Peacocks and peahens wander the grounds at Pederson Hill Farm. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

Peacocks and peahens wander the grounds at Pederson Hill Farm. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

Farming for flowers amongst peacocks, bees and a ‘deer runway’ gives new growth to family tradition

Pederson Hill Farm making the most of manure-rich former horse corral owned by relatives since ‘50s.

  • By Laurie Craig, For the Juneau Empire
  • Monday, March 25, 2024 2:56pm
  • News

Amid the buzz of electric drills and taps of hammers a new sound of shrill bird calls breaks the sunny afternoon quiet. A flock of peacocks and peahens race around the side of a building and parade slowly toward Bobbi Epperly’s new flower farm.

Despite their eagerness, the fowl will be foiled by thin mesh fencing that has been installed to deter them from being “little vandals,” as Epperly calls them. The large colorful birds tend to nip off the heads of her flowers, then sit on the warming soil and smash down the plants in her many raised beds. Nonetheless, Bobbi tosses snacks for the four-foot-long male peacocks to watch them quietly forage.

The birds and the beds co-exist about ten miles from downtown Juneau at Pederson Hill Farm, a sunny slope that was formerly a corral for horses. Converting a manure-rich pasture into multiple layers of flower beds seemed the perfect choice for the Juneau woman’s second-half-of-life adventure. Her inspiration was turning 50 years old. Previously she owned an art supply store for 16 years then a microgreens business for eight more years. But farming is in her blood. Epperly’s grandparents and great aunts and uncles homesteaded this land in the 1950s and 1960s, and she has lived there with her family for decades.

“My mom insisted on growing vegetables,” Epperly says of her practical 81-year-old mother’s gardening preferences.

Rows of flower beds are planted in front of greenhouses under construction at Pederson Hill Farm. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

Rows of flower beds are planted in front of greenhouses under construction at Pederson Hill Farm. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

But Bobbi wanted flowers, so in 2022 she started building wooden frames to hold enriched soil layered with one-third tree shavings under one-third aged horse manure compost under a top layer of bagged potting mix. Her first year in business was 2023.

Overhead metal frame hoop houses provided weather protection, but the first design collapsed in a high wind storm. The new greenhouses are heftier wood structures. Epperly is learning as she grows.

“Locally grown freshly cut flowers last two weeks in a vase at home,” Bobbi says, while typical cut flowers available in town have been grown overseas and spent two weeks in transit. The long journey causes them to wither faster.

Keeping the family land as agricultural land is fitting. Other relatives operated the historic 1900s Pederson Hill dairy in the flat meadows east of the garden’s sloping site on Glacier Highway where Bobbi and her husband James are building greenhouses. For years until recently local families toured the neighbors’ farm on special days to visit horses, chickens and Juneau’s lone dairy cow named Daisy.

Epperly grows a variety of sturdy blooming plants as well as “starts” for other gardeners. When in full summer bloom, visitors will see sunflowers towering five feet tall in several colors such a peach, purple and burgundy, plus traditional yellow and white. Fragrant stock, snapdragons, lilies and peonies will be growing in the deceptively attractive soil, but not quite yet.

“Right now the soil is frozen 3-4 inches below the surface,” she says.

Bobbi Epperly sits beside one of her flower beds at Pederson Hill Farm. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

Bobbi Epperly sits beside one of her flower beds at Pederson Hill Farm. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

By mid-April Epperly expects 20,000 “plugs” — tiny plants — to arrive. She will transfer 3,000 them to slim two-finger-sized biodegradable mesh bags for sale. The remainder will be planted in the peacock-protected beds to grow into flowers for cutting.

“Rain is the enemy of flower growing in Juneau,” she said. That’s why the drills and hammers are constructing strong timber-framed greenhouses with clear rigid plastic roofing panels. Soon sheets of plastic will wrap the sides and let in sun while keeping out rain.

In addition to peacocks, wild neighbors challenge the operation and reinforce the need for fencing. Deer hoofprints track through beds; the unseen animals were looking for tender shoots to nibble. Epperly points out what she calls the “deer runway” — depressions through an as-yet-unfenced raised bed. On the safe side of the fencing tulip bulb shoots have poked up and show a couple of inches of tight rosy leaves. They were planted in October before the winter freeze.

Dahlias are a local favorite. Last year’s 70 dahlias were dug up in the fall, washed and divided for winter storage. She anticipates about 300 tubers will be available from that stock this spring.

A row of greenhouses under construction at Pederson Hill Farm. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

A row of greenhouses under construction at Pederson Hill Farm. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

Peonies require three years of careful nurturing before they produce flowers. Meanwhile, the tight round globes and plants serve as hidden resting areas for bees. While tending the big flowers, Epperly is cautious to gently evict the sleeping bees.

“Bees love me,” she grins. Though never stung by a bee she has healthy regard for that potential response and handles the wild essential pollinators carefully. Her website features favorite videos of pollen-laden bees buzzing around the garden.

As with many entrepreneurs, Epperly needed a creative way to learn more about gardening and to earn an income with her flowers. She regularly explores growing techniques via YouTube videos where she follows many successful do-it-yourself gardeners.

To get the business going she began offering garden tours through online bookings for people to create their own take-home cut flower bundles. Bobbi calls her operation “bouquet bars.” She harvests flowers and stows them briefly in a cool room. When scheduled guests arrive they select their preferred blooms and assemble them into bouquets.

While the blossoms are colorful the handsome peacocks are more brilliant in a different manner, but you only get to take home the flowers.

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