot of people who have become equally enthusiastic about gardening, with some viewing their plants the way many people view their pets.

“A whole generation is very interested in gardening. We have the whole ‘plant baby’ phenomenon. Plants are a big thing for millennials.”

And with the pandemic putting the gardening trend into overdrive, it had a big impact at Birchwood Meadows, located east of Morinville. Business was brisk last year even though, of course, COVID protocols changed how the family operated its U-Pick, Christopher’s floral workshops, and the booking of gardens for photo and video shoots.

“Our weekends were quite steady, we decided to implement an appointment structure,” he said. “We would allow a certain amount of people in — to allow for careful social distancing and to allow people to feel comfortable. That was a really important component for us.”

Cory Christopher puts on workshops about plants and flower arranging, although these have been scaled back because of pandemic restrictions. photo: Birchwood Meadows

The move into flowers (about 40 varieties are grown on the farm) was sparked by changes in the tree nursery business.

“The industry for tree growing and nurseries had changed a bit,” said Christopher. “Box stores were starting to become a much more competitive market for farmers. You sort of saw a lot of the smaller farms not being able to keep up.

“We sort of decided to take the farm in another direction.”

Christopher, who owns his own design and events company in Edmonton, works closely with his parents, who started Birchwood Meadows about five years ago.

“The flower-growing process is very fascinating,” he said. “As we do live in Alberta, our growing season is short. We have to get things started in advance, sometimes almost a full year in advance.”

Seeds and bulbs need to be ordered well ahead of time, especially during the pandemic, when there are a lot of people wanting plants and flowers.

By late January, the Cherdarchuks are in the greenhouse, seeding those varieties that need extra time to germinate or require an extended period of growth. In March, the family grows plugs and then pots them, and when the May long weekend rolls around, it’s time for transplanting.

“When we’re finally getting them into the ground after the frost, we’re able to see blooms on them within a month,” said Christopher. “Without this, a lot of the blooms that we love wouldn’t really flower until the end of August or beginning of September.

“Because our weather can always be so temperamental, we can always have a little frost at that point.”

In mid-July, Birchwood Meadows opens up to visitors, who can come and pick their own flowers until the fall. Many are annuals such as snapdragons, sages, amaranthus and lavatera.

“We find things that need a little bit of heat — and will take a little bit of cool — are also helpful as we head into fall,” he said. “Last year, we got a light frost in the middle of September and our heavy frost wasn’t until Thanksgiving.

“We were really able to expand the season in ways that we haven’t been able to in past years. We were able to see more fall-inspired things like grasses and wheats and things like that, which people could also add into their arrangements.”

The farm also offers a flower subscription program during the summer.

“Because our weather can be inconsistent or the season can vary from the previous years, that gives us a surprise as to what can be available,” he said.

Birchwood Meadows can be booked for photo and video shoots and in pre-pandemic times hosted small weddings in its gardens. photo: Birchwood Meadows

But what is really changing, especially in the past year, is how people, and especially families, view an operation like Birchwood Meadows.

“They can get flowers anywhere, but to say they went to a farm and had an experience — a lot of people are looking for those engaged experiences,” said Christopher. “I think the millennial generation is being very mindful of how they are spending their time and their money.

“They are looking for those experiences that don’t always result in a product, but something they can feel that they’ve learned from or grown from.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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